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Memo to LGBT Organizations: You Did a Poor Job on Chelsea Manning, and Here's What You Can Do Better

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When Chelsea Manning announced that she was a woman, lots of media that reported the news kept on calling her "Bradley" and "he." Trans people were rightly upset. But LGBT organizations fell down on the job too. As stories about Manning's announcement started to appear, those whose job it is to educate the public and the media spent their time reissuing old guidance couched in generalities that didn't answer journalists' questions, and then scolding the media for getting it wrong.

Reporting on these issues aren't straightforward. At the moment before Manning made her announcement, she was still known to the world as "Bradley Manning." So is it OK to write "Bradley Manning announced that he wishes to live henceforth as a woman called Chelsea," and then call her Chelsea thereafter? If not, why not? What about when reporting on Manning's life before the announcement? Was the soldier who served a tour of duty in Iraq "Bradley" or "Chelsea"? And if you wanted to respect her current choice of pronoun, how would you rewrite the sentence "In Iraq, Manning kept the fact that he was a gay man under wraps"? (Go on, give it a try.)

Unless you're already deeply immersed in transgender issues -- and most reporters aren't--you might need help with such questions. All the main LGBT organizations have a section on their websites on how to use pronouns for transgender people. What advice do they offer? Let's take a look.

The only pronoun guidance from the National Center for Transgender Equality (TransEquality) consists of quoting the 2000 (!) edition of the AP Stylebook:

Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics (by hormone therapy, body modification, or surgery) of the opposite sex and present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

Manning has not had hormone therapy or surgery and her appearance very much corresponds with her sex at birth, which is to say, male. So according to the AP Stylebook, and therefore TransEquality, Manning is still "he."

How about GLAAD?

Whenever possible, ask transgender people which pronoun they would like you to use. A person who identifies as a certain gender, whether or not that person has taken hormones or had some form of surgery, should be referred to using the pronouns appropriate for that gender.

If it is not possible to ask a transgender person which pronoun he or she prefers, use the pronoun that is consistent with the person's appearance and gender expression. For example, if a person wears a dress and uses the name Susan, feminine pronouns are appropriate.

It follows that by quoting a similar extract from the AP Stylebook to the one above.

Ambiguous much?

Let's look at the Human Rights Campaign:

Transgender people should be identified with their preferred pronoun. Often this is the pronoun that corresponds to the gender with which they identify. Not sure? It's appropriate to respectfully ask their name and which pronouns they'd prefer. Some transgender people do not believe in a gender binary and prefer not to use pronouns typically associated with men (e.g. him) and women (e.g. her). Instead, they would prefer if people simply used their names or used a non-gendered pronoun such as "hir" or "they."

Fine. But this doesn't answer the questions about how to report on the moment of Manning's announcement, or her life before it.

What about the Association of LGBT Journalists, the NLGJA? They'd know better than anyone how to explain this to the media -- right?

Things that are simple in most stories get tricky when writing about transgender subjects, particularly names and pronouns. As per AP style, one should use the name and pronouns that someone prefers. It's not about drivers' licenses or birth certificates. Because of Manning's name recognition, we suggest that she be referenced as "US Army Private Chelsea Manning, who formerly went by the name Bradley

Again, that tells you how to talk about Manning from now on, but doesn't explain how to describe her past or the moment of her coming-out.

OK, you may say, but these are websites. They take time to update. What about Twitter? That's where journalists spend their time these days. Surely these groups were dispensing advice by the boatload on Twitter?

On August 22, the day of Manning's announcement, TransEquality issued a grand total of three tweets. One linked to a statement the group gave to the Washington Post on why Manning should be given trans-related surgery in prison.

The other two said "We've been a little quiet this morning but we wanted to share that we're working hard to make sure that reporting on Chelsea Manning's transition is accurate and respectful."

GLAAD tweeted six times that day. Three of the tweets linked to GLAAD's reference guide, and we've already seen how helpful that is. One linked to a statement specifically about covering Manning, which explained that "All references to Manning should refer to her as Chelsea and use female pronouns, as is consistent with the AP Style Book guidelines [remember those?]. If necessary, a clarifying sentence may be used which explains that Manning was referred to as 'Bradley Manning' during the trial." That was the closest anyone came to giving specific advice on how to address Manning's past.

As for the Human Rights Campaign and the NLGJA, they have not tweeted on the subject of Manning at all since she came out. I myself tweeted at GLAAD and TransEquality, asking for advice on this question, and got no response. I ended up getting my answers from individual trans people, via Twitter, which I used to write an entry on trans pronouns for the Quartz in-house style guide.

Now, I'm sure the press people of these organizations were hard at work on the phones and email fielding questions from journalists. But the phone and email don't scale: They can only answer one query at a time, and at the pace at which the news moves today, waiting to get through on the phone or for a reply to an email just isn't an option for many journalists.

These groups need to learn to move at the pace the news moves at and reach journalists using the communication tools they use. Think like journalists: Imagine scenarios that they will have to report on, write guidance suited to those scenarios, and put it on your website. When news that concerns you is breaking, monitor your Twitter feed for queries from journalists, reply to them, and use the feed pro-actively to post answers to questions they're likely to have. If you don't keep up with how the media work, they will take their own course, and you can't then complain at them for getting it wrong.