"I wonder if he knows that the singular “they” can roll off the tongue like honey if you say it with enough love."
(A screenshot of a Twitter post by Elon Musk / Edited by Online Editor Lauren Rousseau)
I’ll tell you first that this isn’t my real name.
I’ve only recently worked up the courage to tell select people the pronouns that let my shoulders relax, so I still need to keep a few secrets. I hope you’ll understand.
I’m writing this curled up on a leather couch in a hideaway of mine with a clandestine lover as we speak, monstrously slouched so that my sun-licked skin doesn’t get too familiar with the friction and heat of some other cured flesh. I burnt my back two days prior while lying belly down — face buried in my elbows, tears creeping down my cheeks, daring each droplet across my freckles to glimmer and reveal my lonesome secrets to the other beachgoers I kept at a safe distance.
I had become exhaustingly aware of how hard it would be for my family to understand the way I sat in my body — the way I moved down the street, the way little things as simple as dress, manner, body hair (mine is freshly bleached), attitudes, shoulder widths and belly breaths could compound into such a gnaw on my mind as the gender question.
When my family realized that I didn’t see myself as any of the things they called me,—their baby girl, their daughter, their pretty— how would their stomachs churn? When I broke all their expectations of me down to the bone, how would they react?
I wept out of a lack of hope, a knowledge that even my best case scenario meant a few more years undercover. My lover consoled me as I hid my shame, exposing my spine to the harsh touch of the sun instead of the caring palm of the sandy earth.
She knew my secrets, and to have someone know your secrets is important, because otherwise you begin to live them.
And to live a secret is to drown your face in plaster, put on your best smile and pray the world around you doesn’t think you’re baring your teeth.
During this, one of the loneliest times the world had ever known, I had my isolated rendezvous with her so that I could wipe down my facial features and express freely. I wept because I didn’t want to have to go back to living my secrets at home with my family. I thought, more than anything, about my father.
My father is a kind man —before anything else, he is unconditionally kind. A lifelong software developer, he’s constantly keeping up with the latest trends and developments in technology. He is still, however, old-fashioned. He’s been conservative as long as I’ve known him (it’s been a while) and stays up to date on politics through such immaculate sources as Fox News.
My sisters and I have been arguing with him our whole lives. In recent years, my mom has been working on pulling him closer to the center of the political spectrum. Though he’s constantly learning and growing, he still has many blind spots. I think he would have voted for Trump in 2016, but because he’s still a citizen of the Republic of South Africa, his mother country, he couldn’t cast a ballot.
He emigrated to the U.S. back in the ‘80s and was able to find opportunities that were unavailable to him as a man classified Coloured, from a family classified Coloured in a system classified Apartheid. My father has taken care of himself and my family with everything he has, and despite his enigmatic politics, I always feel grateful.
Though I can’t be open with him much, I know at the end of the day he is human and hurting like everyone else. He has weaknesses and aspirations and trigger points and heroes, like Nelson Mandela, whose face he suggested I get permanently tattooed on my body. I say this simply to demonstrate that my father is complicated and to provide a sort of juxtaposition for his other hero: Elon Musk. Though I think his admiration is misplaced, I can’t blame him for looking up to who he views as a fellow South African immigrant who is supposedly revolutionizing technology. I just don’t think my father knows enough about Elon.
You may have heard recently about Elon’s little “pronouns suck” tweet — the most blatant argument I’ve ever seen for making STEM kids take English classes.
I wasn’t surprised by this tweet because, unlike my father, I had zero respect for Mr. Musk to begin with. I had done my own reading about his family’s history and don’t consider myself fond of the concept of billionaires in the first place. There are enough tweets about how Grimes, who once wore the badge of “anti-Imperialist” proudly in her bio, drew the line at transphobia, but not all of the other shit Elon’s work inherently supports. I won’t harp about it, but I do think you should know I’m thinking about it. Anyway.
As I’m sitting here sunburnt, feeling like my father’s genes kind of let me down with this one, I wonder what my father would think about Elon’s tweet. I wonder how much he even knows about pronouns and how they’re regarded in the first place.
I wonder if he knows that the singular “they” can roll off the tongue like honey if you say it with enough love.
I wonder if he’d ever use it for me or if he, like his hero, would deride me for even implying that people are capable of putting a little thought into how we refer to each other.
If my father knew that such a little change to his speech as the word “they” could make me feel at home in my body, would he do it? The risk feels as unimaginable as the reward. Wasn’t it funny how a two-word post on a bird app could align so cleanly with the very things that tormented me?
To me, Elon’s tweet represents a seemingly undying wave of transphobia that spreads and functions through jokes that always seem to reek of 4channer sweat-stained underwear streaks. Something as simple as “Pronouns suck” makes it seem like switching a single word or two is a whole ordeal and works to undo years of normalization of the very existence of Trans and Non-binary folks. It reinforces the divide between the in-group: supposedly pronounless cisgender people (has anybody told them?), and the outgroup: anyone who dares stray beyond a few letters pushed on us at birth.
It also represents the pervasive, sinister intersections of power that allow a man like Elon to get so powerful in the first place.
Here is a man whose family has invariably profited off of and benefited from the colonization, the pillaging and the partitioning of my ancestor’s homeland. Whose blood money and wealth hoarding have been used to further exploit both the working class of the Global South and the globe itself.
His tweet represents something else to me as well: in the same way Europe’s ravaging of the African continent led to a stifling of gender nonconformity in favor of the chokehold of white Christian ideals, Elon — born from the savagery of the colonial era in both mortality and power, real and metaphorical —continues to use his ill-gotten influence to reinforce the gender binary in the settler and post-colonial age.
It’s funny to think that I need to be worried about what kind of role models my dad has. It feels like a reversal of roles, as though I’ve had to develop a paternal instinct about what he’s taking in. The same way that when I was little, he scolded me for saying “Fuck” while watching an Alvin and the Chipmunks special.
I remember, though, that I don’t worry about my father hearing that sort of rhetoric from Elon just because it draws him closer to ignorance on a personal level, but because Elon is one of the most powerful men on the planet. He uses his platform and status to punch down at people like myself in a way that encourages millions to do the same, with a force backed by centuries of global oppression.
I know my worry is warranted. One tweet from someone like Mr. Musk has the capacity to make things that much harder for Trans and Non-binary people who may too be sitting somewhere, singeing the skin off their backs in desperate attempts to hide the personal, the profound — covertly dreading something that could be as simple as telling those around you that you’d like them to refer to you with a different word or two.
It could all be so simple if we just allowed it to be.
Elon Musk and his brigade of anti-pronoun fanboys make that goal harder to achieve; putting a magnifying glass between the smoldering sun and the pink, inflamed flesh of a body that needs a break.
Alex Winnifred is a contributing writer for Rowdy Magazine.