Can Chelsea Manning be sued in civil court by anyone named in the documents that were leaked? refers to Chelsea Manning as "he." There has been a fair amount of back-and-forth editing on this point, and a mod has now directed that we take it to meta, so I am doing that.

Frankly, I find the phrasing of that question's title rather confusing, seeing as "Chelsea" is a girl's name, and Manning has specified that she is indeed a woman. The question author claims that past tense references to Manning before she announced that she was a woman should use the masculine gender. Being transgender is a lifelong condition. I find myself unable to accept the author's logic.

What should we do about this? What should we do in other cases of disagreement about a person's grammatical gender?

("Grammatical gender" as opposed to actual gender; to my knowledge everyone agrees Manning is a woman.)

  • 4
    Just to be clear, the disagreement is specifically about references to gender that predate the official gender change. Not to the present (which seems to have pretty unambiguous grammar/style rules)
    – user0306
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 7:54
  • I'm not sure Manning ever referred to it as a "gender change," or that she would regard that as accurate terminology, but I'm equally unsure that there's another concise way of phrasing it that isn't even more inaccurate.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 7:57
  • The date of official announcement by Manning (or the date of legal name/documented-gender change, assuming there was one and is earlier than the announcement) are the only 2 factual dates that can be used.
    – user0306
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 8:02
  • 2
    There seems to be (at least) two questions here: 1) Whether or not a transgendered person's pronoun preferences should be treated as retrospective, which is a more general question and 2) whether, in this particular case, Chelsea's request that from today refers to use or referent, which is more specific (that is, whether from today refers the time that the pronoun is used, or the point in time that Chelsea is referred to).
    – jimsug
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 8:09

5 Answers 5


Thank you for posting this. I, too, do not accept the author's logic. As a general rule, it is simply polite practice to refer people in the way they wish to be described. In this case, Manning has explicitly stated a preference:

I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).

In this case, it seems clear from context that "starting today" means "please start doing this thing now," not that pre-transition acts should be described using masculine pronouns, as DVK insists. The phrase "starting today" is explicitly present to indicate that the request begins immediately, not after any legal formalities, medical procedures, changes in dress or appearance, or anything else takes place. It does not mean "starting today, please use masculine pronouns when talking about the past." It would have said that if that's what it meant. I'll note that DVK seems fine describing pre-transition actions with the name "Chelsea," but balks only at the pronoun. This doesn't make sense.

Beyond that, this community is far from the first to address this question, and a number of style guides have arisen. GLAAD's style guide is in wide use. It says:

Use the pronoun that matches the person's authentic gender. A person who identifies as a certain gender, whether or not that person has taken hormones or undergone surgery, should be referred to using the pronouns appropriate for that gender. If you are not certain which pronoun to use, ask the person, "What pronouns do you use?"

They also address this specific situation:

DO avoid male pronouns and Caitlyn's prior name, even when referring to events in her past. For example, "Prior to her transition, Caitlyn Jenner won the gold medal in the men's decathlon at the Summer Olympics held in Montreal in 1976."

This style has been adopted by major media outlets, outlets that have taken good care to get this right, and these organizations have used female pronouns. If this was not the preferred style, Manning's representatives (and trans activists) would have made their views known in the past several years. As an example of this, the New York Times today used female pronouns to describe past events:

She copied hundreds of thousands of military incident logs from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars

The same guideline is used on Wikipedia: "This applies in references to any phase of that person's life, unless the subject has indicated a preference otherwise." That page also makes a helpful analogy to changes of name. If Betty Smith graduates college and later changes her name to Betty Miller, it's still standard practice to write something like "Miller graduated with a degree in Art History in 1975," even though she used the name Smith at the time. Similarly, one can easily write about past events in Manning's life using female pronouns, even though she used male pronouns at those times.

TL;DR: the standard practice should be to follow the style used by major media organizations and always use the pronouns consistent with an individual's gender identity unless the subject has stated another preference.


The matter reduces to a very simple question: why should a question or answer ever be edited. Here are some legitimate reasons: bad spelling, bad punctuation, bad grammar (not normatively, but actually "not English" mistakes). Then we get into the "okay if..." realm: if the edit resolves an unclarity or removes wording that appears to request legal advice. Such edits should be minimal, and are justified on the grounds that the alternative is closing the question.

It is absolutely contrary to the principles of SE editing to change the content of viewpoint of a Q or A. If some jerk posts and includes a politically incorrect statement such as "all profit should be distributed equally to the proletariat", you can downvote the Q or A, or if it is just a political rant than it can be deleted entirely, but the uncomfortable claim should not be edited out of existence.

The sole arbiter of the wording in this post should be the question-asker. If he/she/it/they want to stick with "he", they must be allowed to. If he/she/it/they want to call the person in question "Bradley", they must be allowed to. If you can persuade the aforementioned to change their text, you also have the right. Unfortunately, you have the recourse of ideological downvoting (voting not on the objective value of the Q or A, but voting on extraneous grounds like "This question presupposes a political viewpoint that I don't like"). Ideological editing, along with safe spaces, is such an unspeakable horror that it absolutely must be squelched.

