…the lawyer for Pfc. Bradley Manning told the “Today” show that his client would like to be considered a woman and referred to as Chelsea.
With that, the debate over how to refer to Private Manning exploded in newsrooms, comments, blogs and Twitter.
I’m sorry, but what is there to debate? My legal name is James, but I prefer to be called Jim. I don’t recall needing other people’s approval for that, and I definitely don’t remember anyone, anywhere ever needing to debate whether or not it was appropriate to call me by my chosen name. Nor has anyone ever demanded I drop my pants before they would acknowledge me as male.
It gets worse. A spokewoman from NPR weighed in on this “debate”:
National Public Radio will continue for now to refer to Private Manning as “he,” according to a spokeswoman, Anna Bross. “Until Bradley Manning’s desire to have his gender changed actually physically happens, we will be using male-related pronouns to identify him,” she said.
Not only is NPR deliberately refusing to respect Manning’s wishes, they’re also explicitly linking gender identity to physical sexual characteristics. Sorry, but neither sex nor gender identity are that simplistic. (See here for an article on Germany’s new law which will legally acknowledge and recognize intersex children, along with some examples and statistics about sex and gender.)
If you’re worried about confusing your readers, you open with a sentence stating that Pfc. Manning has asked to be referred to as female, and with the name “Chelsea,” and you continue from there. But NPR was apparently more concerned with policing Manning’s genitals.
Unfortunately, this is also one of those stories that’s easy to dismiss if it’s not something that affects you personally. It’s easy in part because our culture works awfully damned hard to erase people like Chelsea Manning from our stories and our awareness, in part by refusing to respect their right to be called by the names and pronouns they choose.
When was the last time you saw or heard about a transgendered character on mainstream television? Oh sure, they’re used as the butt of transphobic jokes all the time, but that’s it. (See pretty much every sitcom ever for jokes about the horror of a guy starting to hook up with a woman who turns out to be — gasp — another guy! Yay, let’s all laugh at the intersection of transphobia and homophobia!)
On the same day that NPR’s spokeswoman released this ridiculous statement, one of the panelists on the Diane Rehm show (also broadcast on NPR) joked about how we shouldn’t trust military secrets to a guy who wears lipstick.
Look, I get that if you’ve grown up with a simplistic binary view of gender, it can be both difficult and uncomfortable to move beyond those narrow, exclusive definitions. When a friend of mine asked to be called Rachel instead of Rich many years back, I screwed up sometimes. I used the wrong pronouns. I used “Rich” sometimes out of habit.
It happens. You apologize, and you try harder. These days, trying to think of Rachel as “Rich” feels utterly wrong and bizarre.
But blatantly refusing people the respect and dignity of referring to them by their chosen names? Refusing to acknowledge someone’s identity because of what they may or may not have between their legs? That’s just dickish.
It’s also harmful.
As a society, we erase transgendered people. We treat them as jokes. We pretend they don’t exist, or if they do, they’re simply damaged, deviant, and broken. We don’t accept them as fully human. And we lash out verbally, emotionally, and physically against them.
NPR contributed to that dehumanization today. They contributed to the fear and hatred and violence that goes with it.
For future reference, here’s how the conversation about someone’s preferred identity should go:
- Person A: “Hey, I prefer to be called by this name and pronoun.”
- Person B: “Okay.”
It really isn’t that difficult, people.