Friday, August 23, 2013

The importance of true names and true pronouns

This should be a very simple concept.

The soldier once known as Bradley Manning has come out as a trans* woman and would henceforth like to be called Chelsea.

People change their names all the time. Or start going by a nickname. We listen, we learn, we use the new, preferred name. Easy.

For reasons of long-held and very misguided cultural norms and biases, however, when a person comes to terms with being trans* and wishes to be addressed in a way that validates their correct gender identity, a great hew and cry goes up from the masses.

In the Manning case, even many of the major media outlets can't even seem to handle this most basic of requests. FOX News I expected, though it is still sad. When I read a statement from an NPR spokeswoman that "Until Bradley Manning’s desire to have his gender changed actually physically happens, we will be using male-related pronouns to identify him,” however, I was dismayed.

If even this, one of those most stalwartly neutral news outfits in the country, can't get it right? We really are in trouble.

It doesn't matter how you feel about Manning's actions in the Wikileaks case. That's almost an entirely separate issue (though there may be something to the defense's pointing out that the military's attitudes toward trans* people probably didn't help her depression and sense of isolation).

Words matter. They represent our attitudes toward an entire section of the population that is still largely marginalized, dehumanized, abused, and worse.

And this should be simple. It does no one a bit of harm to do a quick mental recalibration and begin referring to someone by their preferred pronouns. And guess what? It does that person a world of good. Why do anything else, then?

New York Magazine was one of the few outlets that not only got it right, but seems to really get it:
"Why is it so hard for people to type an extra s when they write about Manning? We updated our nomenclature for "Snoop Lion" and "the Artist Formerly Known as Prince." "Ali Lohan" and "Lil' Bow Wow" became "Aliana" and "Bow Wow" to reflect personal growth. We accept typographical requests from branded products like iPhone, PowerPoint, and eHarmony — and from branded humans like Ke$ha, A$AP Rocky, and 'N Sync. (The last being unusual even without the asterisk.) The idiosyncrasies of capitalism, apparently, are more compelling than a human's self-professed gender."
What does qualify as a problem, of course, is our society's continued insistence on erasing trans* identities or, worse, causing violence to them.

These are our neighbors, friends, family members, co-workers. There is nothing threatening about their identity. There is something threatening about a culture that still holds such ignorance and disdain for them.

I hope others will join me in calling on outlets like NPR to change their attitudes and policies immediately. This isn't acceptable, and silence is complicity.
The Lost Albatross