Why using the right pronoun matters

The confusion over Chelsea Manning shows how hard the conversation around transition can be -- and how important

Topics: chelsea manning, LGBT, Bradley Manning, Transgender,

Why using the right pronoun matters (Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky/U.S. Army)

When the recently sentenced military whistle-blower formerly known as Bradley Manning sent the announcement to “Today” Thursday morning that “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female,” she specifically requested that “starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun.”

Seems pretty simple, right? But as Katie McDonough has already noted, plenty of media outlets blithely ignored the request, as outlets including the “New York Times, CNN, Reuters and the BBC referred to Manning as ‘he’ in their coverage.” The Times, for instance, likely struggling with its own stylebook, had to deliver the news — within a story about Manning’s newly expressed preference to be referred to by the female pronoun — that “The Bradley Manning Support Network … asked supporters last year to refer to him using the masculine pronoun until he expressed a preference.” And observe how RT dismissively reported that “Bradley Manning states he’s ‘female’, wants to live as ‘Chelsea,’” explaining, “The whistleblower has asked to refer to him by the name of Chelsea Manning.” Scare quotes! Male pronoun! More sensitively, during “Today’s” report, Manning was referred to as “he” in the lead-up to the announcement. But then in the interview and the statement, she was conspicuously referred to by the feminine pronoun by both her attorney and anchor Savannah Guthrie — though at one point Guthrie stumbled asking about the goals for “her-him.”



It’s not always easy or intuitive to get these things right, especially for people who aren’t familiar with transgender issues. For all the beautiful and nuanced tools the English language provides us, gender and gender transition can still leave some of us struggling for the appropriate words. I used to unquestioningly employ the phrase “transgendered” in the same way I’d say “oriented,” for instance, until it was pointed out to me that it’s incorrect. So now I don’t do it. And if I’m doing something wrong now, tell me, and I promise I’ll try to do better. GLAAD offers a simple, clear guide for journalists – or anyone who cares about communication – on transgender terminology, including terms some might not know are considered problematic, like “sex change” or “pre-operative” and “post-operative.” It also offers the basic courtesy advice to “Always use a transgender person’s chosen name.”

Another tip: Don’t assume that gender identity and sexuality are interchangeable. As TransPeopleSpeak says, “Transgender people also have a sexual orientation, just as everyone else in society, which can be heterosexual (straight), bisexual, or gay or lesbian.” On Thursday, AmericaBlog was still referring to Manning as “he,” but also gamely tried to acknowledge that while “before announcing that he was a woman, [Manning] had previously acknowledged being gay,” now “It’s a bit complicated … being gay means you are attracted primarily to the same-sex … So while she is trans, she is no longer gay.”

When people who aren’t transgender speak of transitioning and transgender individuals, there are going to be inevitable moments of uncertainty and potential mistakes. GLAAD advises we “Avoid pronoun confusion when examining the stories and backgrounds of transgender people prior to their transition,” but we can’t always ignore the fact that people have had pasts, and that those pasts were lived in a different way. As my colleague Natasha pointed out Thursday, “Temporality gets interesting. During the trial, Manning’s support network explicitly said Manning was to be called ‘Bradley’ and male etc. So when we write about that time, any time before today, there’s something inherently difficult … To refer to Chelsea when referring to events prior to this announcement is a weird one.”

Even in the present tense, not everyone falls into neat, generally applicable categorizations either. Justin Vivian Bond prefers the prefix “Mx” and the pronoun “v,” and identifies as “trans or t.” Bond says, “For me to claim to be ‘a woman’ would feel just as false as the charade I’ve been asked to play for so much of my life of being ‘a man.’” Bond was angry and disappointed two years ago when a New York profile insistently referred to the performer as “he.”

Trans men and women deal with a whole lot of overt discrimination and everyday crap. Much of it is going on in comments sections all over the world, right now. There is willful, stubborn, tantrumy ignorance, the kind that basically says, nyah nyah, I am going to turn pronouns into a weapon of hate. If, for instance, you’re still calling Chaz Bono “she,” you’re proving nothing except your own insecurity and fear. People endure dumb “tranny” jokes in the Wal-Mart; they’re viciously condemned in newspaper editorials; they risk being beaten just for using public restrooms. And they live in a culture that doesn’t always know how to talk to them or about them, and often fails them on an epic scale. So here’s what the rest of us can do. We can be respectful and sensitive. If we’re unsure about something, we can ask. We can say we’re sorry when we flub it and we can learn. We may not always get it right; we may trip over our phrasing now and then and we may need to be educated and educated again. But it costs us nothing to accommodate another person’s wishes. We can remember that the tiniest words – he and she – can be loaded with intolerance or acceptance, depending on how we deploy them. And we can choose them with love.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...