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You Never Even Call Me by My Name

135601_dont-call-me-ariel-my-name-is-helveticaI never thought I’d be tempted by those gender-neutral pronouns, hir and ze and so on. But the case of Chelsea Manning does give one pause. On August 22, The New York Times announced that Private Manning, who is transgender, had requested henceforward to be referred to as female and addressed as “Chelsea.”

Curiously, as many commenters noted, in reporting the story the Times continued to refer to the whistle-blower-formerly-known-as-Bradley as he.

I’ve always thought the rule of thumb was to address people the way they wanted to be addressed. In Breaking Bad, when Walter Jr. asks to be called “Flynn,” I think his parents should set aside the generational suffix and call him Flynn until he changes his mind. This attitude has been tested over the years. My former mother-in-law, seeing my name in print, used to cross out my surname with heavy black marker and write my husband’s surname in its place. At the time, I felt robbed of an identity, disrespected for a choice that millions of other women were making. Meanwhile, she announced after six months of my addressing her by her first name that she wanted me to call her “Mother.” My own family traditions didn’t call for addressing your in-laws by the names you had used for your own parents; moreover (see above, about the marker), she and I were not close. But I swallowed hard and said things like, “Mother, may I help with the dishes?” and perhaps doing so kept the peace.

Looking back, I see that her need to maintain a certain world view, which included daughters-in-law who shared her surname and called her Mother, superseded any inclination to defer to my choices in these matters. I see also that I should have asked her in the first place how she preferred to be addressed. There are moments for each of us, I suspect, when the balance tips one way or the other. When my rebellious son, for instance, started calling me “Lucy,” I came down on him hard. “I am Mom to you, young man, and don’t you forget it.” When a young house manager from Louisiana addresses me at a theater where I do volunteer ushering, she calls me “Miss Lucy,” a nomenclature that makes me uncomfortable but clearly fits her sense of hierarchy and respect, so I smile and feel fond of her.

Such issues get more complicated when a subjective sense of identity clashes with outward appearance and community norms. Take, for instance, the case of an academic I know who appears entirely Caucasian but who identifies as African-American. His insistence on his own membership in that cohort, he claimed, allowed him to use what we call the N-word with impunity. Others, including African-Americans, objected strenuously.

Even in our daily lives as academics, the issue arises. When I entered the professoriat, I didn’t think I had strong feelings about how students addressed me. But when the first-years at Harvard automatically called me “Lucy,” I took umbrage. They weren’t addressing Skip Gates that way. Clearly they thought I was a graduate student or someone else far down in the pecking order. These days, most students say “Professor.” Those transferring from community colleges to my four-year institution often say “Doctor.” A few, in the old-school tradition wherein degrees were not flaunted, say “Ms.,” pronounced “Miz.” (The reconfigured usage of Ms. and Mrs. at the elementary- and high-school levels is a related topic, but I’ll pass by it here.) In all these cases, there’s a middle ground between my desire for an honorific and theirs for a form that feels right. Others, like my colleague who goes by “Professor Dan,” have found a different middle ground; some actually prefer the first name. But there’s often a little unspoken negotiation that goes on. And when students have graduated and I invite them to address me henceforward by my given name, the hesitation can last for months or even years.

This brings us around to Chelsea Manning. She has asked to be addressed as the female she understands herself to be. This seems the simplest and most straightforward approach, and it’s hard not to agree with the commenter who wrote, “Manning has announced her transition, and in my opinion NOW would be the appropriate time to start respecting her wishes regarding her identity.” But until a few days ago—apparently by design, so as not to roil the waters further during her sensational trial—Chelsea chose to stick with Bradley and he. That some have difficulty making such a sudden switch, or that millions continue to equate gender and biological sex, cannot be surprising. That I had trouble calling my mother-in-law “Mother” did not make me an uncaring daughter-in-law; that someone brought up as white claims a subjective sense of racial identity does not mollify our outrage at his use of a racial epithet. We all draw the lines at different places, but we do draw them. For me, Manning is now Chelsea, and good luck to her. But it still might be handy to have a ze at the ready.

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