Behind the scenes at CNN: How the media fails on Chelsea Manning’s gender

by Heather McNamara & Lauren McNamara

Lauren: Last Thursday, I appeared on CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper to discuss the Chelsea Manning case. During the segment, we covered my personal history with Chelsea, as well as the question of access to transition-related healthcare for transgender people in prisons. Tapper repeatedly referred to Chelsea as her former name, Bradley, and used masculine pronouns. In my responses, I made sure to use her chosen name and pronouns.

Prior to my segment, the producers informed me that it was CNN’s current policy to use Chelsea’s old name and address her as male, as she had not yet legally changed her name or begun any medical transition process. However, they also let me know that I was free to refer to Chelsea as I wished. While I strongly disagreed with their policy of misgendering her and their excuses for doing so, I felt it would nevertheless be helpful to appear on the show and set an example by respecting her name and gender.

After my appearance, I tweeted to Tapper to express my appreciation that I was able to be on the show and discuss this case. Several of my followers took note of this, and rightly criticized Tapper for persistently misgendering Chelsea. Tapper responded that this was not his decision, and that it was a matter of CNN’s policy.

Later that day, my fiancee, Heather, made a post on my blog explaining how stressful her day had been due to dealing with people’s attitudes toward my segment on CNN. While she had been sitting at the doctor’s office with our two sons, my segment was airing on the TV in the waiting room. Some older people waiting there seemed to be laughing at the very idea of trans people, and she confronted them about this. She also found it awkward and unnecessary that, as our children were watching, Tapper referred to me as previously being a “gay man”.

Heather: Friday, I called out of work. Thursday had been a very long day, and in any case, it was easier to take care of the kids while Lauren continued to do interviews on Democracy Now! and various radio shows. However, I was still feeling ruffled from the night before, so I took to my Twitter, writing a number of tweets criticizing CNN’s unnecessary and transphobic policy of referring to Chelsea as “Bradley” and using male pronouns until such a time as her name is legally changed and medical transition has begun. One such tweet was a reply to one of Jake Tapper’s tweets regarding the interview with Lauren:

Before long, I received a reply from Tapper:

And then:

I’m going to assume the one-E masculine “fiance” was a typo. I replied:

I did not receive a reply to this tweet for a few hours. Another Twitter account, @DanielMWolff, jumped in:

At this point, Jake asked me to follow his account, and we exchanged email addresses and phone numbers. He asked me to call him because he was driving. I did not record the conversation so all that follows is paraphrasing and not by any means intended to be exact quotations.

The first thing he said when I called was that he wanted to let me know that he was deeply sorry for what I went through at the doctor’s office (referring to my previous post), and that he knew that I couldn’t be personally responsible for the barrage of tweets that he received on the topic of Chelsea’s gender, but that I needed to understand that CNN and NPR have the LGBT community’s best interests at heart. He said he wasn’t sure how he was supposed to know that saying my fiancee once identified as a gay man was supposed to be so much better than saying that she was a gay man.

I explained that I can’t stop people’s anger – that people get angry and vent, but what I’m trying to do right now is to get productive about the language that’s used on television so that we can avoid inciting that anger in the future. I told him that I’m older than Lauren and remember the time when respectful treatment of a person such as myself, a lesbian, would have meant discussing me as somebody with a problem that couldn’t be helped, or as being a product of some sort of childhood sexual abuse – but that has changed, and this is how that change happens.

Jake replied that he spoke with a trans activist who said there were 250,000 trans people in America. He said that’s not that many, and that even the LGB community, “of which you are a part,” has trouble accepting trans people and that I should know that.

I told him that yes, I was aware of this problem, and that if media sources like CNN could be guided toward resources for respectful language like the GLAAD style guide, then the common narrative might change.

In what I felt was a very condescending tone, Jake responded that he was sure the higher-ups were quite aware of the style guide, thank-you-very-much – but that, and he didn’t want to offend anyone by saying so, he thinks we can all agree that groups like GLAAD had (here, he struggled to think of an inoffensive word) an agenda.

