I used to frequently facilitate trainings for corporations, organizations, and non-profits on how to be more inclusive to queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people. During these trainings I would discuss a range of initiatives, strategies, and proposed policies organizations could undertake. And every time – literally every single time – the cis people in the room would focus on gender-neutral bathrooms.
It’s one of the easiest, and one of the least significant, “inclusion” initiatives an organization can make. It would be miles more transformative if a workplace’s culture meant trans people could use whatever bathroom worked best for them without fearing harassment, for example. But that’s hard.
Gender-neutral bathrooms are fine, especially if all bathrooms are gender-neutral. But it’s hardly “inclusive” to create separate spaces for the weirdos to go pee, separate from everyone else, with the concomitant outing that frequently entails. Absent from actual culture shift at an organization, a gender-neutral bathroom is essentially a ghetto.
In early 2020, I was asked to consult a San Francisco startup – they wanted the company to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ people.
One of the top-of-line, most important questions for me to weigh in on: was changing their “women’s” Slack channel to a “womxn’s” Slack channel a powerful move toward inclusion, as some members of the leadership team believed, or a disrespectful encroachment on cis womens’ spaces? Would making a Slack channel specifically for trans and non-binary people be a better move?
I gently informed them that it was actually neither, and that there were clearly more foundational conversations that needed to happen before we got to the Slack channel question. Then the pandemic started and I never heard from them again.
The cultural discourse version of defaulting to bathrooms is performatively “inclusive” spelling. It’s easy, and is typically as useful as you’d expect from an effort that requires essentially no effort. Putting the x in “womxn,” for example, just reinforces to me that I’m not a “woman” – I’m a “womxn.” And is “womxn” inclusive of non-binary people? I have my doubts.
This is only one aspect of the language-based performative allyship that’s suffused social discourse over the last few years (acronyms can also be head-scratchers – see our roundtable “What Do We Mean When We Say BIPOC”). “Inclusive” spellings have a long, meaningful history, but the current usage, especially replacing certain vowels in words with an “x,” leaves much to be desired – and might actually be actively harmful.
At Best, Performative Spellings Are Confusing
I recently got a PR e-mail about an “intentionally diverse” conference featuring a slate of “BIPOC, women/womxn, non-binary speakers.” But what does this actually mean? What is the point of using “womxn” if you also use “women”? Who are these “womxn,” especially when the statement also says “non-binary?” On their website, every speaker featured uses she/her pronouns, except for one person who also uses “we/they” in addition to “she.” [Author’s edit: non-binary people can use she/her pronouns exclusively, so looking at pronouns isn’t conclusive of anything. Regardless, I’m confused by this conference’s usage of “womxn,” and suspect some terms were thrown in for diversity points.]
As with the acronym BIPOC, there’s still a lot of confusion about what these terms mean. Who identifies with “womxn” other than cis women who are attempting to signal inclusivity? I, and every other trans woman I know or have ever heard of or can imagine, identify as a woman. Trans and non-binary people actually aren’t a sub-category of “real” or “regular” women – which is what “womxn” implies.
It’s true that, if you really have to go there, there isn’t a good word for “non-cis-men.” But even if there was, having a “catch-all” term to describe everyone but cis men still centers them as a point of reference. It’s not the worst thing in the world to just be specific in our language. You might have to get creative, or use a few more words than you want. Is it so bad to put in a little effort in that regard?
But Often, They Do More Harm Than Good
The use of “womxn” as a purposely inclusive spelling is often exclusive of trans women and non-binary people. Even worse than accidentally doing the opposite of what’s intended, though, is that by some accounts the unwieldiness of the spelling is intentional. It’s intended to make the reader “stop and think.” Is purposely causing frustration in the audience you’re attempting to reach an effective praxis?Perhaps; it’s why protesters shut down highways, after all. But while the symbolism of of shutting down highways is an intentional nod to their oppressive history, it’s not clear the same can be said about these language issues. Historically, feminist re-spellings (including terms like “herstory”) have been intended to symbolically signify de-centering of men in general, despite the words’ complex and non-intuitive etymological histories. They weren’t typically used to refer to identity.
Another unfortunate fact: many performative spellings of “women” in particular have either originated from or been appropriated by TERFs; “womon” and “womyn” can often carry TERF connotations. “Wombyn,” on the other hand, is clearly essentialist. Those spellings have the benefit, however, of at least being pronounceable – “womxn” isn’t. It’s also classist for a term to only be accessible in writing, but more on that later.
This type of activism is easily appropriated not just by TERFs, but mainstream organizations and corporations – who can perform inclusivity without actually doing anything substantive. Of course, they don’t need symbols like spellings to do this, but it surely makes it easier.
There Are Legitimate Reasons for Inclusive/Reclaimed Spellings and Language Shifts – And Unnecessary Overuse Undercuts Them
The use of x, as in “Latinx,” has a legitimate, though often misguided intention when used appropriately – to de-gender an unnecessarily gendered word. The movement away from “Hispanic” to describe people from or who culturally identify with Latin America (as opposed to Spain), for example, and the movement toward “African-American,” and then away from that and toward “Black,” all have legitimate purposes (and varying degrees of efficacy and usefulness).
