By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
You may have noticed a trend growing over the last few years where people are including their pronouns next to their name in places like email signatures, author credits (see mine above), social media profiles and other places. What’s the deal? Why is it so important that people know what your pronouns are?
The use of pronouns when referring to any individual is indicative of their gender identity. We refer to women and girls as “she/her” and we refer to men and boys as “he/him”. As more and more people are exploring and learning more about their own self-identity, they come to find that they their sense of self doesn’t necessarily confirm with society’s construct of gender. Remember that “gender” refers to the outward appearance and role of individuals in society based upon masculine and feminine ideals. This is expressed in everything from aesthetic appearance, functions in society, social roles, and other factors. While “gender” is typically based on genitalia (as assigned at birth), it is not directly linked to anatomical or physiological characteristics of an individual. Thus, gender identity is not synonymous with reproductive capability or vice versa, no matter how much society tries to convince us otherwise.
Gender is traditionally based on a binary definition, that is either your male or female, but this is very limiting to the true complexity and diversity of self-identity and self-expression. Rather, gender can be better seen as a spectrum in which male and female represents to ends of the spectrum, but any individual can express themselves within that spectrum based on their own sense of self and definition of gender. Even more so, some people may even identify as “non-binary” in which their gender identity doesn’t conform to the gender binary spectrum.
Since pronouns are the most used way to express gender identity, they have become an important part of one’s own sense of self. Something as simple as correct pronoun use helps to validate an individual’s own self-identity within their social circles and their greater acceptance within society. For cisgender individuals, that is individuals whose gender identity conforms to their gender assigned at birth, pronouns are typically an afterthought. Whereas for transgender, non-binary and intersex individuals, pronouns have come to the forefront of acceptance and equality regarding gender identity. It is important to recognize that pronouns are expressed by cisgender, transgender, intersex, and non-binary individuals alike is they are an important component of promoting equality, diversity, acceptance, and inclusion initiatives for all.
Now expressing pronouns isn’t just about promoting these things, but they also contribute to one’s own self-identity and ultimately, their wellbeing. Remember that self-identity represents a combination of personality traits, abilities, physical attributes, interests, hobbies, social roles, and other aspects that ultimately make up who you are as a person. People gain a sense of their identity through their life experiences, social networks, family, community, education, working, physical location and countless other factors. That identity translates into feeling valued and accepted into their community with which they identify. Feeling more valued and accepted within your community contributes to more positive wellbeing, improved mental health, greater sense of belongness, motivation, optimistic outlook in life. People who feel like they are validated and accepted tend to be more productive, express openness to new experiences, are more motivated in their daily lives and report an overall higher quality of life.
Expressing your own pronouns, regardless of your gender identity helps to normalize this form of self-expression so that people who identify as transgender, intersex, and non-binary will be able to openly express their gender identity without the worry and anxiety that has long accompanied such expression. Further making this the non-issue that it is. You will see the typical “he/him” and “she/her” pronouns, but you may also see “they/them” and other kinds that are unique to the individual expressing them. Even if their physical appearance doesn’t typically conform to the traditional representations of their pronouns, it’s not your place to question them. In fact, the only question you should ask is when you are unsure of a person’s pronouns, simply ask “what are your pronouns?” and move on.
For all of us as sports psychologists, we have, had, and will have people in our organizations and teams who represent a diversity of gender identities. Adding pronouns to introduction and ice breaking activities, asking your athletes what their pronouns are, and other simple actions will make a big impact toward normalizing and educating people about the diversity of gender identity as well as making your team and organization more accepting and inclusive for all.
David "Dirk" Smith M.Sc, SDL, CSCS, (He/Him) is a sport psychology expert, strength & conditioning coach, swimming coach, sports diversity leader, published research scientist, teacher, writer, journalist, and athlete. He brings over 12 years of experience, education, and training to empower athletes to build self efficacy, strength, confidence, and express themselves through sport.