I used to think that internet comment sections were the worst place in the world, a place where dragons and chaos reigned. If this were The Lion King, they would be the place that the light never touches. “You must never go there, Simba.” However, leave it up to CNN to ice the trolls of the digital world, as everyone’s favorite sad decaying skin bucket of a news network out-douched all of them this weekend. Who needs the internet when you have the media to do the trolling for you?
For those who are unfamiliar, allow me to catch you up on the drama. After Private Manning’s sentencing, the former soldier, now given 35 years in prison for leaking classified information to Wikileaks, made public her demand to be referred to as a woman by the press. The girl didn’t ask for us to all start wearing dresses, wave around fairy wands and call her “Princess Unicorn of the Magic Kingdom.” She merely asked to be called “Chelsea,” the name the freshly out transgender woman prefers. Not so hard.
When you’re serving the next three decades years of your life in prison, there’s no time like the present to start being yourself. Better now than when you’re 64.
If you’ve been closely following the case, this news shouldn’t have been a surprise to you, as any serious examination of the story behind Private Manning has brought up her gender identity, long in question. No one knew how Manning wanted to be identified — because we haven’t really heard from her — so battles waged over whether to continue to call her Bradley, her birth name, or “Breanna,” an “alter ego” that Manning herself used.
As people who support Manning’s right to the self-determination of her gender identity, you want to be respectful — but not hasty. Personally, I stayed away from pronouns at all possible until I heard it from Private Manning’s mouth. If you followed s.e. smith and “Ou Gate,” you know that there’s not just one pronoun that someone might use. You also have “ze,” “they,” “ou” and a myriad number of options to choose from, depending on how that person identifies, and I didn’t want to decide Private Manning’s gender identity for them. It would be like that scene in Mean Girls when Janis Ian insists on calling Lohan’s character “Caddy.”
However, that’s exactly what CNN’s doing. Now that Chelsea Manning is out and has clarified the situation surround her gender, there’s no excuse to keep calling her “Caddy,” making her hold the golf clubs while you politely ignore her. On The Lead With Jake Tapper, CNN clarified its “official” policy that they would stop being assholes about it when Chelsea Manning “legally changed his name.” Meaning that if Meat Loaf appeared on air, they would have no choice but to refer to him as “Marvin Lee Aday,” his given name. Same goes for Bono and Madonna.
Except that doesn’t happen in the media. When Meat Loaf sat down with Matt Lauer, Lauer referred to him as “Meat,” honoring his ridiculous request to be named after a congealed former piece of cow my grandmother likes to slather in mushroom soup. Prince could change his name to a symbol all he wants — because he has money and he’s in power, whereas Chelsea Manning is a “criminal.” Do you think if Oprah came out as male-identified tomorrow that the media would be all “Sorry, Oprah, none for you?” No, they would call male Oprah whatever he damn well pleased. They would call him “My Darling Liver Wurst” if he asked.
Lauren McNamara and her partner, Heather, challenged Tapper on Twitter about what to call Manning, after McNamara appeared on his show — and politely gave him hell about it. After identifying McNamara as “a transgender” — which would be like saying “a gay” or “a Jewish” — he shot down their call outs. Tapper tweeted at the McNamaras, “If you have an issue with CNN policy, you should take it up with the policy makers.”
That’s all well and good, but the McNamaras don’t work at CNN. Jake Tapper does. Anderson Cooper does. A lot of people with the actual power to lobby the network and make a stink about CNN’s willful misgendering of Chelsea Manning are there every day and take really nice paychecks from them. They have houses and vacation houses and houses built in cocaine and caviar dreams that are paid for by CNN’s inability to take the lead on Chelsea Manning’s gender identity and be a beacon of hope for transgender people. Tapper’s desk is a lot closer to the people that pay his own paycheck than Lauren McNamara’s desk is.
