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Monday, August 26, 2013

Get Your Hands Off Bradley Manning's Pronouns!


In this, I am afraid of saying something wrong and misogynist and insensitive, but I have too much conviction on this.

So the big news this Wikileaks trial concluded with this thing out of left field that Bradley Manning wants to be Chelsea Manning. He wants to be a girl, and identified as such. And all I can think is this:


It's a ridiculous turn of events, to be sure. Unexpected to say the least. But the aftermath of it is that journalists and press have to decide how to react.  Whether to refer to Bradley Manning as Chelsea Manning, and him as her and he as she. Because he says he's a woman.  NPR in particular came under the gun by choosing to stick to its style guidelines.

I try to be sensitive. I try to think about the perspective of the other person. I think of what I would do if my daughter came to me with the same problem. I'm pretty sure one of my co-workers was not always a woman, but she's awesome to work with, and I don't care one whit about her personal past/identity. I believe in LGBT rights, but it's usually the G and L that get the attention. I have no problem with anything they want to do, as long as it doesn't affect me.

But now this affects me.  It results in Bradley Manning wanting people to change the rules just for him. And what bothers me is that my favorite sci-fi authors are crying "No! You must respect his... I mean, her wishes. Lo, that we had a pronoun to refer to the trans of gendered. Don't be ignorant and disrespectful to these people. Don't deliberately disregard someone's preferences." And arguments with sci-fi authors never end in changed minds.


"I am Chelsea. I am a female." If you want to believe that, that's fine, but now you're insisting that I change the rules of grammar and diction for you. That's like forcing everyone in a school not to eat peanuts because one kid is allergic. Why do we all have to change? Why do we all have to suffer because of one person?

If English scholars want to introduce some new pronoun to describe these people, go ahead. I'll use it. But the fact is, we don't. The dictionary translates "he" as meaning "the male one". Male means "a man or boy" or "an individual that produces motile gametes (i.e. sperm) that fertilize the eggs of a female". Seems cut and dried there. "He" refers to boys. Boys produce sperm. Bradley Manning produces sperm. Therefore, he's a he.

Once he undergoes surgery and gets the lady parts, I have no problem referring to him as a her. Even though she won't strictly adhere to the definitions set herein.  I do believe that transgender people have a lot of shit they have to eat.  They suffer tremendous in lieu of our straight, white male privilege.  But sympathy doesn't solve a problem.

Think about this scenario. A man goes to the DMV and fills out his application for a license. The associate looks at it.


DMV ASSOCIATE: Uh, it says here that you wrote down blond hair.
APPLICANT: That's right.
DMV ASSOCIATE: But you have brown hair.
APPLICANT: Yes, but I identify as a blond-haired person.
DMV ASSOCIATE: Do you mean you dye your hair? Is blond your natural color?
APPLICANT: No, this is. But I feel like a blond-haired person.
DMV ASSOCIATE: Uh-huh. But you have brown hair.
APPLICANT: I look like I have brown hair, but I'm really blond-haired.
DMV ASSOCIATE: Uh-huh. Do you know it's illegal to lie on a license application? A government document?
APPLICANT: I'm not lying. I really have blond hair. I feel like I have blond hair, but I was born with brown hair.
DMV ASSOCIATE: And that people are going to use your license to identify you, and when it says you have blond hair despite you physically not, what do you expect to happen?
APPLICANT: I expect... I expect, well, uh...

I believed NPR was right, and it's a shame they changed their mind so quickly in the cavalcade of negative responses. In journalism, you do have to think about more than the subject's personal preferences. You have to think about your audience, your copy editors. Everyone knows who C. Montgomery Burns is, but if you start calling him Charles Burns, A) no one's going to know who you're talking about, which damages your magazine's readability B) you're going to get a hundred complaints and letters from the audience telling you you're wrong or made a typo, which loses you reputation and readership.



Or imagine this scenario: a man picking up someone at the airport. He's carrying a sign for JOHNSON, a well-publicized figure. But the driver does not know what he looks like, save a written description from his dispatcher. He approaches someone who seems to be looking for his driver.


