Opinion: Chelsea Manning is a woman. Get over it.

This week the leaker of the US diplomatic cables to Wikileaks, US Army private Bradley Manning formally announced that she will be living the rest of her life as a woman, hopes to have hormone therapy and would like to be referred to from now on with female pronouns.

Predictably, this triggered an onslaught of media attention referring to Chelsea Manning as “Bradley” and as “he”. This in turn triggered an equally predictable deluge of transphobic opinion and comment pieces across print, broadcast and online media.

Some of these pieces are of the “a dog isn’t a cat even if you call it one and therefore Manning is a man” variety. Others just view it as something to laugh at. Yet others claim that this is a spur of the moment “cowardly” and “pathetic” attempt for Manning to try and avoid a tough time in prison. This ignores the fact that Manning’s trial revealed that she had struggled with her gender identity since childhood and that revealing this in an institutionally LGBT-phobic environment like the US military is hardly likely to make her life easier.

With all of this going on, many people might be confused as to how they should react and how they should refer to Manning.  Given that trans* issues are not exactly something that most people have ever been taught about, I’d like to present this handy guide to what trans* means and what the correct way to refer to trans* people is:

  • Trans* is short for a range of transgender issues.
  • A cissexual person is someone who identifies and presents themself as the same gender identity that is their socially assigned sex.
  • A transsexual or transgender person is someone who does not identify and present themself as the same gender identity that is their socially assigned sex.
  • Being trans* is not a mental or medical disorder – it is a part of people’s identity in the same way as sexuality or skin or eye colour are.
  • A trans* person who identifies as a man is a man.
  • A trans* person who identifies as a woman is a woman.
  • A trans* person who does not identify as either traditional gender identity is intersex.
  • A trans* person should be addressed with the name and pronoun they prefer to be addressed with.
  • If you are unsure: ask.

If you choose not to use the pronouns or name which a trans* person prefers then you are effectively erasing their identity in a way which makes you no different from the kind of people who insist that homosexuality is a choice.

Despite what tabloid editorials might tell us, using the correct pronouns for Chelsea Manning and other trans* people is not “political correctness gone mad.” It’s simply treating other human beings with basic respect for their identity.

You might find this video lecture from Sam Killeman at TEDx helps with an understanding of the complexities of gender.

So if you find it difficult to accept that Chelsea Manning is a woman then you really need to get over it.

* George Potter is a Vice-Chair of the Social Liberal Forum and a campaigner for Guildford Liberal Democrats, writing in a personal capacity.

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27 Comments

  • If a (cissexual) woman previous thought the person she knew as Bradley Manning was attractive, does that mean she is bisexual?

  • Anyone reading up on the case will be able to see that the issue of gender identity was both long standing and deep rooted. As in many cases there was an attempt at denial by the individual as they felt the need to conform. My view is that a society where an individual feels they have to hide their true identity to conform needs to take a long hard look at itself. As to those feeling it is convenient timing, they should consider that the timing meant it did not influence the case or sentence and therefore who was it convenient for?

    There are two real questions that should be answered in this case:

    1. Who decided to allow someone known to have deep rooted emotional difficulties access to that amount of secret data. They bear significant responsibility for its release.
    2. Why the whistle blower goes to prison and the Apache crew who committed multiple murders that we only know about through the release of information go free?

    My own view is that some of the information should not have been released, but a great deal of it should and it shone a light in some very dark places. As such Manning (whether like me you feel she has a right to be called Chelsea or not) probably was guilty of an offence. Temper that with the known emotional issues and the fact that they found out their government was covering up mass murder, then a far, far more lenient sentence should have been given.

  • What kind of a question is that, Richard? Attractions do not constitute someone’s sexuality as much as eating crisps doesn’t mean I necessarily like crisps.

  • @George / Joshua

    As Joshua surmises, rather than thinking someone looks attractive, I mean actually being attracted to them, actually wanting sexual intercourse with them. If a cissexual woman was attracted to Manning, yet Manning has always been in reality, a woman, then what by what definition of sexuality could the cissexual woman be considered heterosexual? Joshua hints at a definition I am not aware of but would like to learn about.

  • We can all be relieved that Richard Littlejohn is currently on holiday.

  • Clear Thinker 23rd Aug '13 - 5:37pm

    Do people really have gender identities that are independent of social interactions? Surely gender is actually defined solely in terms of social reactions, or is that sexuality? If so, gender would surely not be fundamental at all. Some of us – and perhaps many voters – are quite lost in this area, and it’s not our fault.

  • @George Potter – so a person who defines themselves as exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual doesn’t understand that their (own) sexuality just isn’t that clear-cut and doesn’t boil down into such categories (you however understand this about their sedxuality), whereas gender can be clear-cut, at least in Manning’s case? I strongly disagree with that, and I would submit that sexual orientation can be just as important a part of someone’s identity as gender. On the other hand I agree that people who don’t know transsexuals should use the appropriate pronouns, just as we refer to Mohammed Ali by his chosen name, not his birth name, but there can be a lot of reasons why someone may choose not to do so. There was an interesting article a while back about the wife of a male to female transsexual (I hope that is the correct terminology). I disagree with the idea that she, for example, has to just get over the fact that she has spent most of her life married to, and had children fathered by, a woman and accept the identity change that puts upon her.

