What the Media Learned from Chelsea Manning

The whistleblower’s coming out as transgender meant a steep learning curve for some journalists, and was anti-trans fodder for others.



"I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female.” With those eight words delivered in a statement read by Savannah Guthrie on the Today Show on August 22, the former Army private and convicted WikiLeaks whistleblower once known as Bradley became the most well-known transgender person in the world, the subject of news industry angst as media grappled with how to refer to Manning and which pronouns to use.

The day before, Manning had been sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking the largest trove of classified documents in United States history. Manning’s leak included videos, incident reports from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantanamo detainee information, and thousands of State Department cables, some very embarrassing. Her supporters credit her with helping to end the Iraq War and shining a light on military malfeasance.

In the trial, it was revealed that Manning had received a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, formerly known as gender identity disorder, from Dr. David Moulton, the forensic psychologist assigned to review her case; that diagnosis was upheld by a military sanity board. In addition, her defense raised the issue of Manning’s gender identity struggle and the military’s response to it. Manning had reached out to a counselor online in November 2009 to explore the possibility of transitioning. Despite those revelations, many in the media were unsure. The Associated Press Stylebook says:

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.

At the outset, several news organizations, including Reuters and the New York Times, initially referred to Manning by masculine pronouns. Within hours of the announcement, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association issued a statement urging the media to use feminine pronouns and to respect Manning’s wish to be known as Chelsea. The next day, the Times announced that it was following the NLGJA’s guidance on the issue.