What’s in a Name? (Or ‘Why Chelsea Manning is the new Snickers’)

23 Aug

Chelsea Manning

The prisoner formerly known as Bradley Manning and referred to with the pronouns “he”, “him” and “his” has announced that she now wishes to be called Chelsea (like the borough, hotel and First Daughter) and referred to with “she” and “her”. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It seems hardly a year goes by without a member or former member of the armed forces very publicly announcing their decision to switch gender. Indeed, the only transgender friend I’ve ever had was a former marine and Gulf War veteran, but that’s another story.

As with any current event, Ms Manning’s decision is ruffling feathers; most of them belonging to those who think the media should be more active in referring to her as “Chelsea”, “she” and “her”, rather than “Bradley”, “he”, “him” and “his”.

Random sample from Twitter, using the search "Chelsea Manning media"

Random sample from Twitter, using the search “Chelsea Manning media”

Now, while it’s true that the media outlets who have observed Manning’s wishes tend to operate at the more liberal end of the spectrum, I can still sympathise with those who are sticking to “Bradley”. For one thing, I’m not convinced their reluctance is entirely down to disrespect or transphobia. I read several comments (on Twitter, of course) which ran along the lines of, “If we can get used to Snoop Lion, surely it’s not so hard to refer to her as Chelsea Manning.”

The problem with that argument is that I, for one, can’t get used to Snoop Lion. Nor did I take, very easily, to P Diddy. Going back further, it took me three whole years before I could bring myself to ask for a “Snickers” in the school tuck shop. “Marathon” had heritage, gravitas, a name that stretched back into classical antiquity. What the fuck was a “Snickers”? In the village where I grew up there was a corner shop called Gittins’s, run by a Mr Gittins. When he retired, some time around 1991, the shop was taken over by the Dimis family, but people carried on calling it Gittins’s for another five or six years.

It's now run by a Mr and Mrs Premier, apparently.

It’s now run by a Mr and Mrs Premier, apparently.

Though I’m sure that there are some in the media, particularly in its more Dacre-ish and Murdochian crevices, who’ll carry on calling Chelsea Manning “Bradley” out of spite and bigotry, for many journalists it’s simply the case that they know referring to “Chelsea Manning” will confuse the vast majority of their readership. Let’s not forget, Manning only announced all this yesterday. Are we supposed to expect journalists, newspapers, TV stations and their millions of readers and viewers to change gear so suddenly? If transgender people are encouraged and expected to go through a period of transition, a kind of slow morph from their old identity to their new one, isn’t it logical to expect the media’s representation of that person to do likewise?

For one thing, combing through the online coverage of Ms Manning’s statement, it’s clear that this is exactly what most outlets are doing. The Telegraph’s piece even switches from “he” to “she” mid-story. The Daily Mail, while referring to “Bradley Manning”, uses “her” and “she” from the start. Are people offended because only hours after the story broke these journalists mention the name that still presumably appears on Chelsea Manning’s birth certificate, driving licence, passport and military ID?

While we’re on the thorny, problematic and positively minefield-like subject of gender identity and nomenclature, I do wonder how equal rights for transgender people are ever supposed to progress, when so much of the dialogue surrounding them is rife with infighting, and seems deliberately designed to attach an even greater number of labels to people. Case in point: The word “cisgender”.

I thought we needed another pic, so I Google image searched "Cisgender".  I think I almost broke the internet.

I thought we needed another pic, so I Google image searched “Cisgender”. I think I almost broke the internet.

For those unfamiliar with it, to be “cisgender” means to exist comfortably in the gender in which you were born. You don’t tend to hear many men refer to themselves as “cisgender men”, but it seems to have caught on among some feminists who are broadly sympathetic to those women who were born men. I’ve read as much as I could about the term, hoping that at some point it would begin to make sense to me, that I could see how its use might make the world a better or more sensible place, but it just doesn’t.

To my mind, a man who becomes a woman wishes to be thought of as a woman. Once that transition has happened, she is a woman. Same goes for any man who was born a woman. He is now a man. The invention of a word like “cisgender” might be done with the best of intentions, but its effect, I believe, is one of further delineation, marking a boundary between “real women/men” and “fake” ones. A word like “cisgender” contributes nothing to the world but the pathologizing of everyday life.

A lot of offence is taken about the use of words like “normal” and “abnormal”, in part because we falsely attribute positive and negative values to those words, when all they describe is a general summing up of averages. When talking about what’s normal and abnormal, you’ll invariably hear some bright spark say, “But hey… What’s normal, anyway?” or “No-one’s normal.”

Shortly after he tries telling you that the world would be a better place if they made smoking powerful cannabis compulsory at the UN.

Shortly after he tries telling you that the world would be a better place if they made smoking powerful cannabis compulsory at the UN.

Well, sorry to break this to you, Stoned Straw Man, but there is such a thing as normal. There are norms. I, for one, am abnormal chiefly in two ways. I’m left handed, in a world in which 90% of people are right handed, and gay in a world in which the majority of people are attracted to the opposite sex. Should I be ashamed of being abnormal? Of course not. There are plenty of ways in which I’m perfectly normal – I’m average height, I speak the most commonly spoken language on the planet and I earn a fairly average wage for the country I live in – but I’m not proud of any of that stuff, so why should I be ashamed of the ways in which I stand out from the norm?

To describe oneself as “cisgender” seems like a desperate attempt to refuse your normality – which is just pathetic – or to try and normalise somebody else’s abnormality, which suggests you consider the abnormal inherently wrong. It tortures the English language by over-complicating it, without adding anything meaningful, and it creates differences and divisions where none should exist.

Anyway. That’s pretty much all I have to say on the subject. These are early, hastily-sketched thoughts which are subject to change; for example, if someone should convince me that a word like “cisgender” serves a clear and valid purpose.

Next time I’ll write about something lightweight and frothy, like Celebrity Big Brother, or Rylan Clark’s crazy, crazy teeth.

Because seriously... What the fuck is going on here?

Because seriously… What the fuck is going on here?

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One Response to “What’s in a Name? (Or ‘Why Chelsea Manning is the new Snickers’)”

  1. Patrick August 23, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

    There are times, rare and specific, when you need to distinguish between people who are trans and people who are not trans.

    For example, I recently research managed a survey on LGBT parents. x number of respondents identified themselves as heterosexual – which is not too surprising because we would expect many, but not all, of the of the trans respondents to define as heterosexual. But the maths showed that we had people who were heterosexual but not trans who had filled in the survey. Now- we had to discuss this group- becuase in a survey of LGBT people they were none of the above. We could call this group heterosexual people who are not trans- but its gets cumbersome after a while. So cisgendered is a helpful term.

    So working in the LGBT rights field there are lots of times when cisgendered proves to be a useful and appropriate term. For the most part its part of our jargon, and like all jargon it exists because it is practically useful in specific contexts, but can seem picayune outside of that context.

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