LIMO DRIVER: Excuse me, I'm looking for Johnson. Have you seen him? He's about 5'10", male.
JOHNSON: That's me!
LIMO DRIVER: No, no, I'm looking for someone with blond hair.  You have brown hair.
JOHNSON: That's me. I have brown hair, but I really have blond hair.
LIMO DRIVER: Oh, you color your hair.
JOHNSON: No. See? No roots. I'm just a blond-haired person in a brown-haired person's body.
LIMO DRIVER: And I think you are either crazy or lying. Goodbye.
JOHNSON: No wait, I'm Johnson! I'm really Johnson.
LIMO DRIVER: You can say whatever you want. I know what I'm looking for.

I know that biology is complicated. Hank Green explains how it is.


Assuming this is fact, that means there are potentially five factors leading to someone's sexuality. Assuming three options available (male, female, both) for each of those, that's, like 35 combinations, or 243 variations! (I'm sure my math is bad. But whatever the correction is, it's a lot). You cannot possible retain that many pronouns to refer to someone.  The point of grammar rules is to clear confusion.


Jim C. Hines makes the argument that his legal name is James, but he prefers to be called Jim. But people with nicknames get called both, don't they? If you get in a huff about it each time, it's going to be a long life. Besides, there are established rules for this instance: one is a formal name, one is a familiar name. On legal documents, does he cross out every instance of James and replace it with Jim?

And moreover, he didn't get to choose the name James in the first place. None of us get to choose the name we're born with. Oh, sure, you can change later in life... if you want to put up with all the legal documents, fees, and correcting everyone for the rest of your life. But if you just spontaneously started saying "No, my name's Rolando" when your nametag, license, letters from the post office, bills, all say James, see what happens. Let me know how that goes.

Maybe I don't want you to use the word "dickish", because that implies all people with dicks are bad people. Again, let me know how my personal request goes. I'm sure you're dying to fulfill it.

I'm not saying people should be prevented from changing their names (or other things) but don't expect the world to change for you, for something you've been one way for years and now want change identities. At least not until you've taken the action to make it a permanent and consistent.


Yes, it should be this difficult. The point of these rules is to clear confusion. It's not based on personal preference. You don't get to declare your own rules for yourself, and tell everyone to follow them. Language is not as simple as "I prefer to be called this". It's not a name, it's a pronoun. A pointer.

It's like in programming language. If I write String foo = new Integer("123");, that's going to confuse a lot of coders, (assuming it compiles). Not to mention it goes against the intended function of those objects. It's not only confusing, but at its heart, wrong.


We all want to be something we're not. I'm not saying that gender reassignment people are sick or crazy. Frankly, I have no idea what they are (and now we come to the part that gets me yelled at). The concept seems weird to me. It's one thing to be a boy and identify with girl things. It's another to try and make your body conform to that. If a person feels like they are a one-armed person born inside a two-armed body and wants to amputate his/her arm (which is a real thing) we don't say "good for you", we say "you need help" So why is it different with a penis?

(Also, I discovered there's Species dysmorphia which is a whole kettle of fish I'm not going into)

If, after he goes under gender reassignment, and gets resized, I have no problem referring to Bradley Manning as Chelsea Manning, and he as a she. But think about yourself, how often do you really get to determine what you're called?  Did Billy the Kid?  Did Che Guevara?  Look up what Pocahontas really means.



Other Reading
The thing that started it all
NPR takes their stand
Jim C. Hines's article. I still love you, Jim, but I disagree with you on this topic.
Some troll arguments
NY Times article on the hoopla
Germany says you can call your baby's gender "undetermined". Not sure if that means "does not matter" or "wait and see".
NPR changes their mind

P.S. To those people who are sad and think it's ridiculous that the government won't pay for his gender reassignment surgery, honestly. It's not like he needs it because it threatens his quality of life. It's not a life-threatening disease or a prosthetic arm. It's a voluntary surgical procedure, time-consuming, and expensive. And I'd rather not have my taxes pay for it.
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