Chelsea Manning and the Politics of a Pronoun

AP Photo

Chelsea Manning

In all the fact-checking I've ever done, I never called up a source and asked, "Just making sure: You're a guy/girl, right?" Nor have I asked to see their genitals, the results of a chromosome test, or their medical records. If the interview was over the phone, I infer from the name and the sound of the person's voice. In the few instances that hasn't been enough, I've turned to Google to see if they have an official headshot that'll provide more clues, or a company bio that settles the matter. In person, you have additional data—the choice of clothes, mannerisms we've come to read as "feminine" or "masculine." In other words, reporters do what everyone else does, and it turns out to be a very un-journalistic thing to do: We go by what we see, take a guess, and assume it's right.

Last week's announcement that Bradley Manning—the Army private who was sentenced Wednesday to 35 years in prison for releasing government files to WikiLeaks—is female and now wants to be known as "Chelsea" has made many in the media think harder about the assumptions we make about gender in reporting news events. It's also set off a panicked scramble by copy editors to standardize when we call Manning a "he" or a "she." For grammar Nazis at media outlets big and small, it has been a crash course in queer theory.

At first blush, the question of how to refer to Manning may seem pretty easy to answer. The reaction from The New Republic's Ryan Kerney was basically "what's there to be confused about?" The AP Stylebook—the industry-standard manual for copy editors—says you should go with the person's preference:

Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics (by hormone therapy, body modification, or surgery) of the opposite sex and present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.

If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

But as pointed out by Quartz Global Editor Gidion Lichfield, who took to the Huffington Post to complain about the lack of guidance for journalists on transgender issues, the issue is not straightforward. How would you, for instance, rewrite the following sentence?:

In Iraq, Manning kept the fact that he was a gay man under wraps.

There's an array of related questions: Was Manning always a woman? Or was Manning a man until the announcement? Does the gender change take effect once hormone therapy starts? Or after Manning's received a diagnosis of "gender identity disorder" from a physician?

Despite well-meaning guidelines from LGBT organizations, there are no definitive answers to many of these questions. Disagreements within the transgender and broader LGBT community about what the answers might be are replete; the nature of identity and its relationship to biological sex and gender are topics of fierce debate. But what the episode has made clear are the ways in which news organizations' guidelines on gender are inconsistent. It has a lot to do with journalists' attempt to impose the frame of "objectivity" on the world—gender just doesn't play along.

One school would say "Manning is and always was a woman; she was born that way." Under that view, the most ethical thing to do would be to run corrections on all the past stories in which Manning was referred to as a he. Imagine it: A previous version of this story erroneously referred to Manning as a male. Manning is female and has been since birth. The Times regrets the error. But what if, as some have speculated, Manning's gender transition were merely a media stunt intended to generate sympathy in advance of being sentenced? The suspicion seems like little more than transphobia—who in their right mind would think undergoing a gender transition would make people go easier on you? But for the sake of argument, let's imagine that Manning announces after a month that she again identifies as a man. That would mean once again correcting the record, which may be the reason for many news organizations’ slothful responses to the change.

Those who believe gender is entirely a social construction would be more inclined to say that Manning became a woman the moment she identified as such. But if the relevant metric for determining gender is self-identification, why is it standard practice to run with your assumption instead of asking about someone's identity? If I am trying to verify someone's ethnicity for a story in which it is relevant, I don't simply assume a person is Asian or Latino because of how they look, sound, or how their names is spelled. I ask. Why does this standard go out the window when it comes to gender?

There are also the essentialists—mostly conservatives—like Rod Dreher at The American Conservative (the Prospect's neighbors downstairs), who mocks liberals for their pandering, "politically correct" participation in Manning's "hallucination." His common-sense solution:

I presume Bradley Manning still has a penis and male chromosomes. He is not a female simply because he says he is. Though I very much doubt that the military will give him the female hormones he has requested for his prison stay, Manning may have the operation one day, but for now, he is still a he. I don’t see why feeling pity for Manning’s psychological suffering requires us to play along with his hallucination. If you want to do so, be my guest, but shouldn’t journalists hold themselves to different standards?

From a practical perspective, you can see how using someone's genitals to determine gender would make a journalist's job a lot harder. What's also noteworthy about Dreher's reaction is that while he mentions both genitalia and chromosomes, the outward appearance matters more to him than the genetics; he'll call Manning a woman once she undergoes a sex-change operation.

In the end, news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post have settled on a "kick the can down the road" policy. For the moment, they are clarifying in their stories that Manning formerly identified as a man, but using her currently desired pronoun "she." After a transition period in which the public has absorbed the news that "Bradley" now wants to be known as "Chelsea," they'll drop the explanation. The archives are being left as they are. This seems a reasonable solution—it respects Manning's right to auto-definition, strives to explain to the public what happened, and leaves intact the historical record.

But the larger questions about gender raised by Manning's transition have hardly been settled. We shouldn't expect them to be, either: This is a case-in-point of the ways in which gender is fluid and unstable. Surely enough, copy editors will soon retreat back to the comforting certainty of their stylebooks. But we're always one Chelsea Manning away from having our neat system of gender classification torn asunder.

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