“I want everyone to know my real name,” Chelsea Manning said in a statement today. After being sentenced to 35 years for violation of the Espionage Act, Wikileaks source Pvt. Chelsea Manning announced Thursday that she is a transgender woman. It begs the question: Why, since her arrest in 2010 (when her gender identity was first speculated about publicly), has the media repeatedly disregarded the reality of Manning's complex identity?
Today the media was quick to jump on Chelsea Manning’s statement, which specifically requested that we refer to her by her new name and use the feminine pronoun. The AP stylebook makes clear that reporters should err toward the expressed preference of the person whose gender identity is in question, yet even after Manning herself made it unequivocal that she is a woman, her identity continues to be erased.
Sometimes transgender and gender nonconforming people approach their paths in stages, and Manning is no exception. What's true is that her gender has been part of the story since the very beginning. A year after her 2010 arrest, Wired released a series of chat logs between Manning and Adrian Lamo revealing that she was “pending discharge for ‘adjustment disorder’ in lieu of ‘gender identity disorder.’” During her trial, journalist Kevin Gosztola reported that Manning sent letters from Quantico signed “Breanna,” a name she asked some fellow soldiers to call her during her time in the Army. Yet this dimension of her life has gone largely uncovered by the establishment media until now.
The confusion seems to lie with the Bradley Manning Support Network. They claimed to have a statement from Manning’s aunt that stipulated that Manning preferred to be seen as male. That third-hand source became the basis for most of the media to use “Bradley” and male-pronouns in their reporting. Despite the clearest aspect about Manning’s identity being that it was markedly unclear, she's spent the last few years perceived as male for all the world.
Does it matter whether we misrepresent someone’s gender? It certainly mattered to Manning. In May of 2010, while talking with Lamo about the risks she was taking by released the classified documents, she said, “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me ... plastered all over the world press ... as a boy.”
Now that she has come out as a woman hoping to undergo gender reassignment therapy —lawyer David Coombs says she didn’t come out earlier for fear that it would “overshadow the case” — the media largely still struggles to properly reflect Manning’s gender. The New York Times, the Associated Press, and the Chicago Tribune all initially referred to Manning using male pronouns or even as “Bradley.” Scott Stump, who broke the story for Today.com, seemed oblivious to how to approach writing about her gender. The Washington Post reported neutrally, without ascribing to Manning pronouns of any gender.
The media's decision to consider Manning to be male before her recent statement, and female after (MSNBC did this outright) is perhaps the laziest way to conceptualize the issue, erasing the complex fact of Manning's identity as its surfaced over the past few years.
This approach to writing about Manning also perpetuates the common misconception about trans folks that trans identity is a choice. Chelsea Manning’s gender is, as she outlined, “the way that [she] feels and has felt since childhood.” It is the “real” her. Her coming out is not an indication that she was a male person up until that point, and it's like that the image we've created of her as such has been as confining as the walls of her solitary cell.
We face a media culture where it is somehow more preferable to preserve an amorphous “objective” assessment of someone’s identity than it is to respect their own perspective on their own life. Is journalism committed to upholding an antiquated culture of transphobia? Or is it about amplifying voices that have been suppressed? Chelsea Manning was sentenced to decades in prison for being perhaps the century’s leading source of the documented abuse of power to a journalistic organization and yet a swath of mainstream journalists have and continue to disrespect her as a person — and by extension, any transgender person who tries to come out on an international stage.
If the most powerful journalists disrespect the identities of their sources —those who allow them to do their jobs — how can they be expected to accurately depict reality for the rest of us?