By Rodger Streitmatter
Bradley Manning is one of the most divisive figures of our time. Many people consider him a traitor because he made a huge number of classified government documents available to the public. Many other people consider him a patriot for precisely the same reason.
Regardless of how a person feels about Bradley Manning, there’s no question that Chelsea Manning is a hero.
Chelsea exploded onto the media radar screen the day after Bradley was sentenced to 35 years in prison, with hundreds of news organizations reporting that the Army private had announced to the world that he wanted to live his life as a woman.
That’s when the hero was born.
By taking that step, Chelsea Manning brought transgender Americans into the spotlight as never before.
Most of the articles simply reported the facts of the story. Here’s the first paragraph of the piece, for example, that ran in Slate magazine the morning of Aug. 22:
“Bradley Manning, the Army private who was convicted of leaking the largest cache of classified documents in U.S. history, announced Thursday that she plans to live out the rest of her life as female. ‘I am Chelsea Manning,’ the former intelligence analyst told supporters in a statement provided by her lawyer to NBC’s Today show this morning. ‘I am a female.’”
Even outlets with conservative political leanings reported the story—though they generally used masculine pronouns when referring to Manning. Here’s the lead paragraph from the piece in the Wall Street Journal:
“Pfc. Bradley Manning said Thursday that he wants to live his life as a woman and be known as Chelsea Manning as he begins a 35-year prison sentence for leaking classified government information to WikiLeaks.”
The challenge of deciding how to refer to Manning spawned an additional flurry of stories.
National Public Radio was among the journalistic voices that reported on this issue.
“NPR, like other news outlets, is at this point continuing to refer to the soldier as ‘Bradley Manning’ on first reference,” the widely respected organization wrote on its website. “Manning’s name has not been legally changed.”
The story went on to say that Manning asked, in the statement she released, that “starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).”
NPR next reproduced the transgender entry in the Associated Press Stylebook:
“transgender: Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or 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.”
The New York Times also published a story about the terminology challenge.
“Pfc. Bradley Manning told the world on Thursday that he identifies as a woman and wishes to be known from now on as Chelsea Manning,” the paper’s public editor wrote. “The development sent Times editors scrambling to their stylebooks and to past articles on other transgender cases of well-known people for guidance.”
Later in the story, the Times reproduced the transgender entry from its own stylebook:
“transgender (adj.) is an overall term for people whose current identity differs from their sex at birth, whether or not they have changed their biological characteristics.
“Cite a person’s transgender status only when it is pertinent and its pertinence is clear to the reader.
“Unless a former name is newsworthy or pertinent, use the name and pronoun (he, his, she, her, hers) preferred by the transgender person. If no preference is known, use the pronouns consistent with the way the subject lives publicly.”
A third category of story—beyond the straightforward news stories and the ones about how to refer to Manning—looked at the broader topic of transgender visibility. The Washington Post was among the outlets that ran a piece of this ilk.
“Today, gay celebrities can out themselves to the American public and be met with barely a yawn,” the Post wrote, “but the pool of public transgender celebrities is considerably smaller. Each one provides a platform for discussion, a new opportunity for publicity and a new potential face for an oft misunderstood movement.”
The Post story, which ran on the front of the paper’s widely read Style section, went on to report that researchers estimate the number of self-identified transgender adults in the United States totals about 700,000.
By the end of the piece, the Post had provided readers with a substantial list of transgender men and women from a variety of fields.
Probably the best known of them was Chaz Bono, the son of singers Sonny and Cher Bono. Others included Kristin Beck, a former Navy Seal who wrote a book about her experience; Susan Stanton, a Florida city manager who was fired from her job after she disclosed that she was pursuing sex-reassignment surgery; Lana Wachowski, half of the sibling duo who directed the Matrix movie series; and Isis King, a model and fashion designer who competed on the reality TV series America’s Next Top Model.
Next to its story, the Post ran a first-person piece by Jennifer Finney Boylan, a college professor and author of the transition memoir She’s Not There. Among the statements in Boylan’s article was this one:
“Manning is eligible for parole in seven years, and I am hoping that by then, someone coming out as trans will seem as dull and mundane as coming out as gay has become in some places. At the very least, I hope that by that time trans people are able to serve openly in the military, something that they cannot do at present in spite of the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ By 2020, I hope that being trans will be seen not as something scandalous, but instead as one more way of being human. I long for the day that Chelsea and I might even seem relatively boring.”
Solely on the basis of having taken the action that led to that statement appearing prominently in one of the country’s most influential news outlets, Chelsea Manning is a hero.
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