So there’s this young US Army private named “Manning.”
You remember: The intelligence analyst in Iraq who leaked a massive trove of classified military information to the controversial whistleblower outfit WikiLeaks? The one convicted of espionage who’s about to spend as many as 35 years in the Army’s maximum security prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas?
OK. Everybody knows that. But there’s a problem.
The first name on Manning's dog tags is “Bradley,” as it is on all official documents where the identification states “male.” But as the young soldier headed off to incarceration, Manning declared "I'm transgender" – personally identified as a female, intending to take the necessary steps to make the physical change – and that the proper first name now – immediately – is “Chelsea.”
You’ll note that I’ve cleverly avoided using gender-specific pronouns here so far – no “he” or “she,” no “him” or “her.” (I’ll also note that Manning did not have to do this to us. I have a female cousin perfectly happy to be named “Bradley,” which is an old family name.)
For now, at least, and until instructed otherwise by my editors, I’ll do what that source of all undergraduate wisdom – Wikipedia – has done: Refer to Manning as female.
Ms. Manning had barely finished his – oops, her – announcement last week when Wikipedia immediately redirected “Bradley Manning” searches to “Chelsea Manning” in an article peppered with feminine pronouns. One example:
“She was sentenced to 35 years in prison and dishonorably discharged. She will be eligible for parole after serving one third of her sentence, and together with credits for time served and good behavior could be released eight years after sentencing.”
It’s not been so quick or easy for others in the media, where what to call Manning is being hotly debated.
“The sooner journalists stop writing ‘Bradley’ and start writing ‘Chelsea,’ the quicker everyone following this story will adapt – and even change their Google search terms when looking for coverage,” writes Amanda Marcotte at Slate, a relatively progressive site. “Even if you disagree with Manning's actions and believe she deserves the harsh sentence she received, her gender identity had nothing to do with her crimes. Most people don't have to transition under as much scrutiny as Manning has suffered; all of us making the switch graciously can help make things slightly easier for her.”
But over at the conservative National Review, Wesley J. Smith takes a more legalistic view.
“We need structure here and a proper legal process,” he writes. “Until Bradley Manning is officially declared Chelsea by a court – with an amended birth certificate issued and a legal judgment of sex reassignment – he remains a legal male. That should be the standard, not a personal statement read on a television show or a change in appearance.”
The Associated Press style book says this: “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.”
That’s pretty clear, but it doesn’t exactly answer the “opposite sex” question about Manning.
In a piece headlined “The Soldier Formerly Known as Bradley Manning,” New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan writes, “The development sent Times editors scrambling to their stylebooks and to past articles on other transgender cases of well-known people for guidance.”
Apparently, they’re still trying to figure it out.
“We can’t just spring a new name and a new pronoun” on readers with no explanation, Susan Wessling, the deputy editor who supervises the newspaper’s copy editors, told Ms. Sullivan.
Sullivan notes that a recent article on The Times’s Web site on the gender issue continued to use the masculine pronoun and “Mr.”
“That, said the associate managing editor Philip B. Corbett, will evolve over time,” Sullivan writes. “It’s tricky, no doubt. But given Ms. Manning’s preference, it may be best to quickly change to the feminine and to explain that – rather than the other way around."
To transgender people – there are some 700,000 in the United States by one scientific count – it’s not a subject for tittering, dismissal, or journalistic head-scratching.
The American Psychiatric Association now labels transgender inclinations as “Gender Dysphoria” rather than “gender identity disorder,” which carries less of a stigma. (The professional association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973.)
Advances in transgender rights – which are included in many gay rights laws – have followed.
California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia all have laws clearly prohibiting discrimination against transgender people.
The trend has become more controversial with cases involving school children.
Colorado officials recently ruled that a suburban Colorado Springs school district discriminated against a transgender 6-year-old (anatomically a boy, although she thought of herself as a girl) by preventing her from using the girls' bathroom.
In California earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation requiring public schools to allow transgender students access to whichever restroom and locker room they want. The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, also will allow transgender kindergarten through-12th grade students to choose whether they want to play boys' or girls' sports.
All of this has come into greater focus now that “Bradley Manning” has become “Chelsea Manning.”