But to be fair, it’s not just CNN that’s woefully fucked up on this issue. Although Slate and Mother Jones (I heart you, MJ) get gold stars for being on top of recognizing Manning’s gender identity all along, the New York Times, BBC, Reuters, Associated Press and NPR all had the same policy. When Manning made it official, they would call her Chelsea. Cue the raspberries.
Consider for a moment how stupid that is. You’re Chelsea Manning. You’ve just been told that you are going to rot away for the next three decades of your life in a high-security prison, and after watching any show about prison ever, you know you might not make it out alive. If your request to be transferred to a women’s prison is shot down, you could likely be hurt, stabbed or beaten to death. The media might not be kind to transgender women, but prison is even less kind. Faced with that reality, do you really think a birth certificate would be foremost on your mind? Besides, it’s not like they magically just hand you a new name or shoot them out of cannons like free t-shirts at a baseball game. You have to go through the process. That takes time — and money.
When you go back and watch the initial coverage of Manning’s coming out, it’s incredibly shameful, even from some of the places that allegedly her honoring her gender identity — like MSNBC. Some of the MSNBC folks that day looked oddly disgusted with her, as if this were just some ploy to get out of “real” prison — as if women’s prison were all eskimo kisses and kittens. (Didn’t they watch Orange is the New Black?) The substitute host on Morning Joe, when reporting her gender identity, said, “Well, he’s obviously a troubled person.”
When they’re dismissing her right to be in a women’s prison, they’re all but saying her life doesn’t matter. You don’t have to support what Manning did or see her as a beacon of free speech to see how wrong this is. It’s not politics. It’s basic fucking human decency.
It makes sense when outlets like the Daily Caller insist on calling Manning a “man,” because they also think the Earth is 2,000 years old and that Sarah Palin is a credible leader of the free world, someone you want with all the missiles. In one great article, the Daily Caller asks why Manning’s supporters “hate science.” Thanks for all the giggles, Republicans. But MSNBC? That’s the evil liberal media Rush Limbaugh warns us about. If MSNBC can’t get it right, what hope do we have for anyone else?
Luckily, most of the major outlets have issued mea culpas after being called out for being transphobic jerks, but CNN remains the lone holdout, despite being lambasted not just by transgender people but their peers in the media. CNN continues to make the situation worse and the world less safe for transgender people, a society where you don’t get to decide who you are and what you’d like to be called. When transgender people can be legally let go from their workplaces in many states, CNN matters — because, unfortunately, people still listen to them. In this world CNN’s isn’t just poor journalism. It’s dangerous.
Anyone familiar with CNN’s downward spiral recently won’t be shocked that this is happening — they were just as defensive about their fucked-up Steubenville coverage — but every day that we let it happen, it becomes our fault, too. We let CNN call her “Bradley Manning” when we turn on the channel and we listen to their misgendering. We let it happen when we don’t speak out about it. This has been happening for weeks, and I’m just writing about it today? What the fuck else have I been doing? My masturbation schedule isn’t that demanding — after all, Channing Tatum doesn’t have any new movies out.
The media has seriously fucked up on this, and we’ll keep fucking up right along with it, unless we make it an issue. If CNN doesn’t want to change, if Jake Tapper doesn’t want to make it an issue, it’s up to us. Recently a trans friend told me that the Showtime drama Ray Donovan had made some horribly transphobic remarks, and I asked her why no one made a stink about it. “Why haven’t I heard anything about this?” I asked. She paused before responding, “It’s because no one thinks we’re worth getting upset about. We’re not even people.”
Transgender people live in this world, right along with you. They walk down your street. They go to your grocery store. They also watch Dance Moms when they say they’re viewing a documentary on Netflix. They aren’t just a story on TV. They are just as real as you are.
And they’re being ignored every day, whether that’s when they’re thrown in prison, locked away by a society that doesn’t know what to do to them, or murdered by people who don’t think they deserve to live. When they die, they get misgendered, a history of struggle washed away like it doesn’t even matter. Because let’s be honest: the media doesn’t give a shit about respecting transgender people, and that’s the real issue here.
And it’s about time we started getting upset.