    By the way, questions are never ridiculous; only answers can be.

  • Debby Hallett 24th Aug '13 - 8:01am

    Practically, I’ve been wondering two things: does Manning now head for a women’s prison? And since she was sacked, she presumably has no health insurance, so how will all this be paid for?

  • John Carlisle 24th Aug '13 - 8:08am

    Is it only me, or do others feel that the phrase “get over it” has become one of the most illiberal? It seems to send out a message that the topic is undiscussable, even by those who are neutral and wish to explore the issue. Or am I just too sensitive?

  • Sue Doughty 24th Aug '13 - 9:59am

    Our relationship and assessment of the sexual identity of others, particularly whose we don’t have a relationship (sexual or otherwise) has to rely on what they choose to reveal about themselves. I don’t really care about how you define them, or their sexual partners as in the end it is their business. We all should support their right to make these choices.
    Richard S: Regarding the relationship between for example a heterosexual couple with children which then changes when one partner adopts a different sexual identity eg gay or trans, this is so often a tragedy for both concerned I’ve seen the trauma at close hand. Of course you can’t just say to them ‘get over it’ as they have to work things through.
    However George is absolutely right to say that the general public should ‘get over it’ and the more often we say it the more those who want to make stupid comments will be shown up for the bigots they are.

  • John Carlisle 24th Aug '13 - 11:08am

    @Sue. Thank you. You have just made my point for me about the threat implicit in “get over it”.

  • I just don’t see why anybody who isn’t in some sort of relationship with Chelsea Manning (friend/family/partner) is even bothered what her gender identity is? Why does it bother you what gender pronouns ANYONE wants to use? Surely it is the barest of respectfulness to refer to a person how they want to be referred to?

    A couple of examples: my uncle, the artist James Wheeler, prefers to be called Jim. NOBODY asks him to justify, defend or explain this choice. My mum’s first name is Penelope, but she prefers to be known by her middle name Margaret. NOBODY asks her to justify, defend or explain this. Admittedly yhte odd person asks Alice Cooper to explain HIS choice of name, but mostly people accept it. Why not just accept that Chelsea Manning is Chelsea Manning and stop worrying about it?

    How does it affect you, personally, if someone you don’t know and will never meet is trans? What difference does it make to your life? Even if you were to meet her, why would it affect your view of her? She ‘s a person, and a person is a person whatever gender they present as and whatever lies between their legs. They should be judged on their views and actions, not what they look like, or what they wear, or their choice of gender pronoun.

  • jenny barnes 24th Aug '13 - 11:47am

    Richard S ” a male to female transsexual (I hope that is the correct terminology).”
    the more polite way of describing what you mean is trans woman or transsexual woman. Many trans people find the M2F or F2M terminology over emphasises their originally assigned gender. Similarly “transexual” is an adjective, not a noun, and “transsexual people” or “trans people ” is better than “transsexuals” .

    Clear thinker “Do people really have gender identities that are independent of social interactions?”
    Gender roles are generally considered to be socially constructed; gender identity seems to be more substantial, but possibly human identity of any kind depends on social interaction. Judith Butler is a good source, although her writing is not the easiest to understand.

  • @David Page

    “Helen, somebody’s gender identity is fundamental. No more “rigorous” criteria apply.”

    I think this comment could be open to misinterpretation and is probably not relevant to Helen’s comment. By fundamental do you mean it is unchangeable, or merely that at any moment in time it is key to the individual but can be changed?

    I think Helen’s point is along the lines “If an individual is the only arbiter of their gender identity, is there not a possibility that the more unscrupulous could use it for their own advantage by saying they have a different identity for different purposes?” Thus if it were perceived that being a woman was advantageous in certain circumstances they would say woman, and in other circumstances say a man, and then still later revert to being a woman.

    I’m sure most people would agree that this would be unacceptable, so surely there would need to be something more “rigorous”. Or do you not agree?

  • Sex changes don’t just happen.Normally an individual undergoes years of counselling and treatment.
    Given the stress levels that have been inflicted on Manning , news of the resulting emotional turmoil is of little surprise.

  • daft ha'p'orth 30th Aug '13 - 7:19pm

    @Dave Page

    “David, the bogeyperson of somebody deceptively changing gender to commit crime is common in the rhetoric of transphobes, but vanishingly rare in real life”

    Indeed. Along with a somewhat related belief that ‘putting on the gay’ is an ideal mechanism for an undercover action hero to appear non-threatening, this scenario is in fact the plot of an extremely bad 1970s Clive Cussler novel (‘Iceberg’). As a general rule of thumb, if it relates to gender and has been featured in a ’70s Clive Cussler novel then it probably doesn’t enjoy a high level of sociocultural accuracy.

  • It also involved a character undergoing gender reassignment to boot though 🙂

  • daft ha'p'orth 31st Aug '13 - 1:04am

    @Hywel
    It did indeed. There should be an entire subfield of gender studies named after Cussler’s work (it’d be the Pitts, though… sorry).

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