Private Manning's announcement today that she is a trans woman came as no surprise to those of us who'd read the chat logs. Admittedly, the name she's picked: Chelsea, was a bit of a turn-up: in the logs she'd previously identified as Breanna. Anyhow, on seeing this news I did what any self-respecting Wikipedian would do, and had a look to see if anyone had updated the Wikipedia article yet.
This had come up
before, but it was thought that the transcripts and a few sources
reporting on the implications of them were not enough. Some trans
activists had been championing visibility on this issue, but I had felt
uncomfortable with both sides. Sure, Manning, by her own words, which I
had no reason to doubt, was probably trans. But those chat logs had
hardly been released with her full agreement and she hadn't socially
transitioned (that is, actually asked people to start calling her a
different name, or use female pronouns). But, also, it was not clear
that'd she'd be able to ask that, as her contact with the outside world
was very limited. Wikipedia took the side of caution and didn't mention
it except peripherally, and it certainly didn't move any articles.
Meanwhile, I, in conversations, carefully avoided referring to Manning
by anything other than surname.
We'd had a similar issue with the article on the Wachowkis - where there had been rumours floating around about Lana for years,
but they all traced back to a single, rather salacious, source (we try
to be careful about that, in Wikipedia, believe it or not - although
what's worse is when some article is using us as a source
without citing us and we get into a horrible citation loop). Eventually
Lana did let it be known - the Wachowskis are quite private so what
really clenched it was her official listings on a union site and IMDB.
Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer of Against Me, was another interesting
case because she initially announced that she was going to transition, so we kept referring to her with her old name and gender for a bit.
do I mean by "transition", anyway? Well, as I use it here, that's the
process of actually changing your name and asking people to start
calling you by it; and also to use new pronouns. People who aren't
trans ("cis people",
if you follow the Latin pun) often seem to obsess about genital
surgery, and claim that "she" is really "he" until that happens, but,
disregarding the unhealthy fixation on other people's genitals, this
ignores the legal and practical reality of the situation: being socially
transitioned for a good length of time is generally a requirement for surgery. You might as well claim that having passed a driving test is a prerequisite for learning to drive.
statement was pretty clear that she was transitioning immediately, such
as it was possible (and I don't even really want to think about doing
that inside the US military justice system, but that's another issue).
I got agreement from a few other interested parties on the talk page,
and moved the page, and started copyediting it. But to what exactly?
There are two schools of thought here (well, there are three schools of
thought: the third is that transition is sick and wrong and against
nature and biologically impossible and so on, and therefore the prose
shouldn't acknowledge it at all other than as a delusion; but I'll
discount that one).
The first is that you should use "old"
pronouns and names for pre-transition events, back when Manning was
living as male; and the new ones for ongoing statements of fact and
events afterwards. The second is that the new pronouns and names be
applied for the entire biography. The first is often justified based on
an appeal to the unalterability of the past, and the avoidance of
awkward wording, but it can lead to plenty of difficulties in phrasing
in its own right. How would we phrase "[X] is imprisoned at Quantico,
after [X] was convicted for multiple charges of espionage"? One of these
things is in the present; the other in the past. We can't be switching
pronouns within a sentence, that's what I call real nonsense.
Fortunately, the Wikipedia Manual of Style is completely clear on this point, favouring the second:
person whose gender might be questioned should be referred to by the
gendered nouns (for example "man/woman", "waiter/waitress",
"chairman/chairwoman"), pronouns, and possessive adjectives that reflect
that person's latest expressed gender self-identification. This applies in references to any phase of that person's life.
Direct quotations may need to be handled as exceptions. Nevertheless,
avoid confusing or seemingly logically impossible text that could result
from pronoun usage (for example: instead of He gave birth to his first
child, write He became a parent for the first time)." (my emphasis)
has been like this for a long time, and reflected long-established
usage well before that. So, our manual of style backs me, I've got the
citation I needed, I got consensus on the talk page. I pressed the
button and watched.
It was not as uncontroversial as it should have been. There is currently a raging argument on the talk page,
in which all sorts of mud has been flung (I've been accused of misusing
my admin rights, even though any user could do what I did!) A lot of
this has been supportive of my decision. But a depressing amount of it
full of people repeating the same canards as if they are being original,
and I'm not even allowed to block them because technically they haven't
done anything wrong (well, apart from the ones who have tried to move
it back in a technically incompetent way.) Instead, we're supposed to
argue individually with each tendentious passer-by, each of them saying
things like "ooh, but it's just a matter of the facts" like we
hadn't considered facts before or something. I kept it up for a while,
but it's draining. Instead, I'll address them en masse here:
Other sites have in fact changing things throughout the day. It's not like we were breaking news or anything at any point.
Chelsea Manning's genitals are none of your business. Or mine.
No, we are not a laughing stock of the world. I have been watching twitter. Twitter thinks what we did was awesome. I've been watching "Manning" and "Wikipedia" all afternoon and it's been well 95% positive.
How is it you are so sure of Chelsea's chromosomes? Did you have her karyotype done?
you not read or something? The Manual of Style clearly is meant for
cases like this. No, you can't point out that it only applies in cases
where there is a "question" and then claim there is no question.
you seem to be denying the the validity of transsexuality in general
and then using that as a basis for keeping the article at "Bradley" and
the pronouns as "he". I don't expect to persuade you that you're wrong,
not on a Wikipedia talk page, but can you see that failure to even pay
lip service to the idea that the entire medical-scientific-social
consensus in the West might be right about trans people is not be an entirely sensible basis for a discussion of policy? What are you going to do next, edit Oscar Wilde so it calls him a sodomite?
Maybe putting these answers here will work. Because nobody seems to be listening on the talk page.
It's easy to forget, dealing with these sort of nonsense, that
Wikipedia's openness has advantages as well. It's precisely because
anyone can edit that I'm able to do so, and that the article was moved
at all. Right now, people are voting about whether it should be moved
back. Or rather, they are participating in this bizarre
consensus-reaching procedure which is way more than a simple
headcount. And ultimately, I probably don't need to be
countering every spurious invocation of the same nonsense on the talk
page, because the closing admin (the person who takes it upon themselves
to be responsible for looking at what we've thrown at the wall and
somehow discerning the consensus of the discussion) will look at the
facts and the policy and the arguments, weigh them up carefully, and
decide that it's not going anywhere.
Abigail Brady is a software engineer and writer, and has been a Wikipedian since 2003. This piece is under CC-BY-ND. If you want to run it in an edited form, please drop me a line.