But whenever I see the word “folx,” I cringe. There is nothing to de-gender there. There is no historical patriarchy to highlight. There is just a seemingly random spelling, that I’ve heard multiple adherents explain is wholly about performing inclusivity. I’ve even read that it’s intended to “signify intersectionality!” That’s not what intersectionality means. “Folx” reads to me like an extremely pure example of virtue signaling.
It’s important to consider one’s audience here – does the spelling “folx” actually “do” anything constructive? Or is it intended to signal which “team” you’re on, typically to other people who’re already on yours?
What is the experience of people who aren’t already on your team when they come across these spellings? The people whose acceptance and understanding these types of actions are ostensibly intended to build toward? They’re frequently seen as examples of unnecessary liberal cultural authoritarianism, and are likely to contribute to a belief that all similar gestures of inclusivity are similarly unnecessary.
Case in point: the backlash against “people who are pregnant” or “people with penises” phrasings. These aren’t exclusive and shouldn’t be controversial, but they’ve been wrapped up in a “culture war,” the foot soldiers of which frequently point to activist spellings and inclusive buzzwords as motivating factors.
Genuinely significant and meaningful shifts in how we use language, like gender-neutral pronouns, moving from “female” to “women” as an adjective, and the slow death of gendered occupational titles can easily be lumped in with the performativity of “inclusive” spellings, to inclusivity’s detriment.
Bigots love throwing the proverbial baby out with the proverbial bathwater. We shouldn’t make it easier for them – especially on the back of performative allyship that, as mentioned above, isn’t even very useful in the first place.
Performative Spelling Can Be Colonialist And/or Classist
It’s possible that, not too long ago, some particularly loud or influential trans women and non-binary people propagated the idea that “womxn” was a good idea. I know that back in the day, using the asterisk when writing out “trans*” was common and promoted by a lot of us (including here at Autostraddle) – until we realized it was counter-productive (the journey of the asterisk is, by the way, actually an interesting case study of how performative language interventions grow, transform, and sometimes die out).
But it’s clear now that the eminence of “womxn” has not been in our best interest. I find it hard to believe that most trans women would have ever been on board, but things do change. And just because something potentially originated within a community does not mean it has the consent of the community.
A powerful example of this issue is the journey of the term “Latinx.” It rocketed to widespread usage only in the last few years – never without detractors on every conceivable side of the debate, by the way – and has only recently begun to fall back out of favor.
“Latinx,” and some other, similar terms like “Chicanx” and “Filipinx,” originated with activists within their respective communities – but while young, often online, written-word-heavy activism contributed to their growth and eventual mainstream adoption, apparently not enough was done to actually organize communities around developing inclusive language that actually had a chance of being adopted by those communities.
I’m not in the habit of agreeing with the Wall Street Journal opinion page, and am especially wary as a non-native Spanish speaker, but “Latinx” clearly has complicated issues. The primary issue with using the “x” to de-gender gendered languages seems to be around pronounceability. Other de-gendered spellings, like ending words with the “@” symbol, or “o/a,” suffer similarly in terms of usability. “Latinx” could be pronounced like “La-teen-ex” – but what about extending it to other gendered words like “tixs” (aunts/uncles), “amigxs” (friends), etc.?
These spellings work passably well in written, usually academic or online, text. But most language use among people outside of academia, especially among people who don’t primarily communicate online, takes place verbally. And in Spanish, at least, the letter “x” isn’t pronounced the same way as it is in English. In this way, these types of spellings have been criticized as being classist or even colonialist. No matter where they originated, they’ve gained mainstream adoption in the United States by young people as well as news and other media agencies – despite apparently only being used by something like 3% of the actual community.
That “Latinx” is only used by a small percentage of the community isn’t the end-all, be-all though. I remember organizing with folks 15 years ago who hated the term “queer” and argued its reclamation was not only unnecessary, but impossible – and now it’s essentially de rigueur. Language shifts and grows; “queer” might be on the way back out in favor of a more-inclusive use of the word “gay,” for example. Or maybe there are new terms young people are using I’m not even aware of yet.
Another argument, however, is that in many gendered languages, the “masculine” ending is already used in a gender-neutral way to refer to large groups of people – “Latinos” doesn’t usually just mean men, it means everyone. It’s similar to how in English, “guys” is frequently used in a gender-neutral way. Feminists have long criticized this usage, however. Why should the “default” also be the “masculine” version? There are subtle ideological implications there.
All of this is even more unfortunate given that another solution exists – “Latine.” It’s been around for a minute, but is starting to gain prominence as some organizations and media outlets move away from “Latinx.” The “e” ending has the benefit of being pronounceable, flexible (“elle” instead of “él/ella,” “ties,” “amigues,” etc), and already in use for some gender-neutral terms in Spanish, at least (“estudiante,” student, “comerciante,” merchant, “asistente,” assistant).
An overture toward “inclusivity” mightn’t be actually inclusive if it alienates the majority of people it’s intended to be used by.
Like most forms of performative activism, “inclusive” spellings tend to be superficial interventions that don’t address the root causes of discrimination, dehumanization, or marginalization. They’re “easy” solutions, like gender-neutral bathrooms, that people outside of communities can latch upon to perform solidarity without doing the work to build genuinely inclusive culture and infrastructure.
I believe we’d be better off doing the real work of inclusivity rather than – or, at the very least, in addition to – performing it by changing the spellings of words.
