TikTok has become an unexpected platform for queer content: what began as an app commonly used by teenagers to learn viral dances has become a haven of LGBTQ+ solidarity. Older generations have since caught on, with Millennials hesitantly downloading the app in their swathes at the beginning of the pandemic. A year on, and LGBTQ+ content creators have championed queer education, dissipating information on everything from inclusive sex education to queer history.
And yet, a new, inclusive trend is sweeping the app: the “pronoun check” trend uses audio from Daft Punk’s ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ to “rate” each pronoun variation out of ten, allowing followers to understand which combinations are comfortable. Those partaking often display a connection with various pronoun uses, dismantling the idea that physical appearance translates directly into gender identity. “Femininity” does not equate to being a woman, “masculinity” to a man, or apparent gender “fluidity” to being non-binary, as users @graceful.addison and @steffonofficial demonstrate:
Dispelling the idea that pronouns are somehow static or one-dimensional, “pronoun checks” introduce TikTok users, LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ folk alike, to the notion of using multiple pronoun variations. These variations can be in flux: one day, a person might use “she/her”, and the next, “they/them.”
Speaking to my fourteen-year-old sister, I was delighted to hear that not only did she understand what pronouns were, but that she learnt about them on TikTok. When I was her age, almost ten years ago, I knew nothing about the diversity of pronoun use: starting school in 2002, I felt the legacy of Section 28, which banned all discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom. These days, it’s not uncommon for teenagers to put their pronouns in the bios of their social media accounts, and this fills my queer heart with joy. Even if the sex you were assigned at birth matches your current gender expression, making pronouns clear by placing them in email signatures and bios alike helps trans folk by normalising the discussion. Pronouns should never be assumed, just as the “pronoun check” trend reinforces.
I wasn’t surprised that my sister had gathered her information from the internet rather than the classroom: at present, LGBTQ+ inclusive education in schools is failing, and TikTok is clearly picking up the task. The UK curriculum on sex and relationship education does not currently require that students are taught about pronouns besides the basic definition that accompanies English and modern foreign languages: the relationship between pronouns and gender identity is not taught. Complex though it can be, teenagers are proving themselves capable of understanding: the engagement of many in this viral TikTok trend has demonstrated this.
To combat the lack of education on pronoun use in classrooms, LGBTQ+ charities such as Just Like Us exist to help. Chief Executive Dominic Arnall is wholly enthusiastic about the potential TikTok wields to evoke positive discourse around pronoun use, remarking: “It’s great that so many LGBT+ young people feel comfortable to express themselves and share their pronouns on TikTok. Staying safe online is vital for young people. At Just Like Us, we often see that schools are still not safe and welcoming places for LGBT+ young people…social media shouldn’t be the only place that LGBT+ young people feel able to be themselves – schools need to be safe, welcoming, and happy places for all pupils.”
Highlighting the resources Just Like Us provide, he continues: “Although there have been several legislation changes for LGBT+ adults in the UK over the past few years, not enough has changed in schools when it comes to LGBT+ inclusion. We have free resources on pronouns, including how to teach them in modern foreign language lessons, available in our School Diversity Week toolkit.”
Not only is TikTok broadening perspectives on pronoun use, but it has facilitated a sense of global queer solidarity: before being banned in India, TikTok was a hub for queer empowerment. Poet and activist Aditya Tiwari remarks: “TikTok gave queer people, especially the kids from small towns, a vivid platform to express themselves and be their authentic selves.”
However, LGBTQ+ TikTok hasn’t been without its woes. Online abuse is sadly, still prevalent, as Aditya acknowledges: “Sadly, it made them vulnerable to a lot of bullying and homophobia, which is disheartening. Times are different now. When I was growing up, I barely saw anyone who looked like me. The world will never make it easy for people like us. The more brown queer people that come out and claim spaces, the safer we’re making it for other queer people – we have to lift each other up.”
Negativity aside, it’s clear that the “pronoun check” trend is queering the boundaries of pronoun use. Opening up a space for progressive discourse around gender identity and inclusive language, its merits are paying off for Gen Zs like my little sister, who not only understand what pronouns are, but proudly display theirs in their Instagram bio.