He went on to say that he didn’t appreciate being treated like a bigot by angry people on Twitter, and that even though he understands that I had a bad time at the doctor’s office, he thought the language people were using to express their anger was counterproductive. He said that what he would do is pass on an email that I could send him to the higher-ups, and that I should keep in mind that if I use that kind of angry language within the email, nobody will read it.

He again said I should keep in mind that CNN and NPR care about LGBT people, and that they’re just trying to get things right. He also said that after two years of coverage of Manning as Bradley, it might confuse the viewers to switch immediately to Chelsea.

At this point, I reminded him that the blog post I wrote did not name him, and that it wasn’t about him or about anyone except myself and my experience as a mother of two children – who have learned about their stepmother’s gender – hearing their stepmother being described as a gay man on television and having adults in their vicinity laugh at this. I explained I never had any intention to be aggressive about this and that this was simply my story to tell. I told him that I’m sure there’s something I can think of that would clarify the transition from Bradley to Chelsea without being disrespectful to Chelsea.

He said he understood that some trans people wanted to think that a person becomes “a trans” the minute they say they are, and he personally doesn’t care whether somebody wants to be a man or a woman or whatever, but that from CNN’s point of view, if the person hasn’t done anything medical, then it’s confusing to “the rest of us.” He also said that the HRC hasn’t exactly given them any guidance on this issue. I said that, yes, the HRC does have a known problem with erasing trans people and issues.

He then closed the call by reminding me to keep my email civil and not to expect any response.

Heather & Lauren: This isn’t just about how a single anchor, or a single network, has handled Chelsea Manning’s gender. It also serves as an example, a microcosm of the attitude of many major news outlets toward trans issues. When we see mainstream news networks and papers acting as though respect for Chelsea’s womanhood is optional, or something for them to indulge at their own leisure and in their own due time, what’s going on behind the scenes are rationales like those offered by Jake Tapper.

This may have begun innocently enough as a group of people failing to understand an underrepresented and largely invisible minority group. Though Tapper and CNN’s higher-ups believe that excuses and summarizes the whole of the problem, that’s not the case. By now, several mainstream news outlets such as MSNBC, NPR, and The Guardian have already chosen to recognize and respect Chelsea’s gender. The continuation of this neglect no longer indicates innocent ignorance. Since Chelsea’s coming out, CNN and its partners in this neglect have actively made several distinct decisions to dismiss the voices and identities of transgender people.

Such news agencies have demanded that trans people meet an unusually high standard of proof simply to have their names and genders respected. When reporting on someone like Lady Gaga or Vanilla Ice, use of their names is not contingent on court orders showing their legal name or medical records providing evidence of their gender. Yet trans people’s very existence receives much greater doubt and scrutiny. Chelsea is first expected to pursue HRT and surgery even as the same news segment is reporting on her current lack of access to any of these medical resources. They’re clearly aware of the situation she faces, and their use of it as an excuse rings hollow – yet they choose to use it anyway.

In spite of Tapper’s (and presumably CNN’s) continuing insistence that they care about the struggles of LGBT people, their priorities clearly lie with making things as simple as possible for their cisgender audience to understand no matter the cost. These networks’ refusal to update their protocol sets an example for the cis world at large that a refusal to learn about or understand transgender people is acceptable. When supposedly liberal networks insist that trans people are too confusing to accommodate, society at large follows their lead.

These news outlets have substituted their empty declarations of self-assigned allyhood for any meaningful actions that would demonstrate true support for us. In their self-centered hypersensitivity, they balk at being thought of as bigots or criticized by LGBT people on Twitter. But they exhibit hardly any sense of the gravity of their own responsibilities. They sit in a position of great influence over the public’s understanding of trans people; with that position, they intentionally promote oversimplified taglines of “HE wants to be a SHE!” – authoritatively confirming to viewers that this is all they need to know or care about. The role of the news is to report events accurately and keep the public informed. And when they’re more concerned about being made fun of on Twitter, this shows that they don’t consider trans people’s lives to be important enough to bother getting the story right. “Ally” is not an identity; it is an action. They are claiming themselves as allies and refusing to do any of the work.

