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The importance of pronouns: Why Katie Barnes goes by they/them/their

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Katie Barnes is a woman and an athlete. But instead of responding to female pronouns, Barnes goes by they/them/their.

I'm often asked why I go by the pronouns they/them/their and not she/her/hers, especially since I identify as a woman.

"Shouldn't you be a she?" "Do you want to be a man?" "What in the world does "gender non-conforming" mean?"

These are just a sampling of the questions I have been asked. Personally, I don't mind answering, but let me be clear from the start: I am in fact one person.

My opinion about pronouns, what my pronouns mean to me, and how athletic spaces are affected by gender, perceived and confirmed, reflect a singular person's thought. I am not writing on behalf of all transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, and otherwise genderfluid individuals. I want to stress, however, the importance of this topic.

Pronouns are not frivolous; they are everything.

Have you ever been called the wrong name? I don't mean just once; I mean consistently, and repeatedly. One of my former staff members learned my name as Kathy, and every once in a while, he will call me that.

To get under my skin, my father will call me Lizzie (my middle name is Elizabeth). I absolutely abhor when this happens, because that's not my name *clap* *clap*. I'm not Lizzie or Kathy; both of those names just feel wrong.

It's a very similar feeling to when I wear a skirt - or anything feminine, really. I feel like I'm in disguise, only it's not Halloween. The discomfort my pronouns create for other people give a taste of the crippling hurt with which I live.

In our society we make assumptions about sex, gender, and how they interact. Those assumptions are damaging for those of us who exist outside of the given categories or without categories all together. Society assumes that only two sexes exist; that biological sex indicates gender identity; and that gender identity dictates gender expression. I live under the pretense that each of those assumptions is absolutely false. Society assumes that sex assigned at birth equates with gender identity. In my case, I was assigned female at birth and do identify as a woman. My pronouns, however come from my gender expression.

When I asked my class to tell me what it meant to be a woman they answered with a list consisting of: nurturing, caring, warm, good smelling, "toned" (instead of muscular), long hair, motherhood, yoga pants, and of course, pumpkin spice lattes. They identified different ways that society demands conformity in expressing gender. I use the pronouns I do because "she" and "her" carry connotations, assumptions, and expectations that do not match my reality. Each time I hear those pronouns associated with me, it's like being called Lizzie or Kathy; they just don't describe who I am or how I enter into spaces.

I am at a place in my life where I have the privilege to be "out" about my pronouns and demand to be affirmed. Not everyone has the privilege to tell the world how they identify. If I did not struggle with internalized homophobia on a basketball court for the better part of a decade, I might have come to some of the conclusions I have at an earlier point.

Though I may reject the assumptions about sex, gender identity and gender expression I laid out earlier, it has been my experience that sports reinforce all three. The effect of these assumptions is that deviating from accepted gender expression indicates queerness, which matters in sports. Female athletes often fight lesbian stereotypes because sport is an assumed masculine trait. It was my experience that this resistance can create a hyper-feminine atmosphere that polices gender expression in the locker room.

There are rules to femininity in sports that did not matter until I entered high school. Whereas just a couple of years prior, it wasn't strange to play without wearing makeup, all of a sudden it was mandatory. Teammates and opponents spent time on their game-day hairstyles and carefully applied their eyeliner. The emphasis on femininity on the court came out of nowhere for me, and I was left sticking out like a sore thumb with my brown skin, unpainted nails, and foundation-less face.

To not conform meant "difference" and "queerness" in a way that I was not willing to accept because of the negativity I perceived. I knew I was gay, and I knew I was more masculine than how I presented, but I didn't know how to do that and play basketball at the age of 16.

Men experience something similar. It is assumed that gay men could not possibly play football because gayness is feminine. People like Michael Sam, Esera Tuaolo and Dave Kopay, of course, have had something to say about that for decades.

Sports create dichotomous spaces that alienate people who do not fit into neat boxes. With the emergence of trans athletes like Kye Allums, Fallon Fox, Cory Oskam and Chris Mosier, more students are finding role models. With affirming imagery comes courage and strength, and that means that we have to critically think about how we construct athletic spaces.

I'm not saying that we have to work to "accommodate" students. Accommodation perpetuates marginalization and "othering" of students who are different.

I simply believe society's long-held assumptions are false: There are more than two sexes; sex does not indicate gender identity; and gender identity does not dictate gender expression. If these assumptions are false, then the environments derived from them are problematic as well.

I'm not saying that we should dismantle everything about sports, but maybe it's time to add a third locker room.

In the meantime, next time someone asks about me feel free to respond with, "They're rockin' and rollin'."

Katie Barnes is a writer, thinker, and activist. Barnes writes about personal experiences, cultural analysis, and general commentary. They have been active in LGBTQ organizing since college and continue that work through collaborating on special projects with various members and organization of the LGBT Sports Coalition. Katie is currently finishing their M.S. in Student Affairs in Higher Education at Miami University (OH). Follow Katie on Twitter at @katie_barnes3, or email them at Katherine.e.barnes@gmail.com.

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