Against a backdrop of a global pandemic, climate disaster, racial injustice and an upcoming election season the likes of which we’ve never seen before, it’s likely you have enough on your plate. But, October is LGBTQ+ history month, and I’m here to ask you to care about one more thing: putting your pronouns in your social media bio. It’s a simple thing that speaks volumes for normalizing queerness. The importance of proper pronoun use is especially salient for queer people because it affirms identities – identities that many have been historically not afforded.
I’d argue it’s especially important for cis allies to participate in order to show solidarity to their non-binary friends. The act breaks apart the old-fashioned and scientifically inaccurate concepts about gender that are still ingrained in 21st century culture.
I felt it’s necessary to include a glossary of vocabulary terms because it’s important to me that we’re all on the same page, so let’s go over a couple words.
These are the same pronouns you learned about in third grade English class: I, you, he, she, we, et cetera. When I talk about preferred pronouns, this refers to what you wish to be called by others. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is!
Short for biography, a bio is a small section on a social media user’s profile. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook all have bio features.
Short for cisgender, cis means your gender identity is the same as the gender you were assigned at birth. I’m cisgender! I was assigned female at birth, and I identify as female.
I use this as an umbrella term for anyone who is not heterosexual or cisgender. If you are not queer, I wouldn’t recommend you use this term, as many still find it to be offensive when someone who isn’t in the community uses it. If you’re looking to use accurate, non-offensive language (good for you!), I’d recommend using an acronym. LGBTQ+ is usually a safe bet. But, that’s pretty clunky, and in my experience, most queer people don’t make a habit of bothering with acronyms such as these. “Queer” or “gay” are usually perfectly effective catch-all terms for the community, so please know when I use the word “queer,” I’m using it synonymously with LGBTQ+.
Short for non-binary, nb is is a catch-all term for a person who doesn’t identify with or rejects the traditional gender binary of male and female. Another popular term for this is genderqueer.
All caught up? Let’s get started.
Nature creates bodies; we put them into boxes.
Gender is a social construct. By that, I mean gender is an idea created by humans, established by societies and acted out every day through socialization. Nature simply creates bodies. Humans are the ones to categorize and organize them.
There are more than two genders. If you don’t understand this fact, I’d like to send you Judith Lorber’s way. Lorber is a professor emerita of sociology and women’s studies at the City University of New York, and she’s able to speak more intelligently and eloquently about gender as a social construct than I can. Plus, she establishes a baseline understanding of what it means to say there are more than two genders. I’d recommend giving her essay, “The social construction of gender” a read.
According to Lorber, when men and women adopt a gender, they play it as a role through everyday actions. In other words, we are acting our gender. Lorber does a fantastic job of explaining how we “do gender” every day without thinking about it, and she maintains the act of gendering starts at birth and is performed constantly from that moment onwards. This is reflective of gender as a social institution because gender is “one of the major ways humans organize their lives.” Building an understanding of gender with the foundational knowledge that gender is something humans have created will help create more compassion, sympathy and love for people who exist outside of the “male” and “female” boxes. (And for the purposes of this column, it should aid in convincing you why you should put your pronouns in your bio).
Additionally, it’s crucial to separate gender from sex. Sex often refers to one’s biology and chromosomes. The school of thought here follows like this: If you have a uterus and XX chromosomes, you’re a female, and so on. We know this isn’t always true because sex doesn’t exist in a binary, either. The point is gender exists on a spectrum, and because of that, pronouns play a very special role in affirming the ways in which a person prefers to be perceived.
There is symbolic significance to a social media bio.
Most people my age have an understanding of the importance of a social media bio. When you put something in your bio, you’re telling anyone who visits your profile the type of person you are. “Hey, world! There are the things that matter to me!” Within the character limit, 150 for Instagram, 160 for Twitter and 101 for Facebook, you have the freedom to promote whatever you want.
A social media profile is often a manicured portfolio, where users construct posts in order to make others perceive them in a strategic way, and it only makes sense the same would apply for the bio. A series of conscious decisions made by the user is what gives the bio a symbolic weight. Imagine if Twitter generated a bio for you based on what Twitter thinks your interests are. Nobody would think a bio had any significance. It’s the deliberate action that gives someone’s bio consequence.