This was really interesting Abeni! Great piece
(Also I am glad I am not the only one who doesn’t get folx?)
Randomly inserting the letter X into words is also ableist. Screen readers have no idea how to pronounce “womxn” !
Great point that I neglected to address!
Finally people are catching up to how problematic the word “womxm” is now.
Now if we can get medical professionals to stop referring to women as womb havers, people with cervices, people who menstruate, chest feeders, exc and just simply call them women, that would be lovely.
The point was over there in case you missed it.
“Women” is not a category defined by one’s body parts. There are people with wombs and cervixes, who menstruate, who feed babies with their chests, etc. who aren’t women. So calling them “women” is both medically and socially inaccurate.
The point of this article is that backlash against the unnecessary and inaccurate usage of “womxn” animates backlash against the language interventions you’ve just described, which actually are both necessary and accurate.
So you have given a great example of why “womxn” is a problem. But probably not for the reasons you were thinking.
You’ve got more patience than I do, Abeni! Sadly, I’ve seen this person’s comments many times before, she is a TERF troll who only chimes in to complain about trans people existing and occasionally about Heather writing about shows she doesn’t like. I wouldn’t waste your breath :(
THANK YOU! Really thoughtful and well-explained. Also “womxn” and especially “folx” have been been driving me nuts for ages, now I finally have a good resource for people who want to know why.
I’m supposed to be working, but couldn’t turn away from this thoughtful post until I’d finished it all. Your writing is so full of history and nuance, and it always gives me something to think about. Thank you!
Abeni, this was so well put, thank you! Folx and womxn have both bothered me from the first time I saw them. And as a non-binary human, when an event or group uses them my immediate assumption is that I won’t feel comfortable there. Partly from experience, partly because it feels to me like an aggressively gendered attempt at inclusivity, partly for reasons it’s taken me a while to articulate and you’ve done an amazing job at putting it into words.
I love everything about this. I love that you bring an important, and complicated, issue to our attention. I love that you take a position without presenting yourself as an all-knowing authority, but rather draw attention to that complexity. I love that you acknowledge that our community isn’t a monolith, and that our own understandings and cultural norms change over time just like any other entity. A+ food for thought.
Folx is the one that absolutely kills me. When I see someone writing it I immediately am turned off. Because it reeks of someone who has no critical thinking skills to apply to their social justice work, and instead thinks that earnestly swallowing an IG infographic is more powerful in the service of social justice than using their brain for one hot second to actually think about what they’re trying to convey. Folx makes me think of white people trying too hard but not trying anywhere close to enough, in a nutshell.
Interestingly, I hadn’t linked “folx” to words like “womxn”, and instead saw it as an online slang shift on its own terms.
Spelling it with an x at the end is closer to how I pronounce it in casual speech, so it just seemed like a standard, meaningless online spelling shift.
I’m kinda bummed right now, actually – I like the word in its own right, as simply a spelling of a word that more accurately matches my colloquial speech patterns.
Interesting — I can’t imagine how “folks” and “folx” would be pronounced differently? They’re both the same to me and my West Coast English accent.
Me too and now I’m dismayed.
I posted something on instagram to this effect once and was reminded by a nonbinary person that sometimes gender non-conforming people use “folx” to signal community and safety, i.e. “having some folx over for dinner tonight” will be read as a visbily trans-inclusive event. They were pretty forceful about my post having been dismissive and transphobic, so I adjusted my opinion. After this article, I am left even more confused. Maybe the best answer (as the commenter above posted) is that our community is not a monolith.
What I described in this piece is a criticism of exactly that usage. “Folks” is already gender-inclusive.
If that person feels that your usage of “folks” or criticism of “folx” is transphobic, that’s their opinion and they have a right to it. I am a trans person who disagrees with them. They can feel that this post is transphobic, and that’s OK.
There’s a reason I’m not really on Twitter or IG, but have enjoyed engaging in the comments section here on Autostraddle.
So yeah – with language there’s no right answer, I don’t think.
I personally think “if you use folx you’re a dummy” and “if you don’t use folx you’re excluding trans/nb ppl” are both bad takes.
Thank you for this! I’ve hated “folx” ever since I first saw it and I couldn’t place my finger on why (I guess because “folks” in and of itself is already a perfectly neutral and inclusive term that doesn’t need to be changed?). “Womxn” also seems pointless–I’m a trans woman and don’t need the word “women” rearranged to include me, and if you want to include my non-binary siblings then you need to use a different word, not just a different spelling. Ugh. It seems so self-explanatory but so many people seem to think this is the way to do inclusivity :(
This is really wonderful stuff, Abeni. Thank you for so clearly pointing out the different issues with these different terms. I’m not a fan of folx for the reasons you’ve stated, but I did have a (very virtue signally) peer say that folx was bad because “it’s a TERF dogwhistle”
I did a lot of googling to see if there was any connection there and found nothing (besides the connection to womxn+ alternatives which you mentioned) and then realized with a couple minutes of critical thought… what USE would TERFs have for a term like folx?!?! “Adult human female folx”? It’s not a helpful word, but that person’s claim was really frustrating to me.
