Media willfully misgender Chelsea Manning

Manning conclusively announced her gender identity on Thursday. So why is the press ignoring her?

Topics: transgender rights, LGBT Rights, chelsea manning, Transphobia, Gender, gender identity, ,

Media willfully misgender Chelsea Manning Chelsea Manning (Credit: AP Photo/U.S. Army, File)

Chelsea Manning, the whistle-blower sentenced to 35 years in military prison for leaking classified documents, released a statement on Thursday to announce that she identifies as female and intends to begin hormone therapy as part of her gender transition. Manning also requested that the public refer to her by her chosen name, Chelsea, and adopt feminine pronouns to describe her.

But the media isn’t listening.

With a few notable exceptions — including MSNBC, Rolling Stone and the Guardian — reports from the mainstream press willfully misgendered Manning while reporting this news. (Full disclosure: In Salon’s earliest report, I introduced the story by referring to Chelsea as Bradley Manning, believing it would be clarifying and help to set context. I have since edited the piece, referring to Chelsea by her chosen name while adding a parenthetical about her former name, to more accurately and respectfully reflect the content of the story and the truth of Manning’s identity.)

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Manning released her statement to the “Today” show, but while covering the story the network had been granted exclusive rights to tell, host Savannah Guthrie referred to Manning as “her” and “him” interchangeably.

Likewise, in reporting Manning’s statement, outlets from the New York Times to CNN, Reuters and the BBC referred to Manning as “he” in their coverage.

Manning’s gender identity had been bubbling beneath the surface of her trial beginning around 2010, when her lawyers introduced evidence, through emails and chats, that the young Army private had been struggling with her gender identity (“my problem,” as she called it in one email to a former supervisor), but reports on how Manning identified were conflicting and often inconclusive. Some outlets (including this one) described her as transgender, others identified her as gay, but mostly continued to use masculine pronouns when writing about her. This was in part due to a lack of concrete information regarding how Manning identified, but also because of the fact that the mainstream press is troublingly mystified by (and, more often than not, openly hostile to) transgender rights.

But after Thursday’s announcement, there is no excuse.

Manning has made her identity clear. She has made her request clear. To ignore these facts while reporting them is not just bad journalism — it’s utterly bigoted.

But these failures in reporting have not gone unchecked. There is a growing chorus of transgender rights advocates rallying for accountability from major news outlets. Formal complaints have been submitted to the BBC and the New York Times, and this conversation, probably the most mainstream discussion the press has had to date about transgender identity and the importance of respectful (and truthful) use of pronouns and chosen names, could very well set an important precedent for future coverage of transgender issues.

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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