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4 September 2013

Chelsea Manning gets put back in the closet by Wikipedia

Admins reverted last week's move, arguing that it lacked consensus.

By Alex Hern

The Wikipedia page for Wikileaks leaker Chelsea Manning has been reverted back to its original location under the headline “Bradley Manning”, following continued protest from a collection of editors on the site after last week’s redirection.

Last week decided to revert the move, arguing that there was “a clear absence of consensus for the page to be moved”.

The admins are keen to stress that the reversion is not, technically, moving the page back to “Bradley Manning” so much as it is undoing the move from “Bradley Manning”. The difference is ostensibly that the former would require consensus that Bradley Manning is a better title than Chelsea Manning, while the latter merely requires a lack of consensus that Chelsea Manning is a better title than Bradley Manning. In addition, the article itself still refers to Manning as “Chelsea” and uses the female pronoun.

That distinction hasn’t gone down particularly well in the wider world, where fact that a group of people held a vote on whether or not to call a trans woman by her preferred name, and then lost that vote, is seen as yet more evidence of a painful lack of diversity of experience amongst active Wikipedia editors. In 2010, a survey found that 13 per cent of contributors worldwide were female (another 0.6 per cent gave their gender as “other”). A second survey in 2011 found that fewer than 1 per cent of editors in self-identified as trans, but this may well be skewed by a number of trans editors identifying as male or female for the purposes of the survey.

Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the charity which runs Wikipedia, wrote (in her capacity as a Wikipedia editor) comparing the reversion to the collective ability of editors to defer to the experts when Pluto was declared to be not a planet. In that case, there were few if any saying that “common sense” dictates that Pluto should be called a planet until every other media organisation started calling it a dwarf planet.

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Gardner writes:

The same is true for transgender issues. A number of editors have made truly ignorant comments over the past week or so, comparing Chelsea Manning to someone who woke up one morning believing herself to be a dog, a cat, a Vulcan, Jesus Christ, a golden retriever, a genius, a black person, a Martian, a dolphin, Minnie Mouse, a broomstick or a banana. In saying those things, they revealed themselves to be people who’ve never thought seriously about trans issues — who have never read a single first-person account of growing up transgendered, or a scholarly study or medical text, or maybe even the Wikipedia article itself. That in itself is perfectly okay: different things are interesting to different people, and I for one know nothing about trigonometry or antisemitism in the 19th century or how a planet is determined to actually be a planet. But I don’t deny that there is stuff on those topics worth knowing, nor do I mock the knowledge of others, nor accuse them of bias and POV-pushing.

One of the most uncomfortable views held by many in the Wikipedia community is the idea that people who actually are trans not only have no greater expertise in discussing trans issues, but are actually “biased” as a result. Indeed, private correspondence I received after previous pieces on the issue even resulted in one editor attempting to out two others as trans in order to discredit them (thankfully, both the editors concerned were already out, making the emailer not just a transphobe, but a stupid transphobe).

The panel of admins set a 30 day hold on the page, but after that there is the chance that it will be moved for good if the total mass of sources – including sources published before Manning’s name change – reflects her new name. In the meantime, however, the article has been referred to the site’s Arbitration Committee, which acts as a sort of Supreme Court for Wikipedia. That’s no magic bullet: even if “ArbCom” does decide to take the case, it will be a month before they report back. But it’s the best chance yet for Wikipedia’s editing community to take some time for the introspection it apparently needs.

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