Let me be clear: My sympathies are largely with Bradley Manning. Had I been the judge, he would have received the lightest possible sentence. And if he really wants to be a woman, I hope he gets to be, even if that has to happen in the federal military prison system. (That’ll be like trying to grow an orchid on a NASCAR race track.) But I don’t know, right now, how much of his current claim is based on legal strategy. I don’t know whether he’s going to walk the whole thing back in three months. As a person, I would try to honor his wishes. As a journalist, I have to ask questions.
Last week our culture panel, The Nose, tackled Bradley Manning’s declaration that he is a woman named Chelsea. Many interesting points were made, but all three of my panelists favored the notion of everybody — press included — honoring Manning’s request to refer to him from now on as said woman and as “she.”
In situations like that, I’ll often lean the other way, just to make sure the issue really gets discussed. And in this case, I had substantive questions anyway. (And these questions netted me a small but wriggling catch of irritated emails, which is why I’m dilating a little more on the topic.)
Should the press blithely acquiesce to everybody’s claim about who they are? No. Why not? Why isn’t it a simple matter of courtesy to honor somebody’s wishes in a matter like basic identity? Because sometimes those wishes contain agendas.
In 1980, all three candidates for president claimed to be born again Christians. (Medium-sized stuffed animal if you can name the third without Googling.) Ronald Reagan’s claim was worth looking at. He didn’t really participate in organized Christianity the way the other two guys did. That didn’t mean he was untruthful. But it was worth asking a few extra questions. You don’t really attend church, but you’ve accepted Jesus as your personal savior. How’d that happen? (And what was up with the astrology?)
In 2000, George W. Bush said he was a reformed alcoholic. Or something like that. He said he’d had a drinking problem and that it went away, thanks to a 1985 meeting with Bill Graham followed by Bible study. Well, probably. But it seemed worth asking about. Graham didn’t remember it exactly that way. Was Bush really ever an alcoholic and was he now in some convincing state of recovery. Why not just accept what he claimed about himself? Because the claim could have numerous possible agendas, including the inoculation of Bush against questions about prior cocaine use.
What if George Zimmerman had claimed — as others did about him — that he was Latino? His mother is Peruvian. Would it have been right to honor his self-identification as a person of color or better to analyze that claim? I think you know the answer.
As I wrote to one woman who said I was smug, mean and “showing my age,” day in and day out, you WANT journalists to check out people’s stories. On certain occasions, we will do that with a claim that you, personally, would just accept at face value. It’s bad form to call us names on those occasions. We’re just doing our jobs.