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International Pronouns Day: Is Social Media a Safe Space for Gender Pronouns?

Social media platforms are inviting users to share their pronouns, but inclusivity is still an issue for the queer community online.

Is social media a safe space for gender pronouns?

Morena Espiritual’s Instagram profile showing their use of gender pronouns

As the first trans athlete to compete on an NCAA Division 1 men’s team, Schuyler Bailar isn’t afraid to publicly talk about social justice. His Instagram, which has 334,000 followers, is Bailar’s forum to discuss anything from transphobia to LGBTQ+ literacy. So when Instagram gave users the option to add pronouns to their profiles back in May, Bailar jumped at the opportunity to educate his audience.

“Put your pronouns in your bio! (Especially if you’re not trans!),” read the sign he posed with in the Instagram post (if you follow Bailar, you’ll know that signs are kind of his shtick). The photo carousel also included instructions on how to add your pronouns, why (“it creates a safe space for trans and gender nonconforming folks to share our pronouns and be gendered correctly”), and a note to cisgender people “who absolutely should share and help normalize sharing pronouns in daily interactions.”

The results were largely mixed. While some users commented that they’d add their pronouns right away, and thanked Bailar for his advice, others refused to do so and called Bailar out for promoting unnecessary separation between people. Some trolled him.

Schuyler Bailar sharing a post about using pronouns on social media

Schuyler Bailar sharing an Instagram post about using pronouns on social media

In many ways, the mass embrace of gender identity on social media, thanks in part to gender pronouns now being visible on popular platforms, is long overdue. Gay-straight alliances on college campuses have started meetings with a person’s PGP, or preferred gender pronouns, for over a decade. Since 2016, queer celebrities like singer Sam Smith, actor Amandla Stenberg, and “Queer Eye” hairstylist Jonathan Van Ness, to name a few, publicized their use of gender neutral and nonbinary pronouns.

For many people, gender identity is a large part of their lives. The introduction of pronouns on social media platforms has been a game changer for them because it affects how they present themselves to the world.

Since the advent of social media, queer people have pushed the limitations of websites and apps to better reflect their identities. Now, clarifying one’s pronouns online is only a click away. But does this mean the internet is finally on its way to becoming a safer place for the queer people? Let’s explore.

First, what are gender pronouns?

A person’s gender pronouns indicate how they personally identify and how they want to be identified by others. Traditionally, the pronouns “he/him” and “she/her” have been the options society has used to refer to others in person, on official documents, and in schools and the workplace. However, that norm is on its way out.

According to a 2020 survey by The Trevor Project, 25% of queer youth today use they/them pronouns, a combination of she/her and he/him, and neopronous like ze/zir. The latter refer to pronouns created during the 20th century, explains MyPronouns.org.

Gender pronouns on social media platforms

The adoption of pronouns is now being reflected online. In 2020 software developer and Twitch user ​​Alejo Pereyra helped the livestreaming service become one of the first social media platforms where users could list their pronouns via the plugin Twitch Chat Pronouns he created. Today, Twitch has 350 community tags related to gender, sexual orientation, race, and other identity references.

Instagram and LinkedIn, two of the largest social media platforms in the world, updated their products this year to enable gender pronouns. Twitter followed suit, recently announcing that visible pronouns will be an option in the next site update. Pinterest, too, added nine pronoun options for users, including ey/em and ve/ver. Even Slack, arguably the professional world’s largest messaging system, added the option for users to include pronouns on their platform back in May.

More and more adults in the U.S. know someone who identifies as transgender and/or nonbinary, the Pew Research Center reported in July; 42% and 26%, to be exact. Sharing one’s pronouns on social media and work platforms, the modern equivalent of a social circle, is a newer development, but it still has some history.

“I have been in spaces where people share their pronouns when they introduce themselves for 21 years, before the advent of social media,” educator and social justice leader Shige Sakurai says over email. “And my pronouns have been listed on social media virtually since I’ve had accounts—for 16 years.”

For Sakurai, a longtime advocate for the LGBTQ+ community who uses “they/them” pronouns, adding their pronouns to social media was a no-brainer. Sakurai, who actually founded International Pronouns Day three years ago, was the first person to be classified as nonbinary on a U.S. driver’s license in 2017. But the respect for their identity that ideally should come from others as a result of this move has always been mixed.

“The real issue is whether people respect me by respecting my pronouns, whether I have shared [them] on a social media profile, or verbally or in an email signature, or on a video chat display name,” Sakurai says. “Listing my pronouns gives people the cues on what to do, but often, they don’t do it. That can be really frustrating and difficult.”

Pronouns Day on social media

Pronouns Day Instagram page sharing information about pronouns use on social profiles

Why do people share their pronouns on social media?

Kaleb Catricala, LHMC, a trans man and mental health counselor who uses “he/him” pronouns, has specific memories of “hacking into Facebook” to change his pronouns to “they/them” before the platform added its current pronoun options. Years later, Catricala still includes his pronouns on social media and on his work platform, but notes that it feels less important at this point in his transition.

“I am consistently recognized as my gender by others (the beard helps),” he explains over email. “At the very least I want the option on platforms to continue to exist, for people to learn why it’s important, and maybe talk about gender!”

