Why using the right pronoun matters

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

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 22, 2013 7:43PM (EDT)

             (AP/Patrick Semansky/U.S. Army)
(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.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Bradley Manning Chelsea Manning Lgbt Transgender