So, putting your pronouns in your bio is a form of symbolic solidarity. It is a way of displaying your support for queer people. It’s an act of allegiance. By putting your pronouns in your bio, you’re saying, “I see you.”
You are standing in opposition to violence directed at trans/nb people by putting your pronouns in your bio.
My trans and nb friends display a great deal of bravery in displaying their preferred pronouns because they are targets for violence and discrimination. While queer advocate groups have made outstanding progress in securing rights, queer people are still regularly targeted for hate crimes. In general, it is often unsafe to exist as a queer person today.
We live in a world of cisnormativity, which is the idea that we tend to think cisgender identities are natural and correct, while assuming trans/nb identities are abnormal and incorrect (check out Zimmerman’s piece for more). When you put your pronouns in your bio, you’re telling trans/nb people they have your respect, that they are normal and correct. By doing so, you are halting something as small as misgendering – a microaggression where someone mistakenly refers to another person with incorrect gendered language – and something as big as the oppression and even murder of trans/nb people. The simple act serves a multitude of functions: in fighting for justice, in destigmatizing “otherness” in gender expression and in eliminating potential confusion about your own identity.
There’s also an increased precedent for putting your pronouns in your bio. The Sept. 11 issue of the Pittsburg State Collegio, (a Kansas newspaper The Standard subscribes to, caught my eye when I was in the early stages of writing this article. On the front page of The Collegio, above the fold, was the headline “Students express support for pronoun display on Canvas” by copy editor Brock Willard. Canvas, PSU’s equivalent of Blackboard, now offers students the ability to display pronouns on their profile and in virtual classes. And PSU students and alumni are loving it.
PSU junior Fayelyn Kmiec told the Collegio the new feature is “normalizing” for everyone and called it “a step in the right direction towards acceptance.”
There is currently no option to display one’s preferred pronouns on Blackboard, but you can do so on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. And, you should.
“I don’t need to put ‘she/her’ in my bio because it’s obvious to everyone that I’m a girl.”
This is a common objection and one that upon first glance seems reasonable. However, it misses the point of pronoun display. The act is not just about clearing up any confusion about one’s gender identity, although that is certainly a function of them. In order to understand what makes a statement like, “I don’t need to include my pronouns because my gender is clear” problematic, we need to talk about “passing.”
“Passing” is a term often used by queer communities and racial minorities in reference to how someone might perceive them. For instance, someone might say a Black girl who has light skin or doesn’t have some of the features traditionally associated with Blackness is “white-passing.” Gay men who don’t “look gay” can be labeled as “straight-passing.”
The same goes for people who exist outside of the traditional gender binary. A transgender man who has had top surgery, a medical procedure that reconstructs the chest to affirm gender identity, and takes testosterone medication might “pass” for a cis man – you wouldn’t know he wasn’t cis unless he told you.
Of course, it’s not always the goal of trans/nb people to “pass” as anything, and it shouldn’t have to be. Nb people owe it to nobody to look a certain way, and the community’s experimentation with androgyny and different gender presentations are often a result of the rejection some nb people have to the traditional boxes of male/female.
This is all to say that it being “obvious” that I am a girl has no relevance to the importance of pronouns in my bio. I put my pronouns in my bio to stand in opposition to the stigmatization of my trans and nb friends. I do it so people know I will not stand for harassment and hate for the queer community. And, I do it so people know how I’d like to be called.
Removing the stigma surrounding genderqueer people is no easy task. Perhaps there will always be unaccepting people who don’t/won’t understand what it means to exist outside of the gender binary. But, I do believe that one small thing you can do to make nb people feel more accepted and destroying the taboo surrounding gender identity is to put your pronouns in your bio. I have demonstrated why you don’t need to be queer to do this. In fact, more straight and cisgender people should make their pronouns known in order to make this the new normal.
Looking to learn more? I absolutely recommend GST 170: Sex, Gender and Self with Federica Wanda Gentile. I learned more in that class than I have in the rest of my life put together.