The Mainstream Media Can’t Figure Out How to Write About Chelsea Manning


This morning, in a statement read on the Today show, Chelsea Manning, née Bradley, professed her desire to live as a woman during her 35-year prison sentence at an Army prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Rumors that Manning identified as transgender arose during her trial for leaking 700,000 classified documents to WikiLeaks, and more attention was given to this side of the case during her trial, when the Army released a photograph of Manning in a blonde wig and lipstick, and after Manning’s defense claimed that her struggles with gender identity played a role in her actions.

This morning, however, things are much more clear. “I am Chelsea Manning,” the statement began. “I am a female. Given the way I have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible.”

These words from the statement have been copied and pasted into various reports, from The New York Times, the Washington Post, and MSNBC. But the problem with most of these reports is that, despite also including Manning’s very clear wishes (“I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun,” she writes), most reports boldly misgender her.

Both the Washington Post and The New York Times awkwardly avoided any gendered pronouns at all, referring to Manning by last name only. The New York Post, unsurprisingly, didn’t make many attempts to use correct gender terms: “With good behavior and credit for the more than three years he has been held, Manning could be out in about 6 ½ years, according to his defense attorney David Coombs.” [Emphasis mine.]

MSNBC, on the other hand, recognized the errors in using male pronouns to describe Manning and updated their story. Its author, Meredith Clark, later tweeted a link to the AP Style Guide rule for writing about transgender individuals:

Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics (by hormone therapy, body modification, or surgery) of the opposite sex and 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.

It shouldn’t be difficult, and it shouldn’t be something that reporters feel like they must write around: Chelsea Manning has clearly expressed that she is a woman, and it is perfectly acceptable to use words like “she” and “her” in this context. I know it must be incredibly confusing for the cisgender reporters who have no experience with transgender identities, either firsthand or through writing about them — but one can imagine that Chelsea Manning has had a very confusing experience, too, and, in that context, any reporter who has any complaints about writing about her in a respectful way might consider holding his or her tongue.

Top image: NY Post coverage misgenders Chelsea Manning.