When the precedence for dismissal has been set, it’s hardly surprising to see the ensuing painful dismissal of the necessity and validity of treatment for gender dysphoria. The willfulness of the ignorance surrounding Chelsea’s gender extends to the persistent mischaracterization of her treatment. The medications she needs are both common and cheap while being uncommonly effective, yet Lauren was continually bombarded with questions over whether taxpayers should have to foot the bill and whether counseling should be considered sufficient. A cursory glance at the WPATH Standards of Care could have settled both of those questions, but when CNN says “Bradley wants to be a woman” instead of the correct “Chelsea is a woman,” they have misled the public to believe that this is the frivolous whim of a prisoner rather than a serious and treatable condition. As Lauren was repeatedly forced to explain, this should no more be up for debate than treating diabetes, but CNN and other networks’ word choice has made it seem so. Tapper stated that he was offended by being called a bigot. He may not like it and he may not be the decision maker here, but CNN’s actions are bigoted.

The medical aspects of gender dysphoria and the legal basis for the necessity of treating trans people in prison are incredibly clear and well-established. This is a real condition recognized by actual medical authorities, unlike some transphobe’s mocking contention that they now identify as a tree. Gender dysphoria has been studied extensively over the past century. Its defining features have been identified; its risks when untreated are known to be severe, and the only effective treatment has become so empirically obvious that it cannot be ignored.

As it stands, there remains no serious medical or scientific debate over whether transsexualism exists. Trans people are real people who live in the real world, not some mere flight of fancy so bizarre as to warrant suspicion that this is a fiction. But such bafflement and incomprehension are what an outlet like CNN encourages when they – one of the world’s leading media organizations – are mysteriously unable to educate themselves on the indisputable facts of this issue.

Whether CNN chooses to acknowledge it or not, trans people are a part of their audience. We are taxpayers, viewers, consumers, citizens, soldiers, and sometimes prisoners. We are not political debates. We are not an agenda. We are entitled to treatment where necessary and acknowledgment of our identities irrespective of the irrelevant opinions of lay persons and news reporters. The military has refused to provide a prisoner with the treatment she requires. That is a tragedy, and the only relevant news item.

While a CNN anchor may suggest contacting the network’s policymakers to bring about change, the attitude expressed in their coverage makes it all too clear that such an attempt would be thwarted at every turn. They’ve already decided which LGBT organizations they’ll listen to, selectively choosing to hear only the HRC’s silence while dismissing GLAAD’s unambiguous guidance as the product of a questionable agenda. They’ve recklessly delegitimized trans people’s existence in the eyes of millions then demanded we stifle our own justified anger. When these self-proclaimed allies can’t bring themselves to listen to the very people they’ve publicly maligned, how are we supposed to believe that they care about respecting us at all?


Heather McNamara writes about indie literature, politics, and civil rights at HeatherMcNamara.net.

An open letter to CNN on Chelsea Manning

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.

Sincerely,
Heather McNamara


Heather McNamara writes about indie literature, politics, and civil rights at HeatherMcNamara.net.

Fighting for Chelsea Manning

Today, Private Chelsea Manning came out, and I had the opportunity to inform viewers about the importance of treatment for transgender people.

Despite the misgendering, I’m very glad I could let people know why this matters, and I intend to keep fighting for Chelsea.

The Trouble With Depicting Trans People

This piece was originally published on Thought Catalog.


Transgender women are most commonly represented in two areas of media: comedies and documentaries. We’re nearly omnipresent in mainstream humor — practically any half-hour of Comedy Central is guaranteed to contain at least one joke about us, and almost all sitcoms and late night talk shows will eventually get around to making some sort of “tranny” references.

