Bradley Manning and the Politics of Gender Identification

The day after Pfc. Bradley Manning was sentenced to three decades’ incarceration for leaking classified material to Wikileaks, his attorney stepped forward to announce that the Leavenworth-bound, dishonorably discharged Manning decided he identifies as a female and heretofore wants to be known as “Chelsea Manning.” The lawyer further noted that Manning requests hormone treatments but not — as yet — surgery.
Predictably, the left-leaning blogosphere acted as if Manning’s statement were a done deal, to be celebrated as a act of liberation not unlike the end of Apartheid or the inauguration of the female vote. With the flip of a switch, the progressive commentariat now refers to Manning as “she” or “Chelsea.” The rapidity and totality of the terminology shift boggles the mind.
So let’s propose a thought experiment. Let’s say I get caught sneaking into a women’s washroom. The police say: “Bad, Jason.” I say, “No, I actually identify as a woman, and please call me Jennifer. Now get out while I powder my nose.”
What will happen? You betcha: A CSC or disorderly conduct charge, or something similar.
Manning is different because he’s a cause célèbre of the Left. In the real world, people don’t have lawyers assert denials of reality, and then expect the world to follow suit.
Let’s put this point in a different frame. Every person in the United States has a legal name. This name — indicated on birth records, associated on tax records — provides a permanent identifier of a specific person to our benevolent overlords in government. Sometimes, we can change this name: Doing so requires the consent of a judge, and typically follows marriage, divorce or adoption. Sometimes, too, we can use aliases; in private transactions, there’s no law that says we have to supply our legal name, provided that there’s no intent to defraud. Which is why many actors work under stage names. Manning isn’t trying to defraud, but he’s a public person whose notoriety is associated with his legal name.
A legal name is a legal name. Manning — or anyone else, for that matter — is free to use any alias he likes. But the world isn’t bound to honor his request. Nor is the world required to start calling him a “she” merely because he prefers it. Indeed, from the perspective of journalism ethics, it’s an intriguing question whether the public good that reporters are duty-bound to uphold is best served by denying the normative use of the “Chelsea” alias. The record is clear: There’s a guy named Bradley Manning who was convicted of sharing secret information. Is bifurcating the record between a pre-sentencing “Bradley” and a post-sentencing “Chelsea” in the public interest? Is honoring one person’s non-binding preference more important than preserving the narrative flow on a story of significant public import?
I’m weakly acquainted with two people who began the male-t0-female sex-change process, one of whom has had surgery and now successfully lives as a woman. I have no doubt that some people are genuinely conflicted about their sexual identity — feeling like you’re a man trapped in a woman’s body, or vice versa, isn’t just a fantasy or a delusion; it’s a real problem that requires remediation.
Reasonable people can disagree, given the relative paucity of meaningful medical research, whether various gender-identity disorders should be treated as a psychological problem that requires therapy/counseling — i.e., a first-world mental condition — or a genuine biomedical problem that can be successfully treated with hormones or surgery. I, personally, take no position on the matter, other than to recognize that people caught in positions like Manning’s deserve the benefit of civility.
That said, there’s something distressingly opportunistic about the way the left-leaning press seizes every opportunity to deny that sex matters. People are born male or female. They have specific chromosomal patterns, certain hormonal patterns, certain biophysical markers. These markers affect psychology in deep and real ways. Denying this, is to deny that the sun rises in the East. Sexual identity isn’t a matter of assertion — people aren’t free to just utter declarative statements that trump biology. Moving from “he” to “she” surely requires more than a press release.
The press, by hopping without question aboard the “she is now Chelsea” bandwagon, puts its own ideological interests ahead of the public good. The situation serves as a bit of a tell in the culture wars: You can infer quite a bit about a publication based on how it handles the Bradley/Chelsea question — whether the point’s ignored, accepted without comment or handled as an alias.
If Pfc. Manning gets a military judge to issue a name-change order, fine. “Chelsea” is normative for everyone. If Pfc. Manning obtains gender-reassignment surgery, fine. “Chelsea” is now sufficiently mixed (female hormones, male chromosomes, ambiguous genitals) that a “she” pronoun ought to be unremarkable.
But changing names and pronouns, overnight, based on a press release? Honoring that, says more about the press than it does about Leavenworth’s newest long-term resident.