Guest post by Heather McNamara
To whom it may concern:
My name is Heather McNamara. My fiancée, Lauren McNamara, was a confidante of Chelsea Manning’s and testified in her trial. As such, Lauren was recently interviewed by Jake Tapper on The Lead and will be appearing again tomorrow morning on New Day Saturday.
During Lauren’s interview on The Lead, Mr. Tapper explained that CNN would be referring to Chelsea Manning by her former name Bradley and using male pronouns until such a time as her name is officially changed and her physical transition process has begun. NPR made similar decisions, and it is my understanding that this has led to some backlash from transgender people concerned that this is disrespectful of Chelsea Manning and her gender.
Mr. Tapper explained to me that CNN is interested in being sensitive to the LGBT community and certainly intended no harm, but that it is difficult to understand the needs of a largely invisible minority and what constitutes respect. I believe that CNN has the LGBT community’s best interests in mind, and it is my hope that I can assist in shedding some light on some simple strategies for demonstrating respect to trans people.
While trans identities can seem difficult to understand at first, it can actually be made quite simple. Mr. Tapper expressed to me that it may be confusing for CNN’s audience to comprehend an abrupt change from two years of news coverage as Bradley Manning to Chelsea Manning. There’s nothing disrespectful about being confused by a sudden name change. It may assist viewers’ understanding to refer to her as “Chelsea” and add the caveat “formerly known as Bradley Manning” while people continue to learn her new name. This proclamation and clarification will remove the necessity of continuing to refer to Chelsea as “he” and “him.”
Where further questions arrive, it can sometimes be helpful to imagine replacing words associated with gender with words associated with sexual orientation to determine whether a statement or policy would be offensive. For example: Mr. Tapper said that Lauren was “once a gay man.” Although gay people may have gone through a time in their lives where they formed heterosexual relationships before coming out, they are no less gay for having done so. Ellen DeGeneres went to prom with a boy, but it would be disrespectful to refer to her as once having been a straight woman.
The societal understanding is that there is so much pressure on gay people to be straight or keep it secret that it is difficult for them to understand their identities and be open about them immediately. The same is true for trans people. Chelsea has not changed. The only thing that has changed is that she is now presenting outwardly as the person she has always been within. Further, we prefer “trans” or “transgender” to be used as adjectives rather than nouns. “A gay” would be bad form, and so would “a trans.” “A lesbian” continues to be the only exception to this rule.
Waiting for Chelsea to achieve a legal name change and physical transition, including hormone treatment and possible surgery, is unnecessary and inhumane. The military currently refuses to treat transgender people with hormone replacement therapy and/or surgery. In any case, that line is arbitrary. There is good reason that trans people consider coming out to be the only step necessary to command respect of their genders.
At what point would her hormone replacement be considered sufficient? When a blood test showed her testosterone as sufficiently repressed? Or not until surgery? Only one in five trans women get sex reassignment surgery, and even fewer trans men – only one in 26. The surgery is prohibitively expensive and can lead to complications. At what point would she be considered to be presenting as a woman? When she wears make-up and dresses? And if I wear pants and no make-up, am I therefore presenting as a man? Would it then be acceptable to call me “he?” I hope you can understand that, under scrutiny, it becomes significantly more confusing to deny a trans person’s gender than to accept it.
As Lauren mentioned on Mr. Tapper’s show, 41% of transgender people will attempt suicide at some point in their lives. Social ostracism and denial of agency can and do seriously harm people. CNN’s anchors’ word choice will make a difference in how the public understands and discusses transgender people. Setting an example of respect and dignity will change the lives of trans people everywhere for the better.
CNN would not be alone. In fact, if these changes are not made, CNN may be left in the dust. Since speaking with Mr. Tapper this afternoon, MSNBC, Slate, Huffington Post, and NPR have all agreed to refer to Chelsea by her chosen name and female pronouns. It’s too late to take the lead, but it’s not too late to catch up.
Thank you for your consideration.
Heather McNamara writes about indie literature, politics, and civil rights at HeatherMcNamara.net.