In some instances, we’re shown to be hairy, hulking men in ill-fitting dresses, the very image inviting mockery. At other times, the “humor” comes from a cis man (quick lesson: “cis” means all you folks who aren’t trans) initially recognizing a woman as a woman, and reacting poorly to the discovery that she’s “really a man” — the notion that someone could take her gender history in stride is just unthinkable. Viewers apparently see no need to reconcile the vastly different assumptions underlying the immediately apparent man-in-a-dress and the indiscernible just-another-woman. We can be both repulsively masculine and yet feminine enough to satisfy the well-trained eyes of male heterosexuals, both deluded caricatures of womanhood and also stunning enough to seduce men who would never see us coming.

A supposed remedy to these insulting stereotypes is provided in the form of documentaries about us, almost universally focusing on the process of physically transitioning — as cis people see it. Shots of women doing their makeup, putting on dresses, being wheeled into an operating room and having their bodies cut open are so cliche that they’ve become the subject of their own drinking game. These documentaries are presented as a factual corrective to the overt derision of comedy, offering cis audiences the apparent moral salve of compassion and understanding for trans people. Yet just as in the case of comedy, this is again filtered through cis people’s perceptions of us – cis writers, cis reporters, cis producers. It’s merely the other, more insidious side of the same coin.

If the most effective lies are those mixed with some truths, there is no better demonstration of this than trans documentaries. The shows are just correct enough to avoid mangling certain basic facts about transitioning, while selecting and arranging these facts in a way that completely misrepresents what our lives are really like. These depictions purportedly exist to help cis people grasp who we are, beyond the comedic stereotypes and societal mis-perceptions. What they really do is reveal, in their subtle yet pervasive inaccuracy, just how poorly cis people understand the experience of being transgender. When you’re trans, it’s utterly fascinating to see how outsiders choose to describe you – and absolutely horrifying to realize that’s really how they see you.

An unrelenting focus on the body is a unifying theme of the stories that others tell about us. Such a focus conveys to viewers that visible, physical transition is the central feature of our lives. Left unaddressed are the much more extraordinary, personal, and crucial processes of self-recognition and self-acceptance that we work through before we even arrive at that stage. While the camera zooms in on the blossoming of our breasts, it misses the revolutionary blossoming of confidence that comes with admitting who we are to ourselves, taking the step of living openly as our gender, or choosing to seek hormone therapy. Such documentaries would rather film me shopping for bras than let me explain how in a matter of weeks, estrogen obliterated the anxiety and depression and emotional deadness that I never realized had been holding me back for my entire life.

They’ll speak in solemn tones about how HRT is “irreversible”, as if the effects of our own natural sex hormones weren’t already irreversible in the worst way. To them, the notion of permanently changing a “normal” body with cross-sex hormones has undertones of horror at the need to make such an incomprehensible decision. To me, the real reason it’s irreversible is that I immediately knew I would never consciously choose to give up the calmness and inner peace it gave me, because I had never before felt like a truly normal human being.

These documentaries make sure to capture the moment when a woman has “the ultimate surgery to become fully female”, but nowhere will they mention that only one in five trans women have actually had “the surgery.” Many of us certainly don’t feel that keeping our cocks should consign us to some gender limbo of existing as merely “partial” women, but in the common understanding of “complete” womanhood for trans people, there’s no room for the happy (or, at least, tolerant) ownership of a penis.

And when they do attempt to delve into the inner lives of trans people, they still limit themselves to the most visible manifestations of our genders. Because cis people communicate the nuances of gender in only the most ham-handed and oblivious ways possible, they pick out the women with personal stories of playing with dolls and wearing pink frilly dresses – the ones who “always knew” since they were toddlers. One surely doesn’t need to be trans to poke holes in the notion that the presence or absence of interest in highly gendered “girl’s toys” defines the presence or absence of womanhood, but that’s the picture that emerges when producers literally can’t find anything more meaningful to fit the bill than pretty dresses. It’s a notion that leaves little allowance for women who would rather just put on a baggy shirt and sweatpants and no makeup before going to the corner shop. Trans women, that is — after all, such a thing is never thought to call the womanhood of cis women into question.

