Chelsea Manning first announced to the world that she considered herself to be a woman with a tweet sent from the account of “Breanna Manning” in May of 2010, just days before her arrest. She was then living as a man with the name Bradley Manning. “I’ve entered a transitional phase of my life,” wrote Private Manning. “Though, for now I’m back on the grid.” Her struggle with gender identity had grown increasingly intense in the months leading up to that announcement, contributing to the deep emotional distress that, at least in part, led her to seek out a friend in Adrian Lamo, who ultimately turned her into the authorities for perpetrating the biggest leak of state secrets in American history. Her transition into life as a woman was, of course, interrupted days later when she was arrested, ferried to a brig in Kuwait and later Quantico Marine Base. With today’s announcement, Manning is announcing her intention to complete that transition, this time with the name Chelsea.
We’ve known for some time that Manning struggled with gender identity issues–a struggle that got top billing in his defense–and considered herself, at least for a time, to be a woman, so I’m not surprised by the announcement. I suspect it is coming only now, after his sentence has come down, because Manning wanted to avoid antagonizing the court by appearing to make more of a spectacle of the trial than it already is. Despite the vocal activism on his behalf outside of the court room, Manning has, from the beginning, been careful to be respectful and deferential to the legal process. In his statement at the close of the trial he was contrite and apologetic. I think he clearly hoped the judge would come to see him as a decent, sympathetic person who had perhaps acted rashly. I think he didn’t want to further anger anyone.
For media covering Manning’s case, the name and pronoun change is bound to create considerable confusion in the near term. After three years of reportage on the subject, a headline with the name “Chelsea Manning” doesn’t have the same cache as “Bradley Manning” in the eyes of readers, not to mention Google. The activists supporting her will face their own challenges: There does not yet appear to be a “Chelsea Manning Support Network” in existence, for example. And what will become of the hashtag #FreeBrad?
Despite Manning’s announcement in 2010 that he intended to live as a female under the name Breanna, I’ve persisted in referring to him as Brad simply because a tweet from an obscure Twitter account didn’t seem like a proper enough declaration to warrant changing someone’s name, especially when all friends and family, including his attorney, referred to him as Brad or Bradley. Today, that is no longer an open question. Inevitable rhetorical challenges aside, the important thing for us in the media is to report on Manning with respect for the trans experience. The person formerly named Bradley Manning is now living as a woman named Chelsea Manning and that much, at least, is no longer in debate.