Love to see everyone else rallying around the hatred of folx– I don’t think womxn has made it to most of the cis liberal circles I frequent irl, but I recently had to explain to my manager why I found folx annoying and performative (I am one of two nonbinary people working at an obgyn/birthing center, and the only one in my department). Meanwhile, there is a lot of pushback in using “chestfeeding” and other synonyms for breastfeeding and also more substantial changes we could make to make our organization more hospitable to LGBTQ populations. It’s just nice to see everything that I feel stated so eloquently and so well-researched!
Well said! What kinds of *real* gender inclusivity would you like to see in ob/gyn spaces? I’m an agender afab person who has ovarian issues, so I’m a frequent patient at gynos. But I have trouble articulating what needs to change.
I love this!! So thoughtful and nuanced.
I really love this, thank you! I want so much to understand why people use “womxn” and “folx,” but haven’t been able to. I’m glad to see the topic discussed with such nuance here.
Yes! I came to read this article thinking I was going to need to add some discussion about “Latine” in the comments and I’m so pleased to see it was included in the main text. So, yes, as a non-binary native Spanish speaker, I am very much in favor of “Latine.” It’s actually pronounceable and accomplishes the task of de-centering the default male ending. Of course I recognize I don’t speak for everyone in my group and there could be some non-binary native Spanish speakers who don’t feel othered by the language as is. To include those that do, “Latine” is wonderfully organic in the phonetic flow of Spanish.
Thank you for this affirmation — as a non-native speaker, I consulted with a few native speakers (and did quite a bit of research) to hopefully make that section solid.
Also, Carmen as editor was an extremely important support for that section!
I actually prefer Latinx for the main reason of I don’t want white people to take it and co-opt it away entirely and my using it makes me feel like I’m doing a little part of keeping it where it started. Using an x on the other hand for every word, I don’t go that far, I will be using an e thank you.
Thank you for this.
this makes a lot of sense!
i actually thought ‘womxn’ originated as a word that would include any woman, trans or cis, and was crafted specifically to exclude the word ‘man’ (see also words like ‘herstory’ etc) —
but over time it’s become pretty much less than useful due to the issues you describe?
anyway that was my understanding of its roots, but i agree that it’s become a…whole thing!
That’s definitely my understanding as well – I may not have been clear enough? I addressed that in the first paragraph under the “Performative Spelling Can Be Colonialist And/or Classist” section … or so I thought. As well as throughout, to some degree.
But I agree I could have been more explicit about how these kinds of things clearly have good intentions but are misguided.
oh no you were fine! i wasn’t calling anything out, but also I must’ve missed that sentence <3
The intentions of “womxn” went completely over my head, I thought it was another version of “womyn.”
I have also found it interesting to see so many people increasingly use the terms “human” instead of “person”, and “tiny human” instead of “baby”, even though both “person” and “baby” are all-inclusive terms. Where did that come from? Maybe I’m just old.
To the best of my understanding, womxn and womyn had similar intentions originally?
I didn’t connect “human” and “tiny human” usage to inclusivity, though I have seen “persxn!” Though I thought that was niche enough that it wasn’t worth mentioning in this piece …
My impression was that womyn was meant for cis women to take ‘men’ out of the word, with no inclusive intention at all, while womxn had at least some intention of making room for trans/nb people, to the degree that some people see it as ‘encroachment on cis women’s spaces’? (At this point in time, everyone I see using womyn is either a TERF or someone making an ironic joke about the futility of such new spellings.)
One of the least progressive/inclusive people I know uses “tiny human” exclusively when she refers to her kids and I don’t think it’s attempt at inclusivity, for her at least. But I guess I don’t know her motivation!
I see the “tiny human” thing as people just being cutesy. I would be surprised if it had deeper intentions.
This is going to be a bananas answer, but I’m almost 90% sure that origin of “tiny human” is because a character used to say it on Grey’s Anatomy.
before you say “absolutely not” — the phrase “vajayjay” (meaning vagina) started off as on Grey’s Anatomy and ended up in Webster’s Dictionary or something like that.
(I’m sorry I know this information)
Thanks Carmen, I wasn’t aware of that Grey’s Anatomy connection. The ONLY people who I see using it are queer people and I’ve been asked about it by straight people who similarly perceive it as a queer thing but maybe that’s just regional.
Carmen if you ever want to write something about the far reaching impacts of Grey’s Anatomy like “vajayjay” etc, I’m all ears!
Oh my gosh yes please to the greys anatomy content. Also, this whole comments section is gold – and such a pleasant reminder of why keeping comments enabled cannnnn be so good, despite trolls. Thanks AS for the solid discussion.
I think the shift to “human” and “tiny human” are just playful language shifts.
My ex is calling the fetus that will eventually be his baby the “‘magic apricot”. “Tiny human” definitely falls into that category for me.
I’ve always assumed that “tiny human” is the baby version of things like “trash panda” and “danger noodle”
Ok I know trash panda is a raccoon, but danger noodle was brand fucking new to me 😂 thanks Chandra
Chandra WHAT is a danger noodle
Chloe I’m sorry to report I googled and now I know it is a snake 🐍
Sorry, I didn’t mean to be snaky about it
Burst out laughing at this thank you
Very this, Chandra. tiny human is to baby as doggo is to dog – we already had a word but then, “theydies and gentlefolx” (>.>)(<.<), the internet.
