Among the most basic of American principles is the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” To erase one’s identity, to render them an invisible segment of society, is to deny them true life.
Last week, Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, announced to the general public something transgender activists have known for the better part of three years: she’s transgender. The media’s reporting of Chelsea’s announcement exposed a weak point within the field of journalism: the mainstream American media doesn’t seem to have a clue how to report on trans individuals.
Pronouns were fumbled, names became intertwined. Reading some of the coverage, it would be reasonable to conclude that “Chelsea Manning” and “Bradley Manning” were two separate individuals rather than a single person
Whatever your opinion on Manning’s actions, when you speak about her gender, you’re speaking about the gender of many other individuals, including myself. I, like Chelsea, am transgender. I, like Chelsea, am a woman. The way you report on her gender is the way I have to assume you’d report on mine.
Her punishment is to spend 35 years in a military prison. At no point during her sentencing was she stripped of her humanity, nor was her identity erased. At no point did the 8th Amendment, which ensures that American prisoners will not be subject to cruel and unusual punishment, become invalid.
Misgendering and misnaming an individual is cruel. These actions work to erase one’s sense of self, their identity.
NBC acknowledged that pronouns are crucial to trans identities, yet they managed to fumble the initial announcement of Manning’s trans status on the Today show. This included near exclusive use of the name “Bradley,” male pronouns, and the phrase “[Manning] wants to live as a woman” (which was not in the statement, however “I am female” was, a key difference).
Outlets like CNN have held firm that they will continue referring to Manning with male pronouns and her former name until she has legally changed that. This policy, in itself, if applied universally, would make sense. However, this appears to be a policy in place solely for trans individuals. Remember when will.i.am (legal name: William Adams) appeared on CNN election night 2008? Remember when CNN ran an article about the feud between Lady Gaga (legal name: Stefani Germanotta) and Perez Hilton (legal name: Mario Lavandeira, Jr.)? Remember when Piers Morgan (legal name:Piers O’Meara) interviewed Billy Ray Cyrus (legal name: William Cyrus) about his daughter Miley Cyrus (legal name: Destiny Hope Cyrus) last week?
Either CNN hasn’t been enforcing this “legal names only” policy, or it only applies to transgender individuals.
This is all disheartening because if you say “no, I won’t call that person Chelsea Manning” and “no, I will not adhere to the request to use feminine pronouns,” your statement goes far beyond Private Manning, extending to a blanket approach to transgender individuals as a whole. That approach tells us, “no, you’re not real, you’re not a valid member of society; I’m just humoring you if I happen to use the correct name and pronouns.”
Odds are, unless you’re transgender, no one has really ever questioned your identity, told you that you were anything but what you said you were. No one has stopped you from using a name other than the one printed on your birth certificate (“sorry, Bobs of the world, you’ll need to go by “Robert” since that’s your real name”).
It takes virtually zero effort to call someone what they want to be called. No one, not even criminals, deserves to have their identity and sense of self erased. This isn’t “political correctness,” this is human decency.
Update (8/27): This article has been picked up by the Huffington Post. Click the image for the link.