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Mainstream Media Fails on Coverage of Chelsea Manning’s Transition

The media’s failures to cover Manning’s transition reflects a long history of unfair portrayals of transgender people.

A photo provided by the U.S. Army in which Chelsea Manning wears a blonde wig in 2010.

Chelsea Manning announced her gender transition a day after she was sentenced to serve 35 years at a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Some mainstream publishing outlets tried their best to respect her gender identity by switching to her preferred name and pronoun, but many others continued to use her former name as well as masculine pronouns to identify her.

“I am Chelsea Manning. I am female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition,” she said Thursday.

The AP, The New York Times, NPR, the Chicago Tribune and TIME have switched to Manning’s preferred name and pronoun, albeit not without delays and some internal debate within their organizations. But almost all major television networks, including some sources interviewed on MSNBC, as well as publications including the Washington Times, Politico and USA Today, among others, can’t seem to respect Manning’s fairly simple and clearly stated desire to be referred to in the feminine, consistent with her gender identity. The Washington Post claims to be reviewing its style guidelines, but the organization continues to refer to Manning using masculine pronouns.

Mara Keisling is the executive director at the National Center for Transgender Equality. The center works to educate members of the news media on how to cover issues related to transgender subjects and sources, among other issues. “We haven’t heard anybody talk about Edward Snowden’s gender identity or Edward Snowden’s sexual orientation because they’re not relevant, and we want the media to understand that it’s not relevant with Chelsea Manning either, except as a stand-alone story about somebody transitioning,” she told Truthout.

Some publishers and media outlets, including CNN, and initially NPR, before reversing its decision, have stated that they wouldn’t respect Manning’s preferred name and pronoun until she begins hormone replacement therapy or undergoes gender confirmation surgery — a vital treatment she may never receive as the military prison at Fort Leavenworth has denied her request officially, a move the American Civil Liberties Union has said could violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.

The most current version of the AP stylebook informs journalists they should “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.” (Emphasis added.)

But the entry proves problematic not just for prisoners such as Manning and other transgender persons who may not be able to access costly medical treatments, but also for various other transgender identities that are neither trans male nor trans female, including gender neutral or gender non-conforming persons or people who identify by a unique third gender that cannot be characterized as androgynous.

“The media always goes to the surgery thing as if that’s what defines us, and I can tell you there’s a heck of a lot more interesting things about every trans person I know than whether or not they have or want to or will access particular surgical treatments,” Kiesling says.

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) has been working to support transgender people incarcerated in state prisons and those who are subject to state violence. According to the SLRP, transgender people experience a heightened level of gender policing in prison. SLRP wrote in a recent news release concerning Manning that when it comes to transgender people in prison, “the clothing they wear, their hairstyles and grooming practices, their bodies, mannerisms and identities are scrutinized and controlled by the state. Any deviance from norms can lead to violence at the hands of corrections officers or other people who are incarcerated.”

Transgender Identities on Screen

The bumbling and fumbling on Manning’s clearly expressed sentiments concerning her gender is part of a longer history of dehumanizing portrayals of transgender identities in the news media and throughout popular culture, including films and television.

Dr. Harry Benshoff is a professor at the University of North Texas who teaches queer cinema and other topics in the Radio, Television and Film Department. His book, Monsters in the Closet, explores the connections between the evolution of the American horror film and the genre’s relationship to the social and cultural history of queer identities in the United States. The book looks at how the American horror film started and continues to use queer identities to construct classical Hollywood monsters.

“One of the most enduring stereotypes of trans people is the queer psycho-killer, that goes back to Hitchcock and Psycho, but it’s also Dressed to Kill, The Silence of the Lambs, on and on and on,” Benshoff tells Truthout. “The issues that trans people face are very rarely directly dealt with in film and television outside of a rare film like Boys Don’t Cry or the documentary that it was based on.… But we don’t see very many images of trans people. It’s 20, 30 years behind gay and lesbian representation.”

Among the few representations of dynamic, complex transgender characters on screen today might be the character of Sophia Burset played by Laverne Cox on the television show “Orange Is the New Black.” Cox, who is a trans woman of color in real life, plays a trans woman prisoner who struggles to maintain a relationship with her wife and son while in prison. When her transition is interrupted because the prison decides to take her off estrogen, her character is thrown into turmoil.

The character of Burset is an extremely rare example of a transgender character being played by a real transgender actor, and Burset’s portrayal proves a humanizing counter-example to a history of images of the lives of transgender people as tragedies to avoid or comedies not to be taken seriously.

The images and portrayals of transgender characters in the media have a real effect on the lives of transgender people every day, including Adrien Lawyer, the executive director and co-founder of the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico. He calls Laverne’s character deep and rich and says the show has had a positive impact on the media landscape, especially for transgender women of color, who experience high rates of violence and discrimination.

“Laverne is a huge role model and really is giving people something to look at and to shoot for in terms of acceptance and even the possibility of being an artist, a respected artist, instead of just the possibilities that aren’t open to a lot of our young women, especially young women of color,” he said.

Lawyer told Truthout that he experienced job discrimination after he was fired from his job of eight years after beginning his transition in the fall of 2005. He says portrayals of trans men are even rarer in the dominant media paradigm than those of trans women. When watching a documentary about Chaz Bono’s transition called Becoming Chaz, Lawyer was concerned that he was portrayed as emotionally immature because the filmmakers did not qualify the fact that Bono was undergoing hormone replacement therapy, which is equivalent to going through male puberty.

“It’s not very nuanced,” Lawyer said.

The Horrific, Comical Coverage of Chelsea Manning

While the coverage of Manning’s announcement of her transition within the mainstream news media may not necessarily rise to a level that monsterizes her, plenty of the coverage on mainstream television made a mockery of the story, turning her announcement into a comedy without merit, following on a long tradition of transgender tropes.

When covering Manning’s transition, “Fox & Friends” played the Aerosmith song “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” to tease in the segment. But Fox wasn’t the only television network to turn Manning’s transition into a joke.

When CNN host Fredricka Whitfield asked the liberal-leaning Avery Friedman whether or not the federal government should pay for Manning’s hormone therapy, Friedman responded, “Can Bradley Manning get the army to make him Bradley Womanning?” Later in the same segment Richard Herman tells Whitfield of Manning, “If he wants to be Chelsea, he can practice all he wants in Fort Leavenworth because those guys are there for a long time so he can get good practice. When he gets out, he can have the operation and he can pay for it.”

It’s a horrific suggestion that prison rape is a good way to practice being female.

“Some of the news shows were treating [Manning’s transition] as a smirkey little joke. There’s been a lot of queer-phobic and homophobic comments made down the line about Chelsea Manning, and that’s just sort of par for the course,” Benshoff said. “When people are ignorant, they don’t understand issues at hand and they retreat back into these kind of smirkey kind of comedic ways to dismiss it that way, or they react in a sort of very angry, phobic way because gender pushes a lot of people’s buttons.”

Manning’s leaks arguably have changed the world. While the mainstream media can try to dismiss her because of her gender identity, the rest of the world is taking her very seriously.

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