As Andrew Beaujon reported this morning, both the Associated Press and New York Times, four days after Private Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley, announced that she would live as a woman going forward, have reached the decision to respect her wishes, and will use her chosen name and feminine pronouns to refer to her. I think there’s been some sense among stylistic gatekeepers at large publications that deferring to Private Manning’s decision and keeping their readers informed are goals that are in conflict, an idea particularly expressed by the idea embedded in AP style that Chelsea Manning must somehow earn her gender pronouns so as not to confuse readers.
As the AP’s editors’ note to bureaus announcing the change explained, “The guidance calls for using 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.” The problem, of course, is that transgender people may not have the financial resources to “acquire the physical characteristics of the opposite sex,” or, at seems likely to be the case with Private Manning and other incarcerated transgender people, may be in a position where they are not permitted to “present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.” More importantly, setting a standard for a point at which a transgender person is transgender enough (which is a way of saying that they are not confusing to cisgendered people) to be referred to by the name and pronouns that feel appropriate to them prioritizes the comfort of outsiders, rather than the comfort and lived experience of a person who is being written about.
I think Times public editor Margaret Sullivan got it right when she suggested changing that order of priorities, and using the switch as an opportunity to explain what’s happening to readers. “Given Ms. Manning’s preference, it may be best to quickly change to the feminine and to explain that — rather than the other way around,” she wrote, highlighting an opportunity both to be respectful, and to do good journalism. Or as deputy editor Susan Wessling put it to Sullivan, “We’ll probably use more words than less,” suggesting that the copy desk would both make the style change and explain why it was being made.
I know that some might prefer that the change be made without comment, and readers simply be expected to figure it out for themselves. I think it’s worth recognizing that there’s a period when it makes sense for publications to explain Manning’s transition, and their own change in style, to their readers, and that there are real opportunities for good explanatory journalism in that explanation. This is a reasonable matter of editorial clarity, at least for an intermediate period. Not everyone is following the leaks story with the same level of attention, and it’s worth making clear to readers that the person who once was Bradley Manning now is Chelsea Manning to preserve the continuity of the story for those in the audience who didn’t catch her announcement. There’s no reason to penalize readers who are getting up to speed now for not having been on the story with the same ferocity as the most dedicated from day one.
And it’s also an opportunity to educate those same readers about the process of transitioning, and the fact that Manning will be incarcerated in a facility for men rather than with other women and denied hormone treatment will imprisoned, two practices that are widespread in the American prison system. I understand that it may feel condescending to some in the audience to include these basic explanations and facts in stories about Private Manning, but the reality is that a quarter of Americans don’t report understanding what it means to be transgender. Offering clear, respectful explanations is a service both to those Americans, and to the families, friends, and neighbors whose lives they might better comprehend as a result. The interests of transgender people and those still unfamiliar with them are the same in this case, or at least they ought to be, when practicing thoughtful journalism.