by Nash Jones.

This morning, Chelsea Manning, who was sentenced yesterday to 35 years in prison for making public thousands of classified U.S. Government documents about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, submitted a written statement to NBC’s Today Show indicating that she identifies as female, uses she pronouns, and wants to begin hormone therapy. Here is part of her statement, courtesy of Today News :

“As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility)”

After this statement was made, my Facebook feed (and the internet in general) erupted with a variety of conversations and statements. There were well-intentioned folks who were asking a lot of questions and there were folks with mis- or little information about trans* identities who were not asking enough questions. I would like to take a moment to answer some of the questions that have (and have not) been asked about Chelsea Manning’s identity, name, and pronouns by folks online. The following questions are not word-for-word the questions that I saw, but are instead questions that I phrased to give the answers folks were looking for this morning, whether they asked directly for them or not.

1.  How do I refer to Pfc. Manning by first name now, since she has been in the news and is well known by her previous name?  

If a trans* person changes their name from the one you have known them as and used in the past, you should use their new/current name and use it consistently. It’s as simple as that, really. A question that comes up sometimes to complicate this simplicity is what name to use when referring to the person in the past, before they changed their name. The best practice would be to always use their current name. One reason for this would be that not doing so may out them, which, depending on who you’ve outted them to, could put their resources, privacy, and/or safety at risk. Another reason is that, like their gender identity and pronouns, their name now, which they identify with and use, is their name and thinking or behaving otherwise is invalidating of their identity. A tip I give a lot of folks when it comes to respecting and affirming others’ identities is, “they know themselves better than you know them and better than any “expert” in their lives ever has (e.g. the birth attendant who assigned them a sex at birth, the person who gave them their initial name, any “gatekeeper” standing between them and their healthcare, etc.)”. So, do not prioritize who someone else has said this person is as more valid or authentic than who the person themself says they are.

Now, Chelsea Manning could be, but is probably not someone you know from high school. She is, however, definitely someone you’ve read about in the news. While I take issue with many media/journalistic style guides and what they say about how to write about trans* folks, I think it’s important to look at what they say because the discourse around Manning and her gender identity is happening largely in the media. One style guideline that was referenced in a conversation I had today was the New York Times’. It states, “Unless a former name is newsworthy or pertinent, use the name and pronouns preferred by the transgender person.”

While Chelsea’s previous name was quite newsworthy, I’d say that her current name is quite newsworthy now as well! Depending on context, it may feel important to clarify that Chelsea Manning is the same Manning who was just sentenced to 35 years for leaking government documents for those who have not found out that she changed her name. You might do this by saying once, at the beginning of the article, that the reader may know her by her previous name. However, my bet is that if you refer to the Manning case, folks would know who you are speaking of, especially since her statement has been in the news. In the end, it is most respectful to use the person’s current name and avoid use of their previous name. In my opinion, this should be the practice even if it was a newsworthy name. Good thing I don’t write for the NYT!

2.  What pronouns do I use for Pfc. Manning now? What about when I’m referring to the past?

This answer is incredibly similar to the answer above about names. Use the pronoun a person uses now, and do so consistently. Even when referring to a time in the past when the person was using a different pronoun, use their current pronoun.

In the case of Chelsea Manning, use she/her/hers pronouns (e.g. “Chelsea Manning made public thousands of classified documents and she was sentenced to 35 years in prison”). Now, let’s look again at a media style guide, which I have some bones to pick with. The Associated Press’ style guideline states, “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.” This guideline could end at, “use the pronoun preferred by the individual.” Instead, however, it goes on to qualify who counts as trans* enough to have their pronouns used. And who is trans*enough according to the AP?

According to the AP guidelines, those who have “acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex,” which I take as referring to gender confirmation surgeries or hormone therapy, are trans* enough. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, not all trans* people desire or need surgery or hormone therapy; this does not make them any less trans*. Secondly, not all trans* people who do want or need surgery or hormones have the resources to be able to access them. Access to surgery and hormones should not be understood as qualifiers for being trans*. Who else does the style guideline qualify as trans* enough to have their pronouns respected?

The guidelines goes on to qualify those who, “present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth” as trans* enough. This qualifier would be much less problematic if it used “identify” instead of “present.” Using “present” focuses on a binary understanding of how men and women are supposed to express their gender. According to these guidelines, if Chelsea Manning is not expressing her gender in a feminine way, then he pronouns are appropriate. Trans* people should not be held to stereotypical definitions of femininity and masculinity in order to prove that they are the gender they identify as. Just as there are masculine cis women, there are masculine trans women and just as there are feminine cis men, there are feminine trans men. Trans* people should not be held to stricter standards than cis people to have their gender identity understood as valid and authentic.  Had the term used been “identify,” and “their sex at birth” been changed to “their gender assigned at birth,” this would be a fairly inclusive way of describing any trans* person, whether they identify within the binary or not.

3.  “I found out Bradley Manning changed his name and pronoun and identifies as female. When do I start using the new name and pronoun?”

Right now. Actually, before you asked that question using her previous name and pronoun.

You should shift your language as soon as you find out someone is identifying in a different way and/or using a different name or pronoun. This is not easy and you may make mistakes by slipping up every once and a while, but you need to put effort into changing your language as soon as a person discloses to you that their identity, name, and/or pronouns have changed.

In terms of missteps or slipups, there is a difference between messing up sometimes but acknowledging your mistake and working hard to adjust your language and messing up a lot because you either don’t respect their identity, do not believe their identity is valid, or don’t want to put any effort into being conscious of the way you speak and the power of those words. As a person who changed their pronouns a few years back, let me tell you, the difference between those who care and are trying but slip up sometimes and those who couldn’t care less about respecting your identity is obvious.

It is also important to keep in mind that trans* folks do not need to be understanding of your missteps by being patient while you adjust your language, although some will be. Statements like “it’s just so hard for me, cut me some slack” or “I just don’t think of you as a ____ yet, so it’s really hard to remember” may lead the person who was misgendered to feel the need to take care of you or apologize to you for feeling badly about your own mistake. Do you see how that’s just not right? This person may be feeling hurt, embarrassed, frustrated, angry and/or invalidated and on top of that are being asked to comfort you for making them feel this way. If you misstep, acknowledge your mistake, own it, do not ask to be taken care of about it, move on, and do better next time.

If you have more questions about how to respect trans* people’s gender identities or, more specifically, the identity, name, and pronouns of Chelsea Manning, feel free to put them down in the comments! If you are part of a group or staff who would like to learn more about how to use respectful language and create safe spaces for trans* folks as well as LGBQ folks, take a look at the workshop we provide out of our Bridge 13 Community Education Project!

2 Responses to Bridging The Gap – Her Name is Chelsea Manning: Respecting the Names and Pronouns of Trans* People in the Media and in Your Personal Life
  1. Thank you so much Addie for writing and sharing this, your advice, wisdom and knowledge is much appreciated and so important. Thank you.

  2. […] because learning and striving for understanding is a process all of us need to regularly engage in. The post about Chelsea Manning focused on how and when to change your language when a trans* person in your life (or in the public […]


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