Nonbinary musician and Linktree user Morena Espiritual similarly mentioned visibility when speaking on why they’ve included their “they/he” pronouns on social media.

“I chose to list my pronouns because as a [transgender masculine] and nonbinary person, it’s important to me that people use the correct language to talk about me,” they say during our phone call. “I wanted to have it visible in a place where people could refer to it and be mindful when talking about me.

Freelancer writer Lola Méndez, a cisgender woman who identifies as “she/her,” shared her pronouns on social media and in her email signature to show support for her nonbinary peers.

“[I wanted] to normalize people not assuming someone’s gender based on their name or appearance and stand with my trans and nonbinary friends and colleagues,” Méndez says over email. “I [also] use the Spanish version of “her” (ella) as well, which does make me feel more seen as my Latinx heritage is as big a part of my identity as my gender.”

Twitter user and Freelancer writer Lola Méndez writes she/her on Twitter

Freelancer writer Lola Méndez writes she/her in her Twitter bio.

Has sharing pronouns made social media a safer space for the queer community?

“Social media is still social media,” Catricala, who specializes in the LGBTQ+ community, tells us over email. “I do think people feel more comfortable and confident in sharing more authentic versions of themselves on social media…We also still experience rude, invasive, and horrible interactions with others. Some people have talked about not adding their pronouns in order to avoid those interactions. It’s completely understandable. That can be a safety issue for them.”

Espiritual is well aware and acquainted with people who choose to either assume his identity or ignore it completely, calling it “the reality of humans.”

“It always feels good to recognize yourself, however you are, but there’s a certain level of fear as a trans, nonbinary marginalized person, especially as you’re gaining visibility. We live in a world where my identity is not respected.”

Still, they’d like to see the visibility of gender pronouns online progress. “It felt very normal, like it always should have been an option,” they say of adding their pronouns to social media.

"We live in a world where my identity is not respected."

Like Espiritual, queer counselor Alex Stitt, LMHC, who specializes in gender identity, is well aware of the negative personal effects that come with the positive.

“The inclusion of pronouns makes it easier to be found, and easier to be excluded,” Stitt says over email. “I will never know how many employment opportunities I may have lost because I’m transparent about my pronouns…Yet passive discrimination, and direct discrimination, remain a factor whenever someone is visible about their sexuality or gender identity.”

Sakurai, who has worked with the LGBTQ+ students for almost two decades at institutions including the University of Maryland and American University, highlights gender pronouns online as a means to an end. They believe social media has in fact gotten more toxic—separately, because of algorithms and the influence of big companies—and notes that “there is still much work to do” regarding gender identity, online and in real life.

“I also think that there’s a misimpression that sharing or expressing your pronouns is the purpose of the discussion around pronouns,” they say. “But sharing is a skill or practice to engage after you know how to respect others’ pronouns. The center or core practice is respecting and correctly using pronouns.”

There’s still work to be done

Because the markers of “normalcy,” and ultimately respect, in society are being white, cisgender, heterosexual and male, marginalized identities have rarely been treated as equal. As a result, the inclusion of gender pronouns on social media doesn’t seem to serve as a magical fix-it for online suddenly becoming a safe space.

While sharing your pronouns on social media can open the door to conversation, it’s ultimately up to the person engaging with the pronouns to make the effort to learn.

Méndez notes the privilege she has a cisgender woman sharing her pronouns not to reaffirm her gender identity to others. “Having my pronouns easily accessible [hasn’t] changed the way people interact with me, but that’s a privilege as I’m cisgendered, so I’m unlikely to face backlash over listing my pronouns.”

The opposite can be true for trans and nonbinary people.

“Of course, sometimes people can be difficult,” Catricala says. “They’ll talk about how everyone needs to be ‘special snowflakes’ or whatever other nonsense. I engage in those conversations in whatever way makes sense, but sometimes it’s not worth the energy. I’d rather focus on trans and nonbinary happiness and validation and/or gender euphoria!”

It’s a happiness that Sakurai says is just the beginning for progression in the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.

“Getting names and pronouns right merely opens the possibility of a more meaningful, respectful conversation that may then lead into even more substantive issues for our communities, such as resources, employment, housing, and violence, and how discrimination is impacting our communities,” they say.

The inclusion of gender pronouns on social media won’t suddenly make the internet a more equal place to exist. It’s no doubt an idea that most people are willing to accept. According to research from the Pew Research Center, over 50% of Americans have stated they’d be comfortable using gender-neutral pronouns when interacting with a person.

The rise of pronoun visibility in a society increasingly influenced by the internet shows that we’re already moving in the right direction. Now that it’s been introduced, we’re unlikely to go backwards. Still, social media is always going to be filled with people who don’t like anyone unlike them. In the face of that, cisgender, transgender and nonbinary people working to normalize gender pronoun visibility can continue to do their part to make online platforms as safe a place as possible.

 

About the author: Asia Ewart is a New York City-based journalist and writer covering all things culture, lifestyle and general news. Her work as a reporter and editor has appeared in Refinery29, Bustle, Gothamist, and the New York Daily News, among other publications.

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