This is such a wonderful post!
I read to the end and then realized, of course this was written by you, Abeni – I love your writing 💜
Another excellent piece, thank you!
def thought womxn was a 2nd wave feminist effort like “wimmin”, rather than a gender inclusivity thing. Love to see the “Latine” inclusion, a dear friend taught me about that in a “Spanish for social justice” class
This is also my understanding — hopefully that came across in the piece, though i was more focused on modern usage than historical
this article gave me a lot to think about, so thank you!
and not least, this comment which suggests to me that given how long it’s been since I was in college (definitely this century!), it’s time to start thinking about that as a previous time/era rather than current/now.
You did! I just meant it was a surprise to me to learn that the modern useage has some sort of “inclusive” connotation for some fol…ks
Thanks for the education!
It was. The initial idea was that “womanhood” was always centred around men and as a way to get away from that the x was introduced so that “women” weren’t understood always as in contrast to “men”.
I love most of this article, but the Latinx vs Latine stuff misses the mark for me.
First/side note: I always laugh at people who are usually reactionary and misogynist/homophobic/transphobic supposed leftists who say that the x in Latinx is colonizing Spanish given that Spanish is a colonial language.
Anyway, people get way too mad about Latinx and I don’t think that saying ‘oh just use Latine’ is the appropriate solution. Latinx is often used by US Latinx English speakers. It has a different role and function than Latine which is popularized by Spanish speakers across Latin America. It’s two different things, its many different groups of people with different uses and needs. (of course, this isn’t a binary, there are Spanish speakers who use Latinx and there’s English speakers who use Latine and people who reject both or who still use Latin@ or whatever)
And if the majority of Spanish speakers or US Latinx people or whoever is being used as the hammer against queer/trans/feminist groups don’t like the word (or ‘the actual community’ as this article phrases it), like…. I’m not sure why I should really care either because that same majority is rejecting it usually because of misogyny or transphobia or homophobia. We get the same conservative lashing either way (the same conservative arguments that feminists got in the 70s/80s/forever, that feminists were too divisive, too confusing, too out of touch with the actual community, too educated, were gringas in disguise, etc)
Also, it isn’t as if it’s just ‘Latinos’ vs ‘Latinx’ vs ‘Latine’ because I still hear plenty of people use Hispanic and Latin (and even the very 70s ‘Spanish’) as well. I don’t think anyone who might be in those communities who sees ‘Latinx’ on a community board and isn’t tapped into the discourse is going to be confused about what a flyer or w/e might be saying. Having worked in Latino/Latina/Latin@/Latinx groups for a decade, I know that people at the end of the day don’t give a fuck about the x in Latinx if the group or event or whatever is serving a need. People get it through context clues.
I also want to say that there are valid critiques about any of these broader terms/how they’re used to group disparate people/used as a marketing tool/etc. But I just do not buy ‘Latinx is confusing’ since it’s usually reactionary trolls on Twitter saying that.
Overall I’m just very tired of language policing in the Latinx/Latine community and it’s legit depressing to see how applicable Gloria Anzaldúa’s writing about this topic is still relevant.
I think there are a lot of good points in this comment!
I do want to say that I used “actual community” to create distinction between the community vs media outlets and academics talking ABOUT the community, but I totally see what you mean and how that can be interpreted.
Thanks for this! As a non-binary person, I would personally be pissed if someone was trying to include me under “womxn”. Like, think about it, would many (if ANY) of these people include amab enbies who they didn’t see as sufficiently “feminine” under “womxn”? It seems like a way to say “non-binary people… who really are also just women lol” as well as othering trans women. Like, no. I don’t really see any good reason to lump non-binary people in with women in most cases. Non-binary people who still have a connection to womanhood can decide for themselves to be part of women’s spaces or not as they feel comfortable… But personally I don’t want to be included in any spaces that wouldn’t also include ALL non-binary people, regardless of presentation or sex assigned at birth…
Yeah I really have to wonder who it’s supposed to be including. I’m a binary-identified trans woman and it feels like a sleight-of-hand trick way of saying I’m tolerated in that space but only as a second-class citizen. (Womanish? Woman-lite? Woman-adjacent?) Not that everyone who uses it means that deliberately, but I have no way of knowing.
Also, how hard is it really? If you’re trying to include non-binary people just use a different word or phrase, and if it’s specifically a place for woman-identified people but including trans women, then say that.
TL;DR Sometimes a few extra words can make all the difference! (And weird, easy-to-misinterpret spellings don’t!)
Thoughtful piece, thank you!
I think we can all agree that we owe this discourse to Christina Aguilera during her Xtina phase!!
it’s her fault!!!
someone on twitter joked that i forgot that punks were writing “punx” long before so maybe we can blame them too
Omg gotta bookmark this article for whenever someone asks me about using womxn and I need a more articulate answer than “errrr no”
insert “I’m doing my part!” gif from Starship Troopers
The first time I saw “womxn” it was on an event page for some sort of queer women’s event and I immediately started drafting an angry comment about how it seemed non-inclusive and transphobic and then googled it and found out it was “trying” to do the opposite. It’s just too close to “womyn” and the like for me. It feels like this is basically a result of people trying to organize spaces for essentially the ol’ “everyone but cis men” or something without saying that?? I wonder if the solution is to just name who the event is for and in certain cases maybe think more about *why* certain groups are included or excluded…
Thanks for this thoughtful article, I enjoyed reading it!
