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Is Bradley Manning a He or She? Let's Just Call Her What She Wants

Is Bradley Manning a He or She? Let's Just Call Her What She Wants

Commentary: Why have news outlets denied Manning's request?

The former Bradley Manning said unequivocally Thursday that she wants to be known as "Chelsea Manning" and referred to herself with the female pronoun, "she" — but few major news outlets complied.

The New York Times and Associated Press and Reuters continued to refer to Manning as "he." So did NBC's "Today," where Manning broke the news. The Washington Post skillfully avoided gender pronouns.

Most news outlets follow the Associated Press Stylebook, the journalistic bible on matters of accuracy, style and taste. But the Stylebook doesn't seem to account for a situation like Manning's.

Might I suggest that where the Stylebook is ambiguous, we resort to the Golden Rule?

In my story on Manning this morning, I used "she" because Manning asked me to. Not just me, of course, but everyone. Manning explicity asked that her new name and pronoun be used, except in official mail to the facility where she is being held.

So: OK. Who is it hurting? Most of what we now consider "political correctness" used to be called "being polite." If someone asks you to call them "Latino" rather than "Hispanic," where's the harm?

Problems arise, of course, when language begins to contradict reality: When a white person, for example, wishes to be known as Hispanic in order to get an anchor job on Univision. But I don't think that's the situation here.

By declining to call Manning what she wants to be called, news agencies are signalling that they will decide, on a case-by-case basis, who is what gender — and when. Politico paraphrased an AP spokesman Thursday suggesting that Manning would "start to be referred to as 'she' once he begins to present himself as a woman."

But it might be decades before that happens. How is Manning, who is in prison, supposed to "present himself as a woman"? She has no access to clothing or makeup that might make her appear more stereoptypically female. And at what point will she become "female-looking" enough to satisfy news agencies?

Though Manning expressed a desire to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible, an Army spokesman told Reuters that the Army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-change surgery.

Should the Army pay for Manning to receive therapy or surgery? That's another debate, and a much more complicated one. It involves taxpayer dollars, and in that sense legitimately affects other people's lives.

But this issue doesn't. This is just about being courteous.

The Stylebook advises using the pronoun "preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth." That's why news agencies have no problem, for example, identifying Chaz Bono has male. Bono began his transition in 2008.

Manning, who has been sentenced to 35 years behind bars, may not have access to hormone therapy until 2048, by which time this whole debate will hopefully seem embarrassingly antiquated.

GLAAD offers this practical advice to reporters: "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."

I'd add an addendum:  If you can't personally ask someone what pronoun she prefers, go with the one she explicitly asks you to use on "Today."