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Chelsea Manning, gender, and letting people tell their own stories

In a letter to the Today Show Thursday, Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley), announced that she wanted to serve her 35-year sentence — for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks — and live her life as a woman.

This apparently caused some confusion and even consternation among other news outlets. Most have since adopted the standard practice of the Associated Press (explained below), but some are taking a different approach.

This is not the first time an issue of gender identity has come up of late in the pages of the Daily Record. Local transgender high school student Issak Wolfe’s prom royalty problems at Red Lion brought up the same issue: What pronouns and names should you use when referring to someone?

In Wolfe’s case, we followed the Associated Press Stylebook, which offers a rather commen-sensical approach: Refer to people how they refer to themselves.

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.

In the previously referenced blog post, Managing Editor Randy Parker put it this way:

This follows a logic generally accepted here at YDR, which is to let people tell us how they should be identified. When reporting on former York County District Attorney H. Stanley Rebert, we typically use Stan Rebert, because that’s what he wants. York’s mayor goes by Kim Bracey, not Cecilia Kimberly Bracey. I am Randy Parker, not Randolph William Parker. Indeed, we called the former York County Clerk of Courts by his nickname Curley, as opposed to his given name Marlyn.

When the first stories came over the wire Thursday night, I had a conversation with a fellow multiplatform journalist about how to refer to Manning.

Strictly adhering to style and using only her preferred gender pronouns and name would invite confusion and lead to nonsensical phrases, such as “Chelsea Manning wants to live as woman.” We agreed that because the actual change was news, the best course was to use her former name on first reference (to let people know what was going on), use gender neutral pronouns for the rest of the story and from stories published after that use “Chelsea” and “she.” The best course, as usual, was staying the course: Let people tell us who they are, rather than try to define them ourselves.

The AP seems to have had similar thoughts, as evidenced by a notice they sent to all members Friday:

The Associated Press policy as stated in the AP Stylebook is to comply with the gender identity preference of an individual.

At this time, the AP is seeking more details about the gender change statement attributed to Pfc. Bradley Manning that was read Thursday on the “Today” show in the presence of defense attorney David Coombs. The typewritten statement said “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female,” and asked supporters to use “my new name and use the feminine pronoun” in gender references to the U.S. Army soldier. Manning’s lawyers had raised the issue of gender identity during the trial, but Thursday’s statement went further.

For the time being, AP stories will use gender-neutral references to Manning and provide the pertinent background on the transgender issue. However, when reporting is completed, the AP Stylebook entry on “transgender” will be AP’s guide.