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Pronouns in Bio: Why We Must Strive to Be Gender-Inclusive in the Digital Age

By: Brynne Levine

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term social media as “forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos)” (Merriam-Webster). The concept of social media has existed since the year 1997 with the advent of the site, its features included the ability to create and customize a profile, create a list of connections, and message individuals and groups within pages (Hootsuite). Although SixDegrees initially shuttered its doors in 2000 after a 125 million dollar payout, its influence lives on. From Friendster to Myspace to the Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram apps we know and love today, social media provides a unique social experience for each individual user. It is a place where we can interact with others and express ourselves in ways we may be unable to in the real world.

Self-expression may be one of the biggest draws to any social media site/application. Customizing a profile picture, personalizing a feed, and drafting up a bio are all ways to creatively and succinctly communicate important facets of one’s personality. One increasingly popular aspect of every social media bio is the inclusion of one’s pronouns. This phenomenon has a fairly simplistic answer: “it normalizes discussions about gender” (Forbes). Ultimately, gender is a social construct. Gender is literally the characteristics, behaviors, and norms people exhibit that is then associated with a certain biological sex. However, gender and sex are not interchangeable and exist as two widely varied concepts.

This means that gender isn’t necessarily linked to the way people present themselves, and that assuming someone identifies as one gender can ultimately be harmful. Putting pronouns in one’s bio is an easy way to avoid unintentional misgendering, which is the act of incorrectly identifying/assuming the gender identity of an individual. As well as this, many trans, gender-non-conforming (GNC), genderqueer, and non-binary individuals include their pronouns in their social media bios because in some cases, this is the only safe place where they can identify as the gender they prefer without fear of transphobia (although this is subjective, as transphobia exists rampantly online). These same non-cis (cis, short for cisgender, means people who identify as the sex they were assigned at birth, so the term non-cis is an umbrella term for people who identify outside of this definition) individuals often also encourage others to include their pronouns in their social media bios, regardless of their gender expression, again as an act of normalization to foster further open discussion regarding the fluidity of gender.

But why just stop at including one’s gender in their social media bios? There are so many other online spaces, particularly in the midst of this pandemic where everything is trending digitally, to properly and safely identify oneself with their correct pronouns. For example, there is also a concerted effort to include one’s pronouns within e-mail signatures as well. This is because “‘Including pronouns in your email signature and social media profiles is an important move towards inclusivity,’ says LGBT+ Inclusion Consultant Gina Battye” (Forbes). As aforementioned, it’s so important in this day and age to be aware of gender inclusivity and to promote gender diversity within a professional space. Inclusion of people of often-marginalized identities, such as non-cis people, is incredibly easy, so why not add the extra few terms to your e-mail signature if it promotes an overwhelming sense of safety and encouragement to those individuals?

According to that same Forbes article, Gina Battye also asserts that the normalization of pronouns in one’s online presence, “...‘creates a safe space so everyone can bring their whole self to work, no longer needing to censor or hide parts of themselves. This leads to greater productivity, creativity, and connection with colleagues and your organisational purpose’” (Forbes). This simple inclusion leads to a more productive work environment and will ease the unseen tension that many non-cis people constantly experience, often silently, in a cis-dominated workspace or environment. The direct inclusion of one’s pronouns in an e-mail signature also can avoid confusion in later communication, particularly for people, regardless of gender, who have names that are historically associated with one gender or not associated with one gender. Meaning a name like mine, Brynne, which exists across multiple languages and has no distinct gender association, will often get a confusing array of pronouns in response. So, when I include my pronouns (they/them/theirs), it negates this awkwardness and confusion and allows open communication in which I know I’m not being unconsciously misgendered.

But I again pose the question, why stop there? Social media bios and e-mail signatures are both great ways to normalize gender discussion and create safe spaces for non-cis-identifying individuals, but there’s always more. Take Zoom, for example, an application that many of us didn’t know existed until last March, when it overtook most of our physical social interactions. Zoom offers the option within meetings to change one’s display name. Within this ability, there’s been an influx of users inputting their pronouns next to their names in these display categories. For example, if you search the term “pronouns in zoom” in Google, you’ll immediately be linked to a search page where universities such as Duke, UCSF, Stony Brook, and NYU (among many others) offer full, in-depth instructions and tool-kits for students and faculty alike to learn how to upload their pronouns into their display names.

The inclusion of pronouns in virtual spaces is important in fostering safe, inclusive, and productive environments, especially amidst a global pandemic, when many people are already struggling. Outside of the virtual world, wearing pins that proclaim one’s pronouns, or introducing oneself with one’s pronouns are other ways to establish oneself as an inclusive, open individual. As someone who identifies outside of the gender binary, I know that being misgendered (willfully or accidentally) can be exhausting. I also know of the alienation I, among other GNC, genderqueer, and trans individuals face within a classroom setting, as the only person who exists outside of this gender binary. And although including pronouns in one’s social media bio, e-mail signature, or Zoom display name doesn’t necessarily stop the misgendering (trust me, I know it doesn’t), moving towards the normalization of genders outside of being cisgender is crucial. The concept of gender is ultimately an imagined one, something that humankind existed without for millennia, and something we will again shed as time passes. I encourage you to go out into the world and take this advice, to include your pronouns in your online presence, in your physical presence, and to do your part to make non-cis people feel safe and welcome. It’s as easy as saying:

Hi, my name is Brynne Levine, and my pronouns are they/them/theirs.

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