Why do the media and her supposed supporters continue to misgender Breanna Manning?

Rumors have been floating around since early in the two year imprisonment of WikiLeaks whistle blower Private Manning that she is in fact a transgender woman. Yet her supporters continued to ignore the mounting evidence, using male pronouns and a name that, quotes attributed to Manning suggested, she did not identify with.

Over the course of Manning’s trial, it’s become fairly clear that yes, Manning is a woman named Breanna.

Emily Manuel has a much needed post up at Global Comment asking why Manning’s supporters are still not respecting her gender identity:

Nevertheless, the media and the vast majority of Manning’s supporters continue to refer to her as male  (for instance, this Glenn Greenwald segment on Democracy Now  still using male pronouns, and still conflating gay and transgender, or Michael Moore’s steady stream of supportive tweets and blog posts).  But at what point will progressive media, those who are at least pay lip service to the idea of being LGBT allies, decide to respect the most likely scenario of Manning’s preferred gender ID?  What does it mean that the burden of proof is this high to “prove” that a person is transgender?  Why do we assume that “hero” and “transgender” are mutually exclusive, and are unwilling or unable to imagine rallying around a transgender woman rather than a bright-faced young man?  If “Bradley” Manning deserves a medal, as Greenwald so eloquently argued last week, would Breanna?  And lastly: what does it mean that acknowledging Manning’s identity would have in all likelihood exposed her to even more violence?

Private Manning has endured horrendous treatment in prison waiting for trial.  But listen again to what she had to say, in chats whose validity would seem to have been proved over the weekend:  “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me… plastered all over the world press… as boy.”

This kind of “ungendering,” as trans theorist Julia Serano has argued in her landmark book Whipping Girl, is itself harmful, an act of violence by a world that has little inclination for respecting the self-identification of transgender people and exposes them to violence in every sphere of society.

I can begin to imagine the great pain of having a name, pronoun, and image of your gender presentation that you do not identify with spread around so publicly by your supposed supporters. The way Manning’s identity is being used in the trial is certainly disturbing, arguing that gender identity disorder made her mentally unstable and led to leaking classified information. But this is about fighting to free Manning within a criminal legal system that runs on oppression of marginalized groups. It’s sad, but I’m fine with any tactic Manning’s lawyers need to take (Edited to add: Kate points out in the comments, the lawyers’ approach could end up hurting other trans service members).

The conversation we have on the outside is another matter. The mainstream media’s coverage as the evidence became unavoidable over the weekend showed their continued failure to even try reporting on trans folks honestly or accurately – which is, you know, their job. Manning has repeatedly been referred to as a gay man suffering from gender identity disorder who has an alter ego named Breanna. Clearly, we still have a long way to go in getting the mainstream media to respect trans folks’ humanity.

If you consider yourself a supporter of Manning’s, why would you join this hurtful chorus? Why is it acceptable to continue referring to her in a way that we now know is inaccurate and hurtful to her? Are you really so afraid of how her trans identity might impact public perception that you refuse to respect her gender identity?

Free Breanna Manning!

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    I wrote yesterday on this topic based only on the information upon which I was provided. Had I known more about Manning’s words and identification, I would have taken them under consideration.

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    And even knowing what I know now, I still think that using GID as a defense has no legal merits. It’s manipulative and not informative. Regardless of whether she is fully revealed to be a transwoman, the effect still reduces her identity to a disability. That’s not the example the rest of the world needs to see.

    That’s no different than the Twinkie Defense that allowed the killer of Harvey Milk, Dan White, to go free. And just as ridiculous.

  • http://feministing.com/members/katea/ Kaitlyn

    Having served in the military before my own transition, I strongly resent the attempt to use gender identity disorder as an excuse for violating one’s oath as if GID means that a person is not responsible for meeting the obligations they signed on for and that non-GID people are expected to meet.

    Transsexuals remain prohibited from serving in the military (given the more general definition of transgender it is hard to know where the line on acceptance or rejection for service might be drawn). Supporting an argument that GID can excuse one from the oaths and responsibilities that apply to others serving in the military can only serve to argue that transsexuals should never be allowed in military service, or that any person with GID should never be allowed in any position that requires a security clearance.