(Let's see how many downvotes I can generate)

  • 1
    You earned my upvote but I would caution that there are some things that are so "hot" that we can't readily depend on users to follow or respect the community norms, like those you have described. If in this case the post had not been edited to remove pronouns we might have had to lock it to prevent recurring comment and edit wars over the irrelevant and off-topic but apparently raging dispute over pronouns. More generally, I think we should probably encourage edits that remove inflammatory language that distracts from on-topic Q&A. I.e., "no trolling in questions allowed!"
    – feetwet Mod
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 18:55
  • I understand the mod dilemma, and certainly edit wars are to be avoided. I think patently inflammatory language i.e. fighting words aren't sacred, but great caution should be used. Free speech and all... Prior to invoking a nuclear option, I suggest using persuasion; the nuclear option should only be exercised by a moderator, following something resembling the law (i.e. not on a whim). Due process clause!!
    – user6726
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 20:54

Issue is moot. The pronoun was replaced by a surname. No need to set out a policy yet.

  • 3
    Do you generally favor Sandra Day Oconnor's opinions? Just asking.
    – user6726
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 19:07
  • Yet, or indeed ever. Why should Law.SE have a policy on matters of grammar? Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 15:20
  • 1
    @TimLymington It's not a matter of grammar. "Chelsea brushed her teeth" and "Chelsea brushed his teeth" are both grammatical. Note that simply being the wrong word to use doesn't make something ungrammatical. "Chelsea is a bicycle" is grammatical, even though "bicycle" is the wrong word and "person" should be used instead. Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 22:26
  • Replacing every pronoun with the noun it, er, I mean, the pronoun refers to isn't feasible in anything but the shortest piece of writing. It, er, I mean, replacing every pronoun with the noun refers to isn't a solution to the problem we, er, I mean, the users of Law Stack Exchange are facing at the moment. Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 22:31
  • @DavidRicherby: Thank you for defining 'grammar' for me. Nonetheless, the issue asked about is "a person's grammatical gender": if you have something else in mind, perhaps another question is in order. Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 22:53
  • 2
    @TimLymington English doesn't have grammatical gender. Grammatical gender is the concept (e.g., in French and German) where nouns are assigned to classes "masculine", "feminine" and so on. For example, "railway station" is feminine in French (la gare), whereas "train" is masculine (le train), despite neither of these things having any sexual characteristics. Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 23:10

Gender is complicated, and every person experiences it slightly differently. This answer will consist of generalizations which don't apply to every last person on Earth. It is likely that a certain amount of case-by-case problem solving is inevitable.

First rule of thumb: Do as the subject asks.

Manning wrote this:

As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility). I look forward to receiving letters from supporters and having the opportunity to write back.

Read in context: It is implausible that "starting today" means "when talking about events that happened after today." A much more natural reading of that sentence, especially with the "since childhood" line, is "when writing or speaking about me after today, regardless of the time period under discussion."

Second rule of thumb: Balance of probabilities

For most people, gender is fixed from an early age (if not from birth). This remains true even in the trans community. There are people for whom this is not the case, but they're not (just) called "trans." They're called "genderfluid." As far as I am aware, Manning has never called herself "genderfluid" or claimed that she experienced a change in her gender.

If someone wants to claim that Manning is genderfluid, they should present evidence for that assertion.

Final rule of thumb: Recast the sentence to avoid the pronoun

The current top answer to the original question does not mention Manning's gender at all. This is difficult but highly unlikely to offend anyone, provided the phrasing looks reasonably natural. It is more time consuming than typical writing and will require frequently stopping to recast a sentence and remove the pronoun. In my opinion, it is much better to find out the correct pronoun, if at all possible.


The question pertains to the actions taken back when all the official documents used masculine pronoun, specifically, the actual charges, e.g.

SPECIFICATION 4: In that Private First Class Bradley E. Manning, U.S. Army, did, at or near Contingency Operating Station Hammer, Iraq, between on or about 31 December 2009 and on or about 5 January 2010, steal, purloin, or knowingly convert to his use or the use of another,

and prior to 2013 gender change announcement.

As such:

  • Present-specific should be feminine (e.g. the question that birthed this meta discussion uses Manning's female name in the subject)

  • Specific pre-2013 items should use the same masculine as official documentation, which was NOT at the time contradicted by Manning.

P.S. In general, as an experienced SE user, I'd say a good edit would simply remove gendered wording if possible to avoid ambiguity. However, that's neither here nor there as far as general style/grammar rules.

  • 5
    If we had a question on, say, a hypothetical crime committed by Marilyn Monroe as a teenager, would you insist the question describe her only as Norma Jeane Mortenson? We retroactively use current names when describing the past all the time, and so retroactively using current pronouns when describing the past should be no different. Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 8:26
  • 1
    @ZachLipton - assuming I was aware that was the teenage name, and discussing a legal matter - absolutely. Same for lady gaga (who I definitely know wasn't named that as a teenager). Similarly, when describing the past of a married woman, you'd use "Ms. Maiden-name" and not "Mrs. Married-name", assuming she chose to take spouse's last name.
    – user0306
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 8:28
  • @ZachLipton - eff it, even simpler example. When talking about my own past, I'd choose to use my name's past version, since then legally-changed.
    – user0306
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 8:32
  • @ZachLipton - i'll just ask the experts: law.stackexchange.com/questions/16487/…
    – user0306
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 8:39

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .