What is it with Elon Musk and pronouns? His viral tweet on Sunday — “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci” — was not the first time the richest man in the world has expressed his annoyance and disdain with one of the most inescapable parts of language. In July 2020, he tweeted “Pronouns suck,” and in December of that year he tweeted a meme implying that people who include their pronouns in their social media bios are trying to oppress others, for which he refused to apologize despite facing backlash. He defended himself by tweeting, “I absolutely support trans, but all these pronouns are an esthetic nightmare.”
While Sunday’s tweet was clearly directed at outgoing White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci over what can only be referred to as a QAnon-like conspiracy theory over the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, the format of the tweet, as well as some of Musk’s follow-up comments, were clearly a dig at trans and nonbinary people. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., also helped solidify the inherent transphobia in this remark by responding, “I affirm your pronouns Elon.” Affirming someone’s gender identity is an act of acknowledgment, validation and respect that is commonly demonstrated through simple tasks like using the correct name and pronouns and not referring to someone’s updated pronouns as “preferred.” Greene’s tweet mocked this basic courtesy.
Musk and others who have jumped on the pronoun backlash train require people to use pronouns as much as the next person, they just pretend they don’t because their pronouns stay the same throughout their lives.
But Musk and others who have jumped on the pronoun backlash train require people to use pronouns as much as the next person, they just pretend they don’t because their pronouns stay the same throughout their lives. Grammatically speaking, pronouns are noun substitutes, or words used to describe ourselves and others without the use of names or proper nouns. Without them, our sentence structures would be quite clunky and redundant. That’s why we use pronouns like you, we, us, me, him, her and they: to help break up the usage of first and last names and make our syntax flow better.
However, when it comes to bad-faith jokes and so-called “debates” over pronouns, no one is actually arguing that we should do away with them and only refer to each other using proper nouns. For the people who insist on making pronouns problematic, the real issue lies not in the concept of pronouns itself but in who is using them and whether they vary with one’s assigned sex at birth, which can differ from a person’s gender identity.
That much was made quite clear in Musk’s response to some of the criticism he faced following Sunday’s tweet. After being called out by former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who asked him not to “mock and promote hate toward” vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community, who “have real feelings” and are often the targets of violence, Musk replied, “I strongly disagree. Forcing your pronouns upon others when they didn’t ask, and implicitly ostracizing those who don’t, is neither good nor kind to anyone.”
What Musk and his ilk seem to disregard or fail to understand, however, is that correct pronoun usage is all about basic respect and human decency. While many cis people will never have to think twice about which pronouns they use to describe themselves, trans and nonbinary people do not have that same luxury and will likely need to communicate those pronouns to others to avoid being misgendered. It’s not about “forcing” anyone to do anything. It’s about treating trans people with respect. No one would ever think to question Musk’s gender identity or ridicule him for using he/him pronouns because that would be inaccurate and disrespectful. It’s also not difficult to apologize and self-correct if you unintentionally use the wrong pronouns.
The implication that respecting someone’s pronouns is somehow an imposition that could potentially result in ostracizing is also wildly off base. If you make a mistake, you make a mistake. It’s unlikely someone is going to hold it against you forever. If you go out of your way to intentionally misgender someone, however, that is transphobic. If you can’t respect someone enough to call them by the correct name of pronouns, not because you’re forgetful, but because you don’t want to, you’re transphobic. If that is the case, people have a right not to want to be associated with you if you don’t respect them or their loved ones enough to treat them with the same dignity and decency you would anyone else. Failing to do so is not only offensive and insulting, but it’s also incredibly dehumanizing. And if you can’t even accept something as basic as someone’s pronouns and identity, you’re making it pretty clear that you do not support their civil rights and liberties.
The implication that respecting someone’s pronouns is somehow an imposition that could potentially result in ostracizing is also wildly off base.
The general phenomenon of transphobes complaining about and making fun of trans people’s pronoun usage is certainly not new, but it has become more mainstream and is now a common topic among many conservatives politicians and commentators (and some Democrats like Bill Maher) in both print and cable news, and the excuses they come up with to justify their intolerance are always the same. They either feign concern over proper grammar or try to make the claim that respecting trans people’s pronouns is somehow akin to compelled speech, neither of which is correct. While this anger typically extends to all trans people, regardless of which pronouns they use, ire is often specifically directed at those who use they/them pronouns, which many claim is grammatically incorrect.
Although many people are only familiar with the usage of “they” as a plural pronoun, it has long been used as a singular pronoun to refer to someone whose gender is unknown. In fact, the singular usage of the word “they” dates all the way back to the 14th century. The word “you” has also had a similar evolution in English grammar, starting as a plural pronoun that also became singular later on.
At the end of the day, it costs nothing to respect someone’s pronouns. If people can’t show someone such a basic form of kindness and courtesy, then that’s on them, but let’s not pretend that hatred of pronouns is about grammar or free speech. It’s about bigotry. And it’s hard to see how Musk would somehow be unaware of that. While his initial tweet was a malicious replication of a tired and unfunny “joke” about pronouns and gender identity, it was ultimately his response to Kelly’s criticism of this tweet that really hammered home his bad-faith intentions. It demonstrated his complete disregard for trans and nonbinary people’s rights, existence and humanity.