It’s easy to write these off as minor details that would be difficult to explain to a general audience, and which aren’t necessary to cover the broad strokes of what it means to be trans. And it can easily be argued that they not only increase the acceptance of trans people in cis society, but also help confused or questioning people realize that transitioning is a real and legitimate option.

What’s not so easy is personally reassuring hundreds of trans women who face agonizing self-doubt because they never played with dolls as little girls, or didn’t know when they were 3, or still don’t feel “trapped in the wrong body.” Because of those broad strokes, they now question whether they’re even trans at all – even in the face of overwhelming discomfort with their originally assigned gender. These inaccurate depictions set such a high bar that some women, despite thinking about it every day, will put off transitioning for years while allowing testosterone to ravage their bodies just because they aren’t sure that transition is a “need” for them rather than a “want.”

I was one of them, someone who had already been living as a woman in every way for over a year, yet still refused to seek treatment because I thought I was fine already. I didn’t think I felt uncomfortable enough with my body to justify doing anything about it. But of course, I wouldn’t know what that would feel like: I had no reference point for how my life could be even better, until I decided to find out for myself. Taught to fixate on my outer body, I had refused to listen to my inner voice.

Comedies present openly hateful and blatantly false stereotypes of who we are; documentaries present not-quite-right stories of our lives that trick both cis and trans people alike into thinking they know what being trans is all about. One poisons our image in the minds of cis people and makes us doubt whether the world will ever accept us, the other corrupts our self-understanding and makes us doubt whether we even are who we are.

So what do we do about this? When we point out the myriad shortcomings of most representations of trans people, we’re often asked what could improve this. What would constitute a truly positive representation of trans people in the media, when even the most apparently compassionate approaches are still almost irredeemably toxic?

I don’t believe such a thing is currently possible. When I go about my daily life, I don’t want to be the subject of lazy and hateful jokes, and I also don’t want my existence to serve as someone’s teachable moment. I want normalcy. We want to be able to live without being treated as either freaks to laugh at or zoo exhibits to learn about. We want to be human fucking beings. We want the normalcy of being left alone as others are — and this normalcy is precisely what society won’t allow us to have right now.

Some have paralleled the state of trans depictions to the progress of gay people in the media, just lagging behind by several decades. But gay couples increasingly have little issue with being openly and visibly gay, whereas trans people would often rather not have this fact of our lives be obvious to every single person we encounter in public. Most people know someone who’s gay, whereas 99.7% of the population is cis — and those of us who aren’t, again, usually don’t intend to make it easy for the rest of you to tell.

The result is that gay couples can now be casually included alongside straight people in the media without much attention or explanation at all, whereas any trans people must have their presence clarified explicitly. Not being inherently visible, they must be made visible — something has to mark us as trans. And while our society has nearly reached the point that acceptance of gays as normal is a baseline standard, the inclusion of trans people currently cannot be read as anything other than an intentional political statement.

Trans characters are thrown in, marked, pointed out for a reason: so that their transness becomes something to talk about. And by now, I have to say that I’ve had quite enough of the rest of the world talking about us. It’s awkward. It’s cringeworthy. It’s something for everyone else either to gawk at, or facilitate their belief that they now understand us. There is no realistic hope of a representation that’s truly positive in its own right — merely one that’s as absent of negatives as possible.

The one show that’s been continually singled out as an example of “positive” trans representation is Elementary on CBS. In one episode, the character of Ms. Hudson is introduced, with Sherlock Holmes making a passing mention of her Adam’s apple. And nothing about it is ever mentioned again. But after all this time, it’s hard for us to believe that it’ll be left at that. It’s been brought up, and we’re all holding our breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop.