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What the Media Learned from Chelsea Manning

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.

Nevertheless, media response was all over the map. In a segment on WNYC the morning after Manning's announcement, National Public Radio announced its decision to use masculine pronouns until Manning had surgery. But the following day NPR joined other news organizations, revising its policy to respect Manning's wishes.

"There is no surgery that suddenly makes an individual transgender and eligible for being called by the pronouns that match who they really are," said Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, who was a guest on WNYC that morning. "Transition is a process, and part of transition is letting people who know you know who you truly are."

Transgender issues are new to a lot of journalists, and many were struggling to understand Manning's coming out, explained Silverman. However, some of the misgendering -- referring to Manning by the incorrect pronoun -- was deliberate and hateful, which Silverman called "contemptible." In an op-ed the day of her announcement, the Daily Beast made light of the sexual violence that transgender inmates face in prison, writing that Manning might be the "queen bee" of Fort Leavenworth. When teasing a segment about Manning five days after her announcement, Fox & Friends played the Aerosmith song "Dude Looks Like a Lady."

"Whatever one's views of Chelsea's actions might be, engaging in trans-phobic reporting is not an appropriate means to editorialize about her actions," said Silverman.

Since then, responsible coverage of some of the issues facing transgender people -- access to basic health care and being subjected to violence in prison -- has appeared in publications such as the New Yorker and the Atlantic.

"Chelsea's coming out raises a lot of questions about the unique challenges that transgender people face in prison and in accessing health care, both in prison and out of prison," said Silverman. "There are real subjects for journalistic inquiry surrounding Chelsea's case, and media professionals should focus on those.

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Christopher Carbone