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.

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.

 

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

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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