Thursday morning, Pfc. Bradley Manning—now Chelsea Manning—released a statement declaring that now that her trial and sentencing is finally over, she would like to embrace her identity as a woman and go forward living that way. This announcement comes as no big surprise to people who have been following the case closely and know that Manning was already transitioning before arrest. This announcement, however, forces a question that the press has largely been avoiding until this morning: How do you refer to Manning’s gender in a way that balances respect for the right of individuals to determine their own gender identity with the need for clarity in your reporting? After all, Bradley Manning is a famous, controversial figure who has raised a lot of uneasy questions about national security and human rights. Chelsea Manning, however, is not a famous name at all.
Given that the United States government has had no compunction about dishing out abominable treatment that tests the boundaries—and many would say blows right past them—of what kind of human rights prisoners awaiting trial deserve, it’s not surprising that Manning’s ability to explore her gender identity, much less assert her right to be treated as female, has been severely limited. But now the question that’s been put on the back burner is being brought to the fore, the mainstream press is faced with a question: After years of calling Manning by the name “Bradley” and using male pronouns, what to do?
The transition is already awkward. Earlier today, the New York Times headline on a Reuters story on Manning’s announcement danced around gender pronouns: “Manning Says Is Female and Wants to Live as a Woman.” Clearing up the grammar for an updated headline just made the situation worse: “Manning Says He Is Female and Wants to Lives as a Woman.” Well, if “he” is female, then isn’t the word she? Manning has finally had a chance to express her gender preference. Since most journalists had a notion this was coming, using confusion or surprise as an excuse for those headlines isn’t an option.
The goal here should be to move as quickly as possible from referring to Manning by a male name and male pronouns to her female name and pronouns. The sooner journalists stop writing “Bradley” and start writing “Chelsea,” the quicker everyone following this story will adapt—and even change their Google search terms when looking for coverage. A gender-free headline to indicate that this is an in-between stage in coverage makes sense, but with this announcement, Manning herself gave everyone a nice, clean break—a point to just stop saying “he” and start saying “she.”
Even if you disagree with Manning’s actions and believe she deserves the harsh sentence she received, her gender identity had nothing to do with her crimes. Most people don’t have to transition under as much scrutiny as Manning has suffered; all of us making the switch graciously can help make things slightly easier for her.