Chelsea Manning: on pressing the button

This is a guest post by Abigail Brady. It originally appeared on August 22, 2013 on her blog. Abigail Brady is a software engineer and writer, and has been a Wikipedian since 2003. This piece is under CC-BY-ND.

Private Manning’s announcement today that she is a trans woman came as no surprise to those of us who’d read the chat logs. Admittedly, the name she’s picked: Chelsea, was a bit of a turn-up: in the logs she’d previously identified as Breanna. Anyhow, on seeing this news I did what any self-respecting Wikipedian would do, and had a look to see if anyone had updated the Wikipedia article yet.

This had come up before, but it was thought that the transcripts and a few sources reporting on the implications of them were not enough. Some trans activists had been championing visibility on this issue, but I had felt uncomfortable with both sides. Sure, Manning, by her own words, which I had no reason to doubt, was probably trans. But those chat logs had hardly been released with her full agreement and she hadn’t socially transitioned (that is, actually asked people to start calling her a different name, or use female pronouns). But, also, it was not clear that’d she’d be able to ask that, as her contact with the outside world was very limited. Wikipedia took the side of caution and didn’t mention it except peripherally, and it certainly didn’t move any articles. Meanwhile, I, in conversations, carefully avoided referring to Manning by anything other than surname.

We’d had a similar issue with the article on the Wachowskis – where there had been rumours floating around about Lana for years, but they all traced back to a single, rather salacious, source (we try to be careful about that, in Wikipedia, believe it or not – although what’s worse is when some article is using us as a source without citing us and we get into a horrible citation loop). Eventually Lana did let it be known – the Wachowskis are quite private so what really clenched it was her official listings on a union site and IMDB. Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer of Against Me, was another interesting case because she initially announced that she was going to transition, so we kept referring to her with her old name and gender for a bit.

What do I mean by “transition”, anyway? Well, as I use it here, that’s the process of actually changing your name and asking people to start calling you by it; and also to use new pronouns. People who aren’t trans (“cis people”, if you follow the Latin pun) often seem to obsess about genital surgery, and claim that “she” is really “he” until that happens, but, disregarding the unhealthy fixation on other people’s genitals, this ignores the legal and practical reality of the situation: being socially transitioned for a good length of time is generally a requirement for surgery. You might as well claim that having passed a driving test is a prerequisite for learning to drive.

Manning’s statement was pretty clear that she was transitioning immediately, such as it was possible (and I don’t even really want to think about doing that inside the US military justice system, but that’s another issue). I got agreement from a few other interested parties on the talk page, and moved the page, and started copyediting it. But to what exactly? There are two schools of thought here (well, there are three schools of thought: the third is that transition is sick and wrong and against nature and biologically impossible and so on, and therefore the prose shouldn’t acknowledge it at all other than as a delusion; but I’ll discount that one).

The first is that you should use “old” pronouns and names for pre-transition events, back when Manning was living as male; and the new ones for ongoing statements of fact and events afterwards. The second is that the new pronouns and names be applied for the entire biography. The first is often justified based on an appeal to the unalterability of the past, and the avoidance of awkward wording, but it can lead to plenty of difficulties in phrasing in its own right. How would we phrase “[X] is imprisoned at Quantico, after [X] was convicted for multiple charges of espionage”? One of these things is in the present; the other in the past. We can’t be switching pronouns within a sentence, that’s what I call real nonsense.

Fortunately, the Wikipedia Manual of Style is completely clear on this point, favouring the second:

“Any person whose gender might be questioned should be referred to by the gendered nouns (for example “man/woman”, “waiter/waitress”, “chairman/chairwoman”), pronouns, and possessive adjectives that reflect that person’s latest expressed gender self-identification. This applies in references to any phase of that person’s life. Direct quotations may need to be handled as exceptions. Nevertheless, avoid confusing or seemingly logically impossible text that could result from pronoun usage (for example: instead of He gave birth to his first child, write He became a parent for the first time).” (my emphasis)

It has been like this for a long time, and reflected long-established usage well before that. So, our manual of style backs me, I’ve got the citation I needed, I got consensus on the talk page. I pressed the button and watched.

