“Chelsea” is winning.
Last Thursday, the Army private formerly known as Bradley Manning announced through the Today Show that she identifies as female. Manning also asked to be referred to by the name Chelsea and with feminine pronouns. The media, and everyone else interested in the person who revealed diplomatic secrets to WikiLeaks, were then faced with the question of whether to make the switch.
Less than a week later, news outlets—including TIME—have widely adopted she and her. The New York Times and the Associated Press have announced that they will primarily be using Chelsea, only mentioning the name Bradley when referring to times past. Though Fox News was still writing “he” on Friday, they’re now on the “she” train, too. And the user who types the words Bradley Manning into the Wikipedia search engine is promptly redirected to a page for Chelsea Manning, who was recently sentenced to 35 years in prison for revealing classified information.
Of course, not everyone is following suit. But outlets like the Times and AP are important bellwethers, and they’re following protocol used by the transgender community. William Leap, a professor at American University who specializes in queer linguistics, says the unofficial first rule is to respect an individual’s wishes when it comes to language. At a conference dealing with LGBTQ issues, he says, it would be common for someone to introduce themselves and say “their pronouns,” like “My name is Michelle, and my pronouns are she, her and him.” Clearly stating preferences resolves ambiguity, he says; to ignore those preferences is considered an affront.
The AP Stylebook guideline is similar to that rule of thumb but comes with tricky qualifiers: “Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.” Acquiring “physical characteristics” and “present[ing] themselves” could arguably be a surgical procedure — or wearing a bold shade of red lipstick. It’s a slippery slope when asserting that a person has to earn a pronoun through their behavior; it forces the person or organization making the demand to decide where the gender line is drawn. And the notion that anyone else should decide their gender is “offensive” to many in the transgender community, Leap said.
In a blog post published on Tuesday, the AP cited three factors that led them to their conclusion about Chelsea: testimony from an Army psychiatrist at Manning’s trial, who said Manning was diagnosed with “gender-identity disorder” in Iraq in 2010, a picture of Manning dressed as a woman, and Manning’s recent statement.
“It seems clear that Manning’s new identity, including the name Chelsea, is a real thing to her,” wrote standards editor Tom Kent. “The spirit of the Stylebook entry is that, after consideration, AP can call people what they wish to be called.”
In her statement, Manning said she planned to start hormone therapy as soon as possible.
The government has grappled with the gender line, too. The State Department, for instance, long required “reassignment surgery”—which doesn’t have a clear meaning in the medical community—as a prerequisite to having the gender switched on an American’s passport. In 2010, the government updated those rules to require only a note from a physician stating that the individual has undergone clinical treatment for a “gender transition.” Idaho relaxed its requirements for driver’s licenses this April, no longer requiring surgical change. And California recently passed a controversial law that allows transgender students in public schools to go in the locker rooms and play on the sports teams that correspond with their gender identity.
The prospect of a person living life as a him and then a her is still confusing for many Americans: A 2011 survey found that 3 in 10 do not know what it means to be transgender. And the idea that biological sex is divorced from culturally constructed gender—that there is something more fluid than a sex listed on a birth certificate—is not an easy one for many people.
“Identities that subvert those binaries make us uncomfortable,” said sociolinguist Ben Zimmer, executive producer at Vocabulary.com.
Pronouns can be political hot buttons, the same way marriage and husband and wife have been for those taking opposing sides when it comes to gay rights.
“Pronouns are personal,” Zimmer said. “They’re the most personal parts of speech.”
Sometimes people jealously guard such words, and not just in a conservative way. Leap points out that some members of the transgender community, who may feel they’ve had to fight for their pronouns, have been skeptical of Manning’s statements about identifying as a woman, feeling that he might be using their reality as an excuse for mental instability and illegal behavior. Spear, for one, advises that the media use “Manning” without committing to a pronoun until “it’s clear that this is not part of a particular strategy and people are not being a pawn in a game.” But again, it’s hard to know exactly how that threshold gets crossed.
For now, TIME copy chief Dan Adkison encourages reporters to include both names. “Because most readers currently know Bradley Manning as Bradley, not Chelsea, for a while, we are going to have to provide a few words of explanation near the top of the story about what has happened,” he says in an email. “As people get more used to saying Chelsea Manning, we’ll be able to move away from this.”
When will that be? His best guess is a few months, at least. “But I think it does a disservice to readers to pretend as though there were never a Bradley Manning, only a Chelsea Manning,” Adkison says.
At the very least it’s clear that people coming at a high-profile case like Manning’s—from many angles—need time to make a mental adjustment.