Instagram’s pronouns feature is fine – but it won’t stop anti-trans abuse

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Dado Ruvić/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Dado Ruvić/Reuters

Instagram has unveiled a new feature that lets users display their gender pronouns in their account’s bio without having to manually enter said pronouns themselves. Which is cool! And also something untold numbers of people are already doing, in case you haven’t kept up with social media since the heavy-banged days of MySpace.

“Add pronouns to your profile,” the social media platform said when announcing the news via Twitter on Tuesday. “The new field is available in a few countries, with plans for more.”

Related: Celebrate transgender day of visibility by looking at me, specifically | Harron Walker

One of those “few countries” appears to be the United States – or, at least the independent principality of my New York City bedroom – where I can now add up to four pronouns beside my name by clicking on the “edit profile” button.

It’s not totally clear why Instagram has rolled out this feature; representatives for the company did not respond to my request for comment for this story, nor do they appear to have responded to similar requests from other reporters covering the announcement at press time. I am sure people will say it’s a step in the right direction – considering how people were already taking it upon themselves to display pronouns in their bio before Instagram made this change, why not formally incorporate it into the app’s design?

I’m sure many people out there probably think that this move has something to do with trans people – but in the words of television personality and former Real Housewives of Atlanta cast member NeNe Leakes, why am I in it? First of all, there are only about 1.4 million trans people in the United States, according to a 2016 estimation by the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, so I doubt we’re considered a profitable enough market for such a big heartless corporation like Instagram – which is owned by the even bigger, more heart-devoid corporation known as Facebook – to concern itself with. Besides, everybody’s got pronouns! You, me, that powder-pink velvet couch I bought offline that’s too big for my apartment but too pretty to get rid of – everybody!

Then again, trans people deal with people using the wrong pronouns all the time, whether by mistake or intentionally hurtful misgendering, so even if this decision isn’t directly about trans people, it’s still about trans people in some greater, nebulous sense. Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the decision to not let users fill out any pronouns they want to – you have to pick from a pre-selected list of a few dozen options including she/her/hers, he/him/his, and they/them/theirs, though you can fill out a form to request another option– was intended for trans people’s benefit. This way, we can avoid all the bad transphobic jokes via the pronouns section about how people identify as “Make/America/Great Again” or whatever. On the downside, though, now trans people can’t get their good transphobic jokes in about how their pronouns are “Slut/For/Mare of Easttown.” It’s a compromise, I guess.

Speaking from experience, if someone’s going to harass a trans person online, they probably won’t bother to make sure they’re not misgendering the target of their hateful vitriol. And being on the receiving end of that ire, I don’t really care so much whether the person harassing me has my pronouns straight. If I get a DM from a total stranger telling me to “suck a [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] choke on it, you stupid [REDACTED] [REDACTED] [REDACTED]! I hope you [REDACTED] die, you [REDACTED] man!”, my first thought isn’t going to be “I can’t believe they called me a man!”

That’s why I’m personally way more into some recent anti-harassment tools that Instagram rolled out in April than I am this new pronoun feature – like the feature that lets you block someone in perpetuity, no matter how many accounts they create.

Now, if only Instagram would do something about all the trans sex workers whose accounts it shadowbans and deletes without warning for allegedly violating adult content policies! If the app wants to improve trans users’ experiences, perhaps it should start there.

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