One day after she was sentenced in her trial for having leaked sensitive documents, Chelsea Manning publicly declared that she was Chelsea Manning, and a female. In the light of this, media outlets and others were forced to decide how they would handle this change: Should they continue to refer to her birth name and gender, or change to the one of her choosing?
It’s a complex issue of sorts, and one that transgender people face any time their lives are made public. Reports in particular seem to relish pulling out long-since-unused names of transgender people within stories, claiming that this gives a “full picture” of the transgender person in question, amongst other reasons.
In some of my own experiences with reporters and documentarians, they have been flat out shocked that I was not forthcoming with my birth name. It was as if I was deliberately obfuscating the supposed truth they sought to share.
When a transgender person is misgendered, and when an old name is used in place of the one of their choice, you will often see people pointing to the Associated Press Stylebook. For more than a decade, the media has been pointing to this to explain exactly what to call a transgender person – sometimes with success.
The AP’s advice (2011): “Transgender: Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or 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.”
Yet things became infinitely more complex with Chelsea Manning. For one, with the issue of gender identity, as implied in the AP Stylebook, the individual in question may have to have started a physical transformation. This is a challenge for Manning, who will be in a Federal Penitentiary and may not be able to get any sort of treatment. While I take exception, many in the media are resistant to simply taking a person’s word for it.
On top of that, Manning is a controversial figure. The nature of her crime inflames people on all sides of the political spectrum, and many would opt to never deign to her wishes as a result. Those who might otherwise have no problem tearing her down by calling her effeminate (at best), would now never call her anything but male.
There are others, too, who feel that Manning’s declaration is somehow a dodge, perhaps related to an attempt to get a pardon for her crimes, or otherwise get preferential treatment. Her defense team has also tried to excuse what she did based on her gender-identity disorder – a move which has done little to make many within the transgender community and elsewhere embracing of Manning.
The Associated Press, regardless of the above, had to release an announcement to its editors to use the preferred name and gender after a period of confusion about how to refer to Manning. The New York Times had to pen its own directive, much in line with the Associated Press. NPR also went back and forth on pronoun and name usage.
The biggest issues have been with the free, collaborative encyclopedia known as Wikipedia. It is one of the most used websites in the world.
Almost immediately after Manning released the aforementioned statement, Wikipedia redirected users searching for her birth name to one for Chelsea Manning. It was a bold and supportive move, not only welcoming for Manning herself, but any transgender person who may use Wikipedia. This sent a clear message that one’s identity would be accepted. This change was also in line with previous cases of celebrities coming out as transgender, such as Chaz Bono or Lana Wachowski.
This, unfortunately, is not the end of the story. After a week of discussion, repeated attempts to move the page, and an administrative lockdown of the page, this change was reverted back to Manning’s birth name.
As noted above, Wikipedia is collaborative. After the page was locked down, the discussion kept to the “talk page.” A heated, sometimes transphobic, discussion continued, with comments such as “If I had a Wikipedia article and then I suddenly claimed to be a dog, or a cat, would they change it to reflect such nonsense? Biologically he is a man and will die a man (check his chromosomes XY), and legally he is a man (he even asks to be called by his male name in official stuff).”
As of this writing, the page can be found under either name in the URL, but with a subject line reflecting her birth name. The article itself tends to reflect her name and gender of choice, but also provides her birth name and old photos. It is truly a bit of a muddle.
I would like to call on Wikipedia to look closely at their policies. If it is good enough for other transgender entries to be so updated, it is okay for Chelsea Manning regardless of her crimes or any editors’ transphobia. Let Chelsea be Chelsea.