It was not as uncontroversial as it should have been. There is currently a raging argument on the talk page, in which all sorts of mud has been flung (I’ve been accused of misusing my admin rights, even though any user could do what I did!) A lot of this has been supportive of my decision. But a depressing amount of it full of people repeating the same canards as if they are being original, and I’m not even allowed to block them because technically they haven’t done anything wrong (well, apart from the ones who have tried to move it back in a technically incompetent way.) Instead, we’re supposed to argue individually with each tendentious passer-by, each of them saying things like “ooh, but it’s just a matter of the facts” like we hadn’t considered facts before or something. I kept it up for a while, but it’s draining. Instead, I’ll address them en masse here:

Other sites have in fact changing things throughout the day. It’s not like we were breaking news or anything at any point.

Chelsea Manning’s genitals are none of your business. Or mine.

No, we are not a laughing stock of the world. I have been watching twitter. Twitter thinks what we did was awesome. I’ve been watching “Manning” and “Wikipedia” all afternoon and it’s been well 95% positive.

How is it you are so sure of Chelsea’s chromosomes? Did you have her karyotype done?

Can you not read or something? The Manual of Style clearly is meant for cases like this. No, you can’t point out that it only applies in cases where there is a “question” and then claim there is no question.

Look, you seem to be denying the the validity of transsexuality in general and then using that as a basis for keeping the article at “Bradley” and the pronouns as “he”. I don’t expect to persuade you that you’re wrong, not on a Wikipedia talk page, but can you see that failure to even pay lip service to the idea that the entire medical-scientific-social consensus in the West might be right about trans people is not be an entirely sensible basis for a discussion of policy? What are you going to do next, edit Oscar Wilde so it calls him a sodomite?

Maybe putting these answers here will work. Because nobody seems to be listening on the talk page.
It’s easy to forget, dealing with these sort of nonsense, that Wikipedia’s openness has advantages as well. It’s precisely because anyone can edit that I’m able to do so, and that the article was moved at all. Right now, people are voting about whether it should be moved back. Or rather, they are participating in this bizarre consensus-reaching procedure which is way more than a simple headcount. And ultimately, I probably don’t need to be countering every spurious invocation of the same nonsense on the talk page, because the closing admin (the person who takes it upon themselves to be responsible for looking at what we’ve thrown at the wall and somehow discerning the consensus of the discussion) will look at the facts and the policy and the arguments, weigh them up carefully, and decide that it’s not going anywhere.

Editor’s note: Manning’s announcement that she is a woman was quoted by The Nation, among other sources. The chat logs that Abigail refers to were published by Wired. Other background reading includes Manning’s Wikipedia article and talk page (content warning for cissexism, misgendering, and transphobia, particularly on the talk page). Abigail mentioned Lana Wachowski‘s and Laura Jane Grace‘s Wikipedia articles as well. Since the writing of this post, the Wikipedia discussion has taken a more cissexist turn.

10 thoughts on “Chelsea Manning: on pressing the button

  1. Jay Gischer

    I think you’ve done a good job and the right thing. It is often the case that doing the right thing gets people mad at you. It kind of sucks, but you can keep your head up.

    I had to work through these issues when my own child transitioned. I have a slightly different rule. In present tense, I use “she”, e.g. “she is being held in solitary confinement”. In past tense, when I’m discussing interactions with the world, I use he, because that was the experience of the other people involved, and possibly of Manning herself. To wit, “he was questioned by 5 agents for 20 hours”.

    But if I’m speaking of Mannings internal experience in the past, I might use “she”. “She felt the most lonely and isolated in those days.” I would work hard to avoid the sort of past/present sentence you give as an example, I agree that it’s a problem. I would also work to not intermix past/present in the same paragraph, though that could get tricky, and I might change my mind about my rules.

    Nevertheless, Wikipedia has a style guide that’s slightly different than what I’d do, so I’d use it, just as you did.

