When the court-martialed soldier heretofore known as Pvt. Bradley Manning announced on Aug. 22 that she was a woman and was taking the name Chelsea Manning, the very choice of names and pronouns in an already-politicized story became a kind of social-cultural side-taking: a she-bboleth, as it were. According to a roundup from MSNBC.com, the editorially conservative National Review and Washington Times were holding to “he”; Fox News’s Fox and Friends, with typical class, introduced a segment on Manning with Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady.” Meanwhile, after a period of fumbling and creative circumlocutions, news outlets including NPR, the Associated Press, and The New York Times switched to “she.” (Time.com has also used the female pronoun in covering Manning.)
But those decisions only settle part of the question: how to refer to Chelsea Manning now. Since she’s a longtime figure in the news, in a case involving her actions years previous, how do you refer to her history? Did Bradley leak information to Wikileaks, or did Chelsea? (Or Breanna?) Did she serve in Iraq or did he?
The answer goes to the question, still fuzzily defined, of what philosophy and definitions we’re using when referring to the growing number of transgender persons. Is cultural gender the same as biological sex? Does the person’s gender “change”–for media purposes–at the point of a public statement (bearing in mind that not everyone issues public statements)? Does it date to the point at which that person began to consider him or herself a different gender (bearing in mind that the realization might happen gradually over years)? Is it retroactive to birth–does Present You, in effect, override the consciousness of Past You? Think about it long enough, and it’s not just a question of what a man or woman is, but what identity and personhood is, period.
Forget politics; it’s a copy editor’s worst headache. For some, choosing to keep referring to Chelsea Manning as “he” is a political or cultural or even religious statement. But given all these definitional complications, it may also come from the desire to have one easy, Occam’s-Razor answer (and to have your audience know who and what you’re talking about). The arguments for keeping “he” are varied, but they generally boil down to the fact that Manning hasn’t had or begun the physical transition process.
But it’s not that simple. A chromosome, a set of genitalia–yes, those are concrete things. But attaching pronouns to them isn’t; there’s no objective requirement pronouns and linguistic gender need to exist at all. There’s no scientific reason you couldn’t, say, use “he” and “she” to distinguish right- and left-handers. It’s a collective decision, which is one way that sex as a biological term is different from gender as a social concept.
Social concepts are fluid, and modern medical science has shown that biological sex is malleable (and in some cases, not so clear-cut in the first place). If you believe people have the right to decide their own identity, it makes no more sense to tell someone she’s can’t say she’s a woman than to tell someone he’s can’t say he’s a libertarian, or a Christian, or a Red Sox fan.
But that still leaves the question of when to use “she” and “he,” when talking about the history of someone like Manning. And to be fair, while news outlets came in for criticism for how they described Manning after her announcement, they didn’t have much guidance, even from advocates for coverage of transgender people, about this specific question.
The New York Times, for instance, said its house style would follow the guidelines of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA)–but those guidelines, in a release about covering the Manning case, are pointedly present-tense: “As per AP style, one should use the name and pronouns that someone prefers.” Ditto GLAAD’s media reference guide: “A person who identifies as a certain gender, whether or not that person has taken hormones or had some form of surgery, should be referred to using the pronouns appropriate for that gender.”
Quartz news editor Gideon Lichfield wrote in the Huffington Post about the lack of guidance on how to talk about the pre-Aug.-22 Manning. Without any agreed-on guidelines, Lichfield asked around to transgender people on Twitter and came up with his own staff guidelines based on their responses:
the answer is simple—”Chelsea,” always—and so is the reasoning, once you know it. To come out as transgender is to acknowledge the gender you have always had, regardless of what your body seemed to be. The gender you used to go by is something you never really were. In that light, for someone else to then keep on using it just looks like stubbornness, or malice.
That’s an answer, at least, but it’s only one answer. Manning’s own statement, issued through her lawyer, added that “she also expects that the name Bradley Manning and the male pronoun will continue to be used in certain instances,” including references to the trial. (“Expects,” of course, is not “prefers.”)
And when I asked the NLGJA by e-mail to clarify its policy on reporting about Manning’s past, a spokesperson for the group said it would recommend “he” for historical reference too: “When writing about events prior to when the person began living publicly as the opposite gender, NLGJA recommends using the name and gender the individual used publicly at that time. For example: Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley, came out as transgender last week. In a statement, Manning said she had felt this way since childhood. Manning grew up in Oklahoma. In middle school, he was very outspoken in class about government issues and religious beliefs, friends said.”
So: more answers, all well-intended but not all in agreement. Sometimes copy editing and language, like a lot of human activity, is an attempt to impose certitude and consistency on things–here, identity, psychology, self-perception–that are really shifting and complicated. (I’d guess that Manning’s “since childhood” remark argues for using “she” in the preceding example, for instance. But do I know that “since childhood” definitely means “before middle school”? No, I do not.)
I can’t say I know enough to decree a universal rule here yet, and maybe there isn’t one, beyond simple consideration. Which is to say, if I don’t know the ideal way to refer to someone like Chelsea Manning, a good starting point is to at least assume that she knows better than I do.