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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