For a while now, I’ve been thinking that I would never want a Wikipedia page because it would insist on posting my birth name. Now that I’ve seen the online encyclopedia’s treatment of Chelsea Manning by reverting her page to her old name, I’m certain of my convictions. There are a lot of galling rationalizations on Manning’s talk page about both her name and her gender. My biggest concern, though, is that Wikipedians don’t understand that their own rationalizations go beyond their much vaunted consensus editing model. Wikipedia is a popular information source; to some extent it has become a standard maker. What they do and how they handle situations has potential affects for how other sites handle similar situations.
We’ve gone through this recently with the misnaming of Cemia Acoff as well as the disrespect shown Islan Nettles. Let me be clear, I say violence in the title not to minimize the brutal, physical violence committed against women like Cemia and Islan. Rather, I say violence because our old names are frequently weaponised against us, often as a precursor to physical violence. And the violence of weaponized old names springs from the same disrespect, mockery, and hatred that informs fatal physical violence. These are all connected.
The same nonsense used to rationalize misgendering and deadnaming before is being trotted out again, this time in a hugely high profile case. Unfair as it has been to all the previous (and future) victims of misgendering and deadnaming violence, Manning’s case does provide a lot of highly-visible material to serve as examples for criticism of how, by and large, cis people fail trans people in the simplest of requests.
Wikipedian Michael Glass writes:
“I find a problem in making a change of gender retrospective. It’s all very well for a person to request, as Manning did, to be referred to by the feminine pronouns “from this day forward”. It’s the retrospective part that is problematical.”
I, like many other trans folk, go back and forth all the time between my pre-transition past and my post-transition present. I use the feminine pronouns for all of them. It’s really not confusing at all, even when it could be said that “She attended an all-boys high school.” It just underscores the fact that transgender people exist. Get used to it. The untrained cis mind may find it confusing to refer to Chelsea Manning’s male-presenting past in the feminine, but making the switch and sticking to it is really not cognitively difficult at all. Rather, it is far more confusing to switch pronouns back and forth, having to rely on some arbitrary time point as a marker. More importantly, however, it is entirely disrespectful of the person in the present to switch back to pronouns that person does not want used presently.
Wikipedian thoriyan states:
I personally find it very confusing that all personal pronouns have been swapped from male to female, especially those detailing Pvt. Manning’s childhood as a little boy. Can we make a consensus to label Pvt Manning as a boy up until the announcement to be female? I think a gender switch halfway through makes a little more sense than whitewashing everything as “she”.
Personally, I find it confusing to cis-wash her gender struggle by setting her announcement date as the blessed date by which we should switch referents. Her struggle with gender identity far pre-dated her announcement; evidence clearly demonstrates this. This is a long process, not some mystical flip of the switch.
There is far too much nonsense on that Talk page to dismantle point by point. Suffice it to say that it reads far less like a discussion between editors and more like yet another crappy comment thread on any number of news sites where I’ve been reading absolute garbage for the past week. I find it most charming, by which I mean totally ridiculous, to have to discuss and come to consensus about calling somebody by the name they request and by the pronouns they wish you to call them. Shall we start voting on whether to call married people by their new surnames? Shall we put your request to cease using a childhood name or nickname to plebiscite?
David Coombs, Chelsea Manning’s attorney, released a statement via his blog:
While PVT Manning wants supporters to acknowledge and respect her gender identity as she proceeds into the post-trial state of her life, she also expects that the name Bradley Manning and the male pronoun will continue to be used in certain instances. These instances include any reference to the trial, in legal documents, in communication with the government, in the current petition to the White House calling for clemency, and on the envelope of letters written to her by supporters. She also expects that many old photos and graphics will remain in use for the time being. [emphasis my own]
I recognize this resigned compromise, signified by the word “expects”, very well. It is the same devil’s bargain I accepted with my thesis and previously published material in my old name. It’s perhaps the most palatable of written beatdowns that you can endure when, for whatever reason, you cannot escape the deadnamed past.
Note that the “in certain instances” is very specific here to a vary narrow class of materials. If Wikipedia and confused cis folk cannot handle gender, pronouns, and names, then I would suggest switching the article title to just “PVT Manning”.
What I find saddest is the huge missed opportunity here. I have written previously about the wrongs, often unintentional, that the bibliographic world inflicts on trans folk. And I have suggested that digital publishing and digital bibliographic record keeping presents an opportunity to fix the errors of the print-bound world. Wikipedia can take an intentionally positive, trans-affirmative step here and advance bibliographic and journalistic style in a way that major newspapers, style guides, and GLAAD guidelines have thus far been unable to advance.
Yet, Wikipedia has failed, much like the rest of the cis-sexist world. More shit to shovel, par for the course.