Re this part:
“Another argument, however, is that in many gendered languages, the “masculine” ending is already used in a gender-neutral way to refer to large groups of people – “Latinos” doesn’t usually just mean men, it means everyone.”
As a native speaker of two gendered languages (and intermediate speaker of other gendered languages as well) I had to cringe pretty hard when I read this. I have literally only ever heard old white hetero cis men and anti-LGBTQI / anti-feminist people use this argument and just hearing it repeated in this way is IMO feeding way too much into their sexist and cisnormative discourse. In my language contexts there is a huge backlash against any kind of inclusive language and this is always the main (deeply flawed) argument used against it.
She addresses that in the next two sentences though: “Feminists have long criticized this usage, however. Why should the “default” also be the “masculine” version? There are subtle ideological implications there.”
I don‘t think it‘s properly addressed, because it goes far beyond „subtle ideological implications“.
In addition to what Chandra noted, I have heard loads of young, otherwise progressive folks make this argument :(
Yeah, I mean I have lots of young, otherwise „progressive“ people heard say transphobic and racist shit. I think the conclusion there is just that these people aren‘t actually progressive in any meaningful feminist, pro-LGBTQI way, don‘t you think?
I just don‘t think the kind of sweeping claim that „in many gendered languages the masculine ending is already used in a gender-neutral way“ can be backed up, unless you mean by the conservative, cis-straight mainstream, but then does that count for anything?
And psychological studies btw have repeatedly shown that when people hear a word with a masculine ending or the male version of word (e.g. a profession), that they consciously or unconsciously imagine the person or people to be cis men, and not either a woman/women or a mix of genders. So the gender-neutral claim does not stand up to the reality of how people‘s brains actually work.
I am also a native speaker of a highly gendered language. I read the sentence of “another argument” not as meaning that the author was for or against this argument, but to examine it.
I can certainly understand saying that it goes beyond subtle ideological implications, but also wanted to mention that I personally did not read this as an argument in favour of this history/ practice.
The argument I get from your comments is this: “That’s not actually as widespread as you say; only old sexists use it that way.”
This is clearly false. My point is that despite the fact that YOU personally have only heard old white sexists use this, it’s actually very widespread. You’re extrapolating from your own experience a bit too far.
(Note: as I indicated, we even see this in mainstream usage in non-gendered languages like English: “guys” is frequently used to refer to mixed-gender groups).
In terms of “backing up” this sweeping claim, I think you could look at every Spanish class, dictionary, grammar guide, etc? They all teach that the masculine ending is used to refer to mixed groups. You could look at essentially all mainstream coverage of Latine communities in mainstream media (up until the last couple years at least). You could look at the major Latine organizations arguing for or against Latinx/Latine (I linked to many in the post above).
What I was describing – NOT arguing in favor of – was the clearly widespread belief that this is fine and no intervention is needed.
I obviously disagree with this belief. It is problematic for the reasons you stated as well as all of the reasons in the long blog post I linked to in that same paragraph we’re discussing.
I never said I only heard this from old sexist guys, I said I heard it from them and from (openly or subtly) anti-feminist / anti-lgbtqi folks (check above). Please don‘t misrepresent what I wrote. Where I live there are articles in the mainstream press almost everyday that put forward this exact argument.
I just think it has zero validity and that I have NEVER met a single queer/trans person who speaks any of the gendered languages that I speak argue this point.
For the rest: this is where this just feels super north-american centric. You wrote that this is the case in „many gendered languages“ but then only refer to Spanish mainstream(!) sources as evidence.
I‘m gonna stop engaging now. Like I said, I really enjoyed the article and I had an issue with one paragraph. Instead of being seen as a potentially valuable voice who could share insights from a trans & not-north-american perspective, I feel like what I write is being purposefully misrepresented and dismissed out of defensiveness.
I absolutely agree with this, and I’ve thought many of the same things myself. “Folx” always seems ridiculous and performative, and though my understanding is that the origin of “womxn” was to be an explicitly trans-inclusive response to the explicitly trans-exclusive “womyn”, I don’t see it being used in helpful ways today. All in all, a very well-written article I foresee myself sending to people in the future.
One minor quip: “On their website, every speaker featured uses she/her pronouns, except for one person who also uses ‘we/they’ in addition to ‘she.'” That doesn’t sound like one person, but a system. I sincerely hope that plural folks can one day make as much progress as queer and trans folks have, but for now we’re sadly still way behind.
Oof, major oversight on my part re: that last point. Thank you for helping me to better understand. I’ll look into educating myself about this!
I’ve tried looking for a piece like this in the past when I was trying to figure out if womxn was just another version of womyn or a misguided and uncomfortable attempt at inclusivity. Thank you for writing it and making it so in-depth.
So glad to see “folx” included in this too, the spelling and pronunciation of both words break my brain a little every time I try to read them and that’s really annoying when it’s not actually doing anything useful.
Thanks for an interesting article that has provided much food for thought.
To me, the issues raised here bring to mind the old saying – the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s like when people “mean well” but create (often unintended) consequences that result in a backlash or other negative implications.
