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A person's gender identity should not and cannot be determined by a NYT, AP or NPR editor

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

Reposted from the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting Blog.

Chelsea Manning will be serving out a 35-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth prison for revealing classified information to WikiLeaks.

Are you confused by that sentence? Not sure what case we're talking about here? Maybe there were two Private Mannings who are now tied for the record of longest prison sentence in the history of this country for whistleblowing?

It's hard to imagine that, more than 24 hours after Manning made her gender identity public through a written statement read on the Today show (8/22/13), any reader or viewer would not figure out pretty quickly who the news was talking about if Manning's preferred name and pronouns were used–especially if a line was included for the next few days along the lines of "formerly known as Bradley Manning," for those who have been living under a rock for awhile. But the New York Times and most of the rest of the media apparently think we're all idiots.

"Generally speaking we call people by their new name when they ask us to, and when they actually begin their new lives," explained Dean Baquet, managing editor at the Times. "In this case we made the judgment readers would be totally confused if we turned on a dime overnight and changed the name and gender of a person in the middle of a major running news story. That’s not a political decision. It is one aimed at our primary constituency–our readers."

Deputy editor Susan Wessling told Times public editor Margaret Sullivan:

"We can’t just spring a new name and a new pronoun" on readers with no explanation, she said. She noted the importance in the stylebook entry of the words "unless a former name is newsworthy or pertinent," which certainly applies here.

Sullivan's take was that "given Ms. Manning's preference, it may be best to quickly change to the feminine and to explain that–rather than the other way around."

At this point, the Times is unfortunately very much in the mainstream. Among establishment news outlets, the Chicago Tribune is one of the only ones that has said it will use the name Chelsea and female pronouns going forward. 

At the Associated Press, the stylebook entry reads:

transgender: Use 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.

If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

NPR seems to be taking a similar approach: "Until Bradley Manning's desire to have his gender changed actually physically happens, we will be using male-related pronouns to identify him."

Let's assume NPR meant to say "sex" instead of "gender"–otherwise I'm not sure what they're talking about–which would mean both NPR and the AP have tied recognition of someone's transgender identity to their physical characteristics. There's a major problem here, made obvious by Manning's situation: The military is adamant that it will not voluntarily provide her with any hormone treatment, will not move her to a female facility, will not give her different clothes to wear, and will not refer to her by the name she prefers. In other words, Manning cannot meet the news outlets' requirements even though she wants to.

But the problem runs deeper. Why should a person's gender identity be determined by an AP or NPR editor? There are plenty of trans people who go by names and pronouns that an editor might not judge to correspond with their "physical characteristics." Sometimes this is by choice, sometimes it's because they don't have access to medical treatment. But in either case, a much simpler rule would be: "Use the pronoun preferred by the individual." Period.

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dawn (dawn paley)
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Journalist, co-founder VMC, ex-editor & board member with Media Co-op. Author, Drug War Capitalism.

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