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Media Makes the Manning Switch

August 29, 2013

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“Chelsea” is winning.

Last Thursday, the Army private formerly known as Bradley Manning announced through the Today Show that she identifies as female. Manning also asked to be referred to by the name Chelsea and with feminine pronouns. The media, and everyone else interested in the person who revealed diplomatic secrets to WikiLeaks, were then faced with the question of whether to make the switch.

Alex Wong / Getty Images Manning leaving a military court in 2012 in Fort Meade, Md.

Alex Wong / Getty Images
Manning leaving a military court in 2012 in Fort Meade, Md.

Less than a week later, news outlets—including TIME—have widely adopted she and her. The New York Times and the Associated Press have announced that they will primarily be using Chelsea, only mentioning the name Bradley when referring to times past. Though Fox News was still writing “he” on Friday, they’re now on the “she” train, too. And the user who types the words Bradley Manning into the Wikipedia search engine is promptly redirected to a page for Chelsea Manning, who was recently sentenced to 35 years in prison for revealing classified information.

Of course, not everyone is following suit. But outlets like the Times and AP are important bellwethers, and they’re following protocol used by the transgender community. William Leap, a professor at American University who specializes in queer linguistics, says the unofficial first rule is to respect an individual’s wishes when it comes to language. At a conference dealing with LGBTQ issues, he says, it would be common for someone to introduce themselves and say “their pronouns,” like “My name is Michelle, and my pronouns are sheher and him.” Clearly stating preferences resolves ambiguity, he says; to ignore those preferences is considered an affront.

The AP Stylebook guideline is similar to that rule of thumb but comes with tricky qualifiers: “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.” Acquiring “physical characteristics” and “present[ing] themselves” could arguably be a surgical procedure — or wearing a bold shade of red lipstick. It’s a slippery slope when asserting that a person has to earn a pronoun through their behavior; it forces the person or organization making the demand to decide where the gender line is drawn. And the notion that anyone else should decide their gender is “offensive” to many in the transgender community, Leap said.

In a blog post published on Tuesday, the AP cited three factors that led them to their conclusion about Chelsea: testimony from an Army psychiatrist at Manning’s trial, who said Manning was diagnosed with “gender-identity disorder” in Iraq in 2010, a picture of Manning dressed as a woman, and Manning’s recent statement.

“It seems clear that Manning’s new identity, including the name Chelsea, is a real thing to her,” wrote standards editor Tom Kent. “The spirit of the Stylebook entry is that, after consideration, AP can call people what they wish to be called.”

In her statement, Manning said she planned to start hormone therapy as soon as possible.  Read more in Time.

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