Folx is a term that I never really saw the need for, as folks is a perfectly good & familiar word that elegantly serves the purpose of describing a group of people of all kinds, in a neutral, if not pleasant & friendly way. I’ve been a lifelong fan of the word folks long before I came out as non binary. Folks is just…nice. It’s down to earth, warm, authentic, & useful for everyone. Don’t need to reinvent the wheel in this case.
As to womxn, it does have a definite bandwagon – jumping vibe to it. I get the concept, & I get the “good intentions”…but…is it a valid solution in reality? Does it do anyone any genuine good? Or is it just muddying the waters? Making it easier for some to think that they’ve ticked a box for inclusion without engaging in a deeper, more complex way?
I get that the letter X has long been a sort of lexical wild card. I have an X on my passport that signifies my “status” as a person who lives outside of prescribed gender norms. But randomly implanting an X as a catch all solution to complicated issues is probably an imperfect solution in the long run.
The many layers & nuances of human experience are too much for one letter to embody.
I cannot offer a solution except that we all need to keep the discussion going, which is a very human (& humble) thing to do. That’s what language (of all kinds) is for.
Love this. Also enjoying the comments with different perspectives on Latinx. My colleagues pronounce it “latin-x,” which I feel is the worst possible option and I’ve disliked it for a lot of the reasons listed in the article (and because my Latina partner hated it at first). But it’s true that it is being adopted by more community members who are pushing against the entrenched patriarchy in the language and it will evolve as more stakeholders use it and refine it. I’m rooting for it as a concept, even if its use by outsiders is imperfect right now.
Folx can go to hell, though!
Ngl, my reaction to a lot of performative language when it comes to gender things is ‘people are trying to control-f their language rather than actually change how they think about gender issues/who should be in a space and why/who has particular experiences and why’. I think especially when cis women think about transphobia, their reaction is often to think of trans people’s issues as adjacent to cis women’s issues (and fundamentally still kinda falling into a gender binary).
As a genderqueer person, if I see a cis woman using ‘women and non-binary’ or ‘womxn’ (especially to mean ‘non cis men’, as if there aren’t men who experience transphobia), I (possibly a little unfairly tbf) tend to assume she’s never really examined her own complicity in transphobia (esp to people she doesn’t read as women/women-adjacent, incl in specifically transmisogynistic ways) and instead sees it as a ‘cis man thing/issue’.
So thankful for this article! I’ve been using “folx” as an internet speak term (like when people say “bb” for “baby”), and am immediately going to put a stop to that practice. I appreciate the education!
Well, I don’t … recommend that? Or want to yuck your yum? I’m not saying “folx” is evil. I’m saying that its usage as a purposefully “more-inclusive” spelling of “folks” is misguided.
Like, I have no problem with punks spelling punks “punx.” Looks more punk rock that way lol. As far as I know it’s never been posited as a more inclusive version of “punks.”
But that’s explicitly how I’ve seen “folx” used and described. I originally thought it was just a weird internet speak thing, too. Maybe that’s how it started? Maybe you can promote your usage as a counter-reclamation? Or maybe it’s too late, who knows?
Thanks for the nuance Abeni!
I’ve only seen folx in online contexts where it was specifically referring to lgbtqia+ people – like “hi queer folx!” and had assumed adding the x just made it queer-er, not that it was trying to be more inclusive (which I agree is just silly)
And then like pearlpants, I read this article and was like, hmm, maybe I shouldn’t use it anymore. But now I’m back to not worrying about my usage of folx (not that I used it much).
Thanks for the direct reply, Abeni! and I don’t feel like you were yucking on my yum at all.
My comment was a sincere expression of gratitude. I went and changed my okc about me as soon as I read your article — ha!
And then after I just replied, I read Tapir’s take below about how “non-usage” is also it’s own kind of performative. Thanks for your grace and for spelling out what Abeni was explaining!
All this is to day that I’m very grateful autostraddle is a place where these kinds of articles and conversations can take place. I’m excited to research more about the origins of “folx”, and until then, I don’t think trying to reclaim it is where I want to put my time and energy right now.
Excellent article, thank you, Abeni! You put words to a lot of my thoughts on women and folx. Performative inclusion via spelling sure is something (and it doesn’t yield any meaningful change imo).
I’ve been looking forward to reading an article on this topic here, and this one certainly delivered. Great analysis!
Abeni this is such a thoughtful and thorough piece of writing— amazing job! I have to say, as I saw the comment counter jumping over the last day I was like “oh shit is there a fight breaking out in the comments?” 😧 But it just sounds like you wrote the piece many people were waiting for, AND I super appreciate the comments from ppl adding even more personal experience, nuance, and fleshing out more points made here. 💛
Yooo I felt the same way I was nervous af lol. Happy it’s mostly all been pretty constructive
Abeni Jones. What can I even say?
Really well-written article, as always. Great points. As someone who fits into the Hispanic-but-not-Latina part of the venn diagram (and, if I’m being real, also fits into kind of an uncomfortable native-but-no-longer-fluent Spanish speaker category— that’s all tied up with a bunch of family feelings anyway), I’ll stay out of the Latine/Latinx/Latin@ conversation, but as for “folx,” I thought you made a lot of really great points. “Folx” never really made much sense to me either, though I wouldn’t exactly describe not using it as a principled stand on my part. (I often use “guys” since that’s what I grew up with and almost anything else (besides “everyone” or “everybody”) usually makes me feel like I’m, like, doing a bad job of playacting as being from a region I’m not. Not saying that other people need to feel that way, and I definitely acknowledge that there are issues with using “guys” like that!) But I thought what you wrote about “folx” made a lot of sense.
