Chelsea Manning and the Media

This is a guest post from Megan, who regularly tweets as @megahbite and blogs at A Megahbite of Feminism

When Chelsea Manning came out to the world as a woman on the 21st of August, it was of little surprise to those who have closely followed her case. She expressed her struggle with her gender identity to Adrian Lamo in the leaked chat logs from 2010, had been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder by an army psychologist and had created several social media profiles under the name “Breanna” before her arrest.

Many in the online trans community had taken to using gender neutral (singular “they”) or feminine pronouns to refer to her, but there was little coverage outside of a few small blog posts by supporters. Even the majority of LGBT publications ignored the signs and referred to her as a cis gay man.

What may have come as a surprise to her supporters, however, was the blatant disregard the majority of media publications had for her clearly expressed wishes. Today News, the publication that originally broke the news, led with a story repeatedly calling Chelsea “him” and “Bradley”. Few news organisations showed any respect to begin with, The Guardian being a notable exception and many have stuck to their guns, making statements about “legal names” and her not having started transition yet.

This is blatant cissexism (the belief that the gender identity of trans people is inferior to cis people’s unquestioned gender identity); there is not any one point at which a trans woman “becomes” a woman, beyond her declaration as such. It’s a confusing concept for the majority of people who like black and white boundaries, but one that the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health all agree with. Gender identity is an intrinsic part of most people’s psyches, though like many things about their bodies, people don’t notice it unless something is wrong. It’s as immutable as sexuality (which, as most accept, can be fluid but not something changeable by external influence).

Unfortunately for the trans community, this is nothing new; trans victims of crime (mainly trans women of colour) are often misgendered and misnamed in media reports, to the extent that GLAAD has a specific publication dedicated to respectful reporting on them. This usually goes ignored.

Organisations like Wikipedia have unfortunately used Chelsea’s resigned admittance about the state of media reporting on trans people to justify misnaming her. The Wikipedia situation is horrific, with the (as far as is known) entirely cis administrators putting the convenience of the masses ahead of the identity of a trans person. Given the ability for redirects from one article title to another, even the excuse around “Bradley” being the more well-known name seems tenuous. People searching for “Bradley Manning” were originally being redirected to “Chelsea Manning” with an explanation of her identity in the article. There seems little potential for confusion there. Further details and analysis on the admins’ decision can be found here.

What Chelsea Manning’s case has brought to the forefront is the utter lack of respect for trans identities in the media and indeed in wider society. Her high profile has highlighted things that have tragically gone ignored when they mainly affected people of colour. Things like reporting, access to medical treatment in prison, the high incarceration rate and misguided policies around which gender prison trans people are put in. If we want this to change, we need more voice in support of not only Chelsea but incarcerated trans women of colour like [CeCe McDonald]( and others around the world.

2 thoughts on “Chelsea Manning and the Media

  1. Josie

    I found it very frustrating that Manning’s defense team handled her gender identity prior to trial, which I think was another thing that ‘justified’ this thinking. I guess I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Chels when I compare her to CeCe in my mind. But that’s just my opinion – as I keep trying to tell people, not all transwomen are of one mind, often we’re not. We’re just like any other group of people – diverse in our own right.

    That said, I wonder if there’s a widely circulated style guide that’s distributed to the newsmedia? If not, I think that something that’s updated regularly (not just to reflect cultural changes) and sent out regularly (to remind people to use it) should be made and popularized.

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