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Chelsea Manning, pronouns and the press

It's been a fraught year for relations between trans people and the British press, from Richard Littlejohn singling out transsexual teacher Lucy Meadows, to the reaction to Chelsea Manning's announcement.

New Statesman
Private Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning revealed that wishes to live as a woman last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

It has been a year of fraught relations between trans people and the British press, with Julie Burchill’s shabby, incoherent (and swiftly retracted) broadside in The Observer in January and Richard Littlejohn singling out transsexual teacher Lucy Meadows in the Daily Mail before her death in March. Unkind and unfair coverage – in particular the use of old names, incorrect pronouns and the trashing of people’s identities – has long concerned the community, with individual writers entering the mainstream media and organisations such as Trans Media Watch and All About Trans holding dialogues with editors and journalists in efforts to change the culture.

This has made progress, but also provoked virulently transphobic responses from certain conservative, socialist and radical feminist commentators; amongst other things, Pvt Chelsea Manning’s announcement that she wishes to live as a woman after being imprisoned for providing classified information to Wikileaks has provided a high-profile test case for the current nature of newspaper coverage of trans-related stories. For those following the case, Manning’s gender dysphoria was well known, but Manning and her family asked that Manning be referred to by male pronouns before the sentencing, and it was only last week that it became widely reported.

Largely, the broadsheets focused on the difficulties that Manning will face in a men’s jail, generally handling this more sensitively than in the US. Using elements of the familiar first-person transition story whilst questioning its clichés, All About Trans activist Paris Lees documented her youthful experiences of an all-male prison in a sensitive Guardian piece. All About Trans met Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman as part of their media engagement, and Newman quoted Lees in a Telegraph article on the consequences of pressure for male-born gender dysphoric people to meet masculine expectations, and the additional challenges, particularly the heightened risk of physical and sexual assault, that transphobia might bring. (The specific problems of the US prison system for trans prisoners were also highlighted in Jane Fae’s New Statesman blog.)

Many trans people noted which pronouns were used: Trans Media Watch’s guidance advises the use of those which most closely match an individual’s presentation, and avoiding ‘old’ names and photos, but in Manning’s case, both were established in the public domain. Adam Gabbatt in the Guardian began with ‘the US soldier who was sentenced as Bradley Manning’ before using Chelsea, she and her; the Mail’s long, surprisingly delicate response used Manning’s male name just twice – in the headline and the opening sentence – with female pronouns and her chosen name thereafter, emphasising the US Army’s refusal to fund treatment and the statement from Manning’s lawyer answering accusations of narcissism. In this context, the BBC’s use of male pronouns across their website was especially disheartening.

If this seems broadly positive, it should be noted that the British press were covering an American case. US outlets emphasised the cost of Manning’s transition (but not of incarcerating her), and British publications frequently highlight the taxpayer contribution towards gender reassignment for prisoners who are not otherwise newsworthy. The Daily Star's 'Rot in hell you traitor’ and Brendan O’Neill’s tediously inevitable and inevitably tedious Spiked diatribe telling Manning that she cannot determine her own gender identity suggest that had this occurred in Britain, the newspapers may have discredited Manning with the tired transphobic tropes deployed by Burchill and Littlejohn.