Chelsea. Chelsea Manning, Chelsea Manning, Chelsea Manning. There you go: I already typed it three times. Why ever should someone in the employ of the Christian Science Monitor, my touchstone news source for journalism unafflicted by the sensational and shallow, find it a problem? Chelsea Manning experiences herself as female and wants to be addressed and described as such. Of all courtesies, this ought to be the simplest.
If I can break bread with the person who was my first honest to Goddess boyfriend — who had the divine knack of necking while playing the Goldberg Variations, without missing a beat, no one’s Mom ever asked what we were doing down there — in the context of a “girls only” holiday picnic, if I can begin addressing Lawrence as Laura and only flub once — the Monitor reporter can take a cue from a simple civil request. It’s not hard. She. Chelsea. She. Chelsea.
I say this as someone who is both unusually well positioned to understand gender fluidity and who does not understand it at all, at all. For crying out loud: I am a woman who annihilated her fertility at its source when I was half way through my twenties; I loathe everything about the traditional models for female life, and I feel like a drag queen when I wear a dress. When my age was still in the single digits I revered Pallas Athene, Diana, the Valkyries as my exemplars. If I were to wake up one morning, like Woolf’s Orlando, and discover contrapuntally that I was a man, I don’t think my identity would be deeply shaken. I might be a gay man, but what the heck.
On the other hand: why the effing hell would anyone born a man want to be a woman? Sign up over here for condescension, derision, lower pay, even complete dismissal from consideration for the most trivial paying jobs. (“I’m sure you’re a very nice young lady but we sell science fiction books to people who are very serious fans,” said the asshole bookstore owner who never slowed down long enough for me to tell him I had teethed on Nourse, Van Vogt, Del Rey and John W. Campbell. Later he croaked and my future husband became assistant manager of his bookstore. The wheel turns.) On one level, this says to me that the yearning is legitimate: who would accept this demotion otherwise? But can you call yourself a woman, ask to be taken seriously as a woman, if you never had a menstrual cramp, never had to wonder if you could wear white today, never had to count the days from your last period, never had to fear that the joyous fleshly conjunction your body craved might oblige you to hunt for the abortion which was illegal until I was seventeen or fear having your body ripped apart from the inside out?
I don’t get it, and on some primitive level I am not sure it is legitimate for someone to identify as a woman who has never experienced those pains, those cruel choices. Still: Chelsea wants to be Chelsea, not Bradley, and the means exist to make her body comport with her vision. Hermaphrodites have always existed, and people whose experienced gender was neither that nor the other. Vatsyayana in the Kama Sutra distinguishes “eunuchs disguised as males” from “eunuchs disguised as females,” so far as Sir Richard Burton’s translation* can make it, and that is a text four thousand years old. I think we all ought to just roll with it and let people be whomever they want to be. It doesn’t cost anything to change a pronoun, and hormone therapy or surgery both seem cheap at the price if one person is spared bleakness and dysphoria for a lifetime.
I’ve watched someone grapple with the longing to be the Other, over a matter of forty years. Whatever it is, it isn’t grandstanding. I have personal issues with Laura, christened Lawrence, but they revolve around doctrinaire politics and personal cowardice, not any questioning of her need to exist as a woman. If Chelsea Manning is willing to brook a shitload of grief to be Chelsea, I can handle a few pronouns, and so can the press corps. I don’t know how the Department of Defense will roll with this, but I wish Private Manning well.
*I suspect that “eunuchs disguised as females” may well be today’s trans-women, in the context of a society which didn’t think much of women. Search also on Berdache and kathoey.
EDIT on 8/27/13: OMG. If anyone ever helps me figure out how this predicament feels from the inside it will be this transwoman novelist:
This is the second chapter of her memoirs and it’s just such good writing that I already whooped twice.
Writing well is important.