    Manning’s lawyers may find this argument to their client’s interest, but it runs counter to the interests of every other transgendered or transsexual person who has or hopes to have a security clearance in the future and against the interest of all such individuals who wish to serve the country in uniform.


    • http://feministing.com/members/jos/ Jos

      Good point Kate, thank you, and I’m going to add a parenthetical to the post to highlight that fact.

      • http://feministing.com/members/drsp/ Shante

        Jos, can you link to/cite the source of the transcript of B. Manning talking about her gender? Thank you for this article.

  • http://feministing.com/members/artemis1979/ Becca

    The media should be using the appropriate gender pronoun, and its clear after reading this that pronoun is ‘she’ and people need to be better educated on that issue.
    That said, I take issue with you calling Private Manning a hero. She is not a hero. She stole and compromised government secrets that she had been entrusted with and accepted that obligation when she accepted working in a security cleared position – and I assure you she was well educated on the consequences of violating that trust. Private Manning is a traitor.

    • http://feministing.com/members/samll/ Sam Lindsay-Levine

      I don’t accept that ‘traitor’ and ‘hero’ are mutually exclusive and I think that history is full of heroes who betrayed their hierarchical superiors to do the right thing.

  • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    I wish no disrespect to Pfc. Manning—though I’d read a transcript where she had expressed feeling possibly transgendered or intersexed once, it hadn’t implied that she had decided she was female or had wishes to go by another name than “Bradley”. I’m going to take this into consideration in any future works I create in support of her freedom.

  • http://feministing.com/members/raineyr/ rainey

    Thanks, this is an awesome issue to raise.

    As an ardent supporter of B. Manning and a feminist, I’ve struggled with this a great deal. One thing I’ve thought about is that Manning has never had an opportunity to voice a public opinion on this issue. We’re all making suppositions based on Google Searches found in forensic evidence and late-night chat logs. We really don’t know whether Manning wanted Breanna to be a primary identity, or if this was an alter ego that was never meant to be indicative of primary gender identification.

    The evidence – including a book purchased on feminine facial surgery – suggest that Manning was seriously considering becoming Breanna full-time. But we don’t know if the decision was ever made.

    For now, I’m comfortable using the male pronoun. And if others prefer to use the female pronoun, I think that’s a valid choice as well. I hope that one day, Manning gets an opportunity to tell us publicly which we should use.

    Also, as someone who sat in the court room at Fort Meade over the last week, I don’t think that the defense is arguing that being trans or gay excuses one for leaking government secrets. I think this reflects the lack of nuance in reporting on the issue. Rather, it seems to me the defense is painting of picture of the military leadership failing Manning in many ways, including in providing adequate mental health services and training. But the evidence also positions Manning as an individual driven by moral principles. The letter submitted as evidence and attributed to Manning stated that “This is perhaps one of the most significant documents of our time, removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of 21st Century asymmetric warfare.”

    I would also urge queer advocates to watch Lt. Dan Choi’s awesome interview calling on the queer community to stand with Manning. Choi describes the queer community as being one whose membership is based on integrity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQx63-JduXU&feature=youtu.be&a

    I would make a similar plea to the feminist community: stand up for Manning.

  • http://feministing.com/members/gibby/ Nina

    I have to agree with the comments posted on the Global comment article. Manning has not come out and made a statement on the pronoun of choice, and that may never happen given the circumstances (and still a choice that needs to be respected in my opinion).

    A few other people have also pointed out that this involves not only a legal proceeding, but a possible death sentence. Let’s understand what’s at stake here. Because Manning was charged as a man, that’s legally how Manning will be referenced during court proceedings and in the media. If Manning were to legally change names, etc, that would be a different story.

    I understand the sentiment, but I think it’s presumptuous and not fully taking into account the extremity of the situation.

  • http://feministing.com/members/gibby/ Nina

    I also want to quickly point out that this is NOT A CIVILIAN criminal trial as was referenced in the OP. This is a military trial happening on a military base. It’s a nuance, but I think important to remember when discussing any military service person being tried.

