by Bretigne Shaffer
I’m not, of course. I am a wife and mother, I’ve never served in the US or any other military. I’ve never even listened to Lady Gaga, and I’ve never risked my life, liberty and personal well-being in order to expose government wrongdoing. And I wasn’t born with the body of a man.
When the soldier and whistleblower known as Bradley Manning announced last month that she identified as a woman and not a man, that she wished to be referred to as “Chelsea” and with the feminine pronoun, it caused a stir, even among her supporters. I’ve seen a number of comments on social networks from those who support Manning’s actions but who refuse, on the grounds of linguistic accuracy and clarity, to honor her requests.
I understand the objection. Clarity in thinking and in speech is under assault everywhere. And it matters. There are consequences to muddled thinking, to the muddled use of words, and they are usually not good ones. Broad public support for political leaders who spew forth words like “peace” and “freedom” while at the same time dropping bombs on villagers in far-away countries and destroying the most fundamental legal protections for personal liberty at home is just one of the more obvious of such consequences.
But the question of whether to honor Manning’s request to be identified as a woman is not one of linguistic clarity. If anything, it is a symptom of our language’s inadequacy to deal with the reality she faces. Apart from “you” and “I”, the English language has three pronouns to indicate a single entity: He, She and It. We don’t have a pronoun to represent a person born into a male body who does not feel like a man, or a person born into a female body who doesn’t feel like a woman. For those who doubt that such a feeling is “real”, there is a clinical diagnosis for it: “gender dysphoria” – what used to be known as “Gender Identity Disorder.”
Of course, there are also clinical diagnoses for such syndromes as “Oppositional Defiant Disorder”, “Compulsive Buying Disorder” and “Mathematics Disorder (Dyscalculia)” – so a stamp of approval from the bountiful world of psychiatric diagnoses doesn’t mean all that much to me.
Here’s what does mean something to me: When a person is so unhappy with their condition that they are willing to undergo life-altering hormone therapy and often even the surgical altering of their body in order to change it; when they are willing to open themselves to a lifetime of harassment, physical and emotional abuse. I have no personal understanding of what it is like to feel like I don’t belong in my own body. I can only imagine, and not even that very well. But when I see people going to such extremes to change something so fundamental to who they are, then I have to acknowledge that they are experiencing something that is very real for them. And I just think that the decent thing to do is to respect that.
But even if I didn’t feel this way, I think I would still honor Manning’s request to be called Chelsea and referred to as a woman. Why? Because there are precious few people in this world who can even hear the sound of their own conscience over the din of what everyone else thinks and what those in authority tell them is right. Even fewer have the courage to act on what their conscience tells them. Chelsea Manning has obviously suffered a great deal and will no doubt continue to suffer in the days, months and years to come, all because she did not believe that government crimes should be kept secret. The world has benefited from her actions and I believe that as people learn more about the truth of what their governments do in the world, and as more people are empowered by her example to come forward with such truths, we will continue to benefit. Chelsea Manning is a heroine and is to be treasured. If she asked me to refer to her as a Himalayan Tree Frog, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it.
I want to tell Chelsea that becoming a woman isn’t going to fix everything. That it won’t make things any easier and if anything, it will make them much, much harder. Especially in a prison full of men. But I suspect she knows that already. And if she doesn’t, I don’t imagine it would change her mind. I somehow don’t think Chelsea Manning is the kind of person who makes decisions based on how “easy” it is going to make her life.
And since no-one else seems to have done it, let me take this opportunity as an Official Representative of the Female Sex – or Gender, or whatever it’s called now – to welcome Chelsea Manning into our fold. It is an honor to have you with us.