Of names and pronouns

by Naomi Colvin

Chelsea Manning

Chelsea Manning’s contribution to our collective moral development was immense even before her announcement of this morning. Notwithstanding that some of the reaction to Chelsea’s coming out was so grotesque that even Louise Mensch felt moved to object, I have a feeling that what happened this morning will be remembered as a watershed moment.

Chelsea is beginning a 35 year term at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, in a facility that does not offer hormone therapy  – but that may change as a result of Chelsea’s visibility or, failing that, the legal challenge her counsel has promised to launch. Chelsea is also beginning her sentence in a world where a large number of major media organisations do not feel able to respect a very straightforward and clearly expressed request about names and pronouns.

There’s no general rule that can be drawn about the creditable performances and omissions in the media. The Guardian has been good today, but then so has the Daily Mail. Interestingly, both the Washington Post and Politico felt compelled to explain in detail why they had decided not to respect Chelsea Manning’s clearly stated preference.

Just like the non-availability of hormone therapy in US military prisons – a circumstance out of step with developing norms outside that institution – the confusion that reigned today will not, I think, last for much longer. There are enough people who care about Chelsea Manning to ensure that eventually – and maybe not before too much longer – her wishes are respected. I fully expect that to happen and to change things for those with less of a public platform in years to come.

In the meantime, we have those Politico and WaPo pieces to consider. And I think they are worth considering, if only because we’ll be looking back at them in ten years time with absolute incredulity. By then, I think – I hope – they’ll be collectors’ items.

Update (24/8)

It’s already happening. NPR announced yesterday that they had changed their guidelines and will now be using Chelsea’s preferred name and pronoun.

On a slightly different note, Salon has just published a fascinating article comparing the reaction to Manning’s change of name to Muhammad Ali’s – turns out the New York Times were pretty slow to recognise that one too.

Update II (26/8)

This blog, by Lauren and Helen McNamara – on the former’s experience of being interviewed on this subject – outlines the challenges ahead very clearly.

Update III (27/8)

The New York Times has changed its tune.