  • http://feministing.com/members/brownsugar/ Alyssia

    One could argue that media’s failure to use female pronouns when referring to Manning is a logistical move. In other words, for years the public has been informed of who “Bradley Manning” is, and to use Breanna’s name in covering the ongoing investigation would now confuse audiences. Not to say that the misgendering of Brenna is in any way excusable, or that we should now become sympathetic to news outlets who will settle for what is easy when the situation is less convenient for them.

  • http://feministing.com/members/heathurr/ heather

    I was under the impression that Manning didn’t want [their] gender identity to become international news, just based on what people from Oklahoma who knew them/have been doing support said. Very anecdotal, but there are clearly people in the world who do know about Manning’s gender identity. If others can’t find direct sources about it online, I think that it’s clear Manning and friends have chosen not to put it there. I think the fact that nobody has made a public statement about Manning’s gender is pretty indicative that they and their friends don’t want it to be sensationalized. The Global Comment article says, “Despite this mounting evidence, Manning’s lawyers and supporters continued to make no mention of any preference for female identification, pronouns or the name Breanna.” But people have known about this, and could have mentioned it. If little ol’ me heard about this shortly after their arrest then it’s been something Manning fans have always been aware of, but now that it’s been made public with the trial I suspect someone close to Manning will make a statement or something, and public conversations about their gender and the implications of being trans to this case will become necessary. It’s still important at this point, but acknowledging Manning’s identity isn’t something we can do without knowing how they want to be identified. Speculating and writing manifestos to Breanna is still assigning a gender to someone based on an assumption that we can’t verify. Once that’s possible, we can more concretely talk about their gender itself. At this point, all we can talk about are how GID has been discussed in court.

    If y’all have read about how Manning’s been abused in prison, imagine what all that would be like on top of insecurities with your body and gender. Jesus. Probably deliberate choices on the guards’ parts if they saw GID in files.

    • http://feministing.com/members/seisy/ Seisy

      I feel much the same. I am deeply uncomfortable with the context of this information. Private Manning revealed these thoughts and feelings in private conversations under the assumption that they would be kept in confidence. Then they were leaked, and everything snowballed from there… and the poor kid has never gotten a say in any of it.

      So while I think advocacy on these issues is important and necessary, I feel kind of…uneasy, like we’re co-opting someone who has been denied all control over the situation as the poster child.

  • http://feministing.com/members/dravazed/ Daniel Raphael

    Having read all the comments, Seisy’s speaks most closely for me.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ladyeighth/ Eva

    I think first we have to parse out the difference between the media and her supporters.
    Good rules for the media can be found in the GLAAD Media Reference Guide:

    >Always use a transgender person’s chosen name. Often transgender people cannot afford a legal name change or are not yet old enough to change their name legally. They should be afforded the same respect for their chosen name as anyone else who lives by a name other than their birth name (e.g., celebrities).

    >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.

    >If it is not possible to ask a transgender person which pronoun he or she prefers, use the pronoun that is consistent with the person’s appearance and gender expression. For example, if a person wears a dress and uses the name Susan, feminine pronouns are appropriate.

    This is a thorny media issue, because we can’t ask Manning what pronoun she wants to use, and her appearance is being regulated by the military. A similar issue has come up time and time again in the media in regards to transgender murder victims. The police usually file a report based on an individual’s ID, which usually doesn’t match the name and gender they presented as in real life. The media often makes the mistake of going by what the police report, because there’s no way to ask a dead person what pronouns they prefer. The solution is to go with how the person presented themselves during life.

    As for Manning’s supporters (and detractors) they are not bound by the same rules of the media.
    A lot more information about Manning’s gender identification has come out in this past week’s court hearing, more than what’s mentioned in this feministing article, and all of it introduced by Manning’s own lawyers. This is stuff that’s way beyond what’s in the chat logs, such as an email Manning sent to her superior officer, which included a photo of herself as a woman and talking about her need to physically transition.
    Based on the evidence that’s come out in the hearing, I am comfortable using female pronouns in commentary, but would be hesitant to go that far if writing a formal news report, without first contacting Manning’s lawyer on the issue. And on that point, has ANY journalist so far actually asked that question of Manning’s lawyer?