      1. EROSE

        This is a particularly interesting question to me, since I’m a newspaper reporter.
        I definitely would require proper sourcing to change the pronouns and names of someone in an ongoing story as well.
        Once I get it, I would definitely use preferred pronouns where I could determine preference, and post-transition pronouns as a default, though I would include a statement to clarify that C is the person I previously covered as B.
        Where this gets tricky is when I necessarily have to include someone else’s statements, or cite a formal record that doesn’t acknowledge the change (ie: a court case or similar proceeding). I can’t change a quote, either from a record or from a source. It’s unethical for me to use editing to keep other people from being cissexist in public if they were, in fact, cissexist. I can’t simply avoid key sources who will use the wrong pronouns.
        However, I do also need to make the true situation clear in a way that doesn’t confuse the hell out of my readers.

        1. kaberett

          My solution to this issue is to replace the offending words in square brackets, clearly indicating that the quotation has been altered, per standard style advice. Yes, it’s normally used for initial capitals or what have you, but I don’t see why this situation is materially different.

      2. Jay Gischer

        I very definitely use the pronouns that my daughter prefers. In fact, her mother and I started using feminine pronouns before she had chosen a feminine name. That was hard, and probably a somewhat unfair thing to ask of us.

        My basic rule is that you don’t get to define someone else’s experience, but that leads to some complications in practice.

        When you refer to events before transition, sometimes long before transition, the people who had those experiences experienced her as a male. In fact, since she dates any consciousness of gender dysphoria to age 13, she had those experiences as male, just as I did, and her teachers in school did.

        So while I unequivocally support the fact that hypothetical person X gets to say what their experience is, including what gender they experienced themselves as, I do not extend that to give them the right to reassign other people’s experience, to tell them, “you didn’t have that experience”.

        1. sparrow

          hey douchebag:

          Supposing Bob prefers female pronouns, I do not think it is “unfair” for Bob to expect those pronouns despite her relatively masculine name. I think it is always hells of gross terrible bullshit when people consciously refuse to use and/or whine about using somebody’s preferred pronouns, even when that person’s name and pronouns seem mismatched to the douchebag in question. It only gets even fouler when that douchebag considers hirself a supporter or loved one of the person in question.

          Continuing then, supposing that Bob identified as comfortably male when she was six, and we wish to discuss Bob’s kindergarten experience, it is still probably a good idea to carry on identifying Bob with her preferred pronouns. You see, your memories are not living human beings with feelings or preferences. And quite frankly, I care about Bob’s current actual lived experience now and in the future far more than I care about the difficulty you’ll experience by having to rethink the way you speak about your experiences in her childhood.

          When you’re discussing matters of historical record, identifying Bob in ways she prefers not to be identified might be more useful, because you’re deciding to prioritize making yourself clear to your audience over respecting Bob’s wishes. That’s reason for Wikipedia to use “formerly called Bradley,” but not for you to misgender Bob.

          Sure, you get to own your experiences. When your experiences include voluntarily choosing to identify someone against their preferences, mine will include voluntarily choosing to identify you with various kinds of negative and explicit language. I have to use actual names for douchebags who refuse to use mine in professional contexts, you’re not a douchebag who is writing me a paycheck, so I’m not doing that shit here.

        2. kaberett

          I’m 23 and have only just come out to my mum – and it was accidental and horrifying and I really don’t want to have to deal with the ramifications of asking her to *always* refer to me correctly, regardless of context.

          I’ve a friend who is 22. She asked her father not to disclose her medical history to his friends; he reacted badly; she has moved out of his house so she doesn’t have to deal with it.

          Please don’t assume that your child is okay with you outing them. Especially please don’t assume that your child is okay asking you to change how you refer to them, because they might well not be.

        3. Greg K Nicholson

          Similarly, when talking about the presenter of Jim’ll Fix It, I refer to him as “lovable eccentric children’s favourite Jimmy Savile”, because that was our experience of him at the time.

          Also, in the 1800s there were artificial canals on Mars. Pluto didn’t exist until 1930.

          It doesn’t matter if some assessment is wholly incorrect, because that was our experience at the time.

          Your daughter has never experienced anything as male, because she isn’t one:

          Actually, Pluto’s a very useful analogy. Even though (almost) everyone called it a planet from 1930 to 2006, that doesn’t mean it ever actually was a planet. You can’t use assertion to make things true.

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