Future Tense

Wikipedia Beats Major News Organizations, Perfectly Reflects Chelsea Manning’s New Gender

U.S. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier convicted of giving classified state documents to WikiLeaks.
Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley, in a 2010 photograph

Photo by U.S. Army/Handout/Reuters

As many newsrooms struggled to appropriately reflect Chelsea Manning’s gender transition announcement this morning, Wikipedia editors swiftly rewrote the Army private’s page to reflect her new name and gender—with remarkably little controversy.

The changes to the Wikipedia page generally follow the AP Stylebook’s entry on transgender, which dictates that writers should “use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.” But that broad command doesn’t pertain to the finer points of pronoun usage, leaving unresolved questions of how to refer to Manning’s actions pre-transition. For more complex linguistic conundrums, Wikipedia editors seem to have follows GLAAD’s suggestions, particularly this decree:

“Avoid pronoun confusion when examining the stories and backgrounds of transgender people prior to their transition. It is usually best to report on transgender people’s stories from the present day instead of narrating them from some point or multiple points in the past, thus avoiding confusion and potentially disrespectful use of incorrect pronouns.”

Remarkably, whatever editorial dispute these changes of wrought has been self-contained and ineffectual.* Almost immediately after Manning’s announcement, a few editors changed the entry title and the pronouns. One editor did protest, claiming that “this is a complete inaccuracy. He is still a man, legally and biologically. It does not matter what his wishes are,” and a few tried to undo altered pronouns. But the AP/GLAAD style suggestions have clearly carried the day.

Wikipedia’s rapid reaction is especially notable in light of the media’s continuing strain to respect Manning’s gender wishes. Slate’s Amanda Marcotte has admonished the press to “start using female pronouns immediately.” Still, many outlets—including, ironically, the AP itself—have struggled. In their early reports, Reuters, the AP, and the New York Times all referred to Manning as a male, though the Times has retroactively removed several usages of “his.” The Huffington Post has declared that it will respect Manning’s preferred female pronouns, even revising the Reuters story to incorporate the change. Politico’s editors, on the other hand, have stated that “we’re going to stay with ‘he’ until he begins his treatment, per AP style … but it’s a difficult call and we’ll continue to reassess.”

The press, in other words, has spent the morning debating the matter, while Wikipedia quickly and quietly settled the issue as soon as it arose, capitalizing on its crowdsourced efficiency. Editors may also have learned from past mistakes in the realm of gender identity: In 2008, a transgender journalist found that editors spent weeks shifting back and forth between male and female pronouns. This time, they indulged in no such equivocation.

*Update, Aug. 22, 2013: This sentence has been altered to reflect the fact that though there is some editorial dispute, it has not had any effect on Manning’s entry itself.