But then I thought of a nonbinary coworker of mine who works in a people-facing position (think front desk) in a very large work environment, so I’m pretty sure they at least semi-regularly interact with people who don’t know their pronouns or assume they use different ones than they do. Every time I’ve interacted with them, I’ve found them to be reasonable and kind. Anyway, they sometimes have to send out workplace-wide emails, and they sometimes use “Hi folx” or something to that effect to start those emails out. From what I know of them, though, if I had to guess their intentions in doing so, I’d guess that they’re doing that to try to signal some queer presence where we work to anyone else who’s in that boat, and to possibly carve out more of a community in a setting that typically isn’t “about” queerness. Which feels like a different motivation than the “let’s just slap this x on the end to check off our inclusivity box” one.
And then in the time I was trying to figure out how to say all that, I see your measured, kind, empathetic response to pearlpants up above (not that I’m saying you deserved any less, pearlpants, I promise!) that makes room for the different paths different people inevitably take to arrive at using a word, and in doing so avoids turning *non*-usage of “folx” into exactly the same kind of written signifier of being in the know that your piece (correctly, imo!) points out is a problem. And the best part was I wasn’t even surprised at your response, it just felt like “of course Abeni would have already managed to strike this balance.”
Anyway, I’m trying to be nudge myself to be more vocally appreciative online when I enjoy something someone’s written, and well, I couldn’t really do that without commenting on one of your pieces (and this one’s great, as always). Thanks so much for sharing with us, and for consistently managing to strike such a balance between critical thinking, generosity, and thoughtfulness for others. We see it, and we appreciate it. Feeling grateful to know you’re out there.
I had similar feelings about folx and the nuances in the comments.
I’d only seen folx in contexts where it was specifically referring to lgbtqia+ people – like “hi queer folx!” and had assumed adding the x just made it queer-er, not that it was trying to be more inclusive.
I wish I’d been more clear that I don’t have “folx.” Just think it’s unnecessary and could be an example ppl give when they criticize “liberal language imperialism” or whatever.
But! Is there a clear difference between “making something queerer” and intending it to be more inclusive? I’ve seen similar things in a couple comments and I hadn’t really heard it put that way before.
I meant to reply to this comment earlier but had a nesting fail.
“Is there a clear difference between ‘making something queerer’ and intending it to be more inclusive?”
Honestly, I’ve been wondering that myself, after I wrote my comment. When I wrote it, I was thinking of using folx specifically for queer audiences and making it more queer, rather than using it for a general audience to signal being more inclusive of all people. But as I write this out, I’m not sure there’s really that much of a difference.
thank you for this comment :)
tbh I have been dismayed by comments saying things like “I hate folx too!” and wishing I’d been more clear that like, it’s fine and I don’t hate it? It’s far less of a problem than “womxn.” Just that it doesn’t effectively do what some people think it does?
My own fault for saying I “cringe” when I see it. :(
I’ve always used “folx” the same way I use “punx” – just ’cause it’s shorter and kinda punk. Hopefully, it doesn’t catch on in the context described here.
Unfortunately, I think it already has. :( Ppl in the comments have been saying it never started out as being about inclusivity. maybe certain folks latched onto it and shifted its meaning?
Though it’s one character shorter, so I don’t know if that’s too good of an argument for it lol.
It’s far less of an issue than “womxn,” so nbd probably, especially in just a “here’s a fun, punk way of spelling a word” usage.
But I’ve explicitly read multiple people and articles arguing that it’s a way to signal inclusivity. So that might be the more widespread understanding of it now :(
Life hack for saying “everyone but cis men” without centering cis men: “trans people and cis women.”
Ooh I’m going to use this!
Unfortunately leaves inter people out, so it does not need to be a bit longer ….
I’ve heard non-binary people say things like, “nb people are trans since nobody’s assigned nb at birth” and “I’m nb and I’m queer since no matter who wants to date me I’m a different gender than them so” and I’ve often wondered if that kind of logic feels relevant for any intersex people?
I guess it would depend on the relationship between the individual’s “sex” and their “gender.”
But if they viewed intersex as being a defining aspect of their gender, then any relationship they’re in could be queer? Kind of like how some trans women I know who only date men still consider themselves queer? And the men who they date are queer for dating them, even though it’s “straight?” (though of course other trans women feel like this is invalidating their gender, so who knows).
Anyway no need to reply, Ref; I’m going to do some research and see what I can read about these issues as I’m woefully underinformed about intersex perspectives.
Thanks for replying!
As a trans woman I still feel slightly uncomfortable with that phrasing, but on the other hand I’ll admit I can’t really think of anything better.😞
This shit is hard y’all! If only people’s intentions were easier to read, I suppose we wouldn’t need language to be so messy, but alas even our own community isn’t there yet.
as someone who has been tying to find the words to name that specific group of people for MANY YEARS and it has made me insane!!!!!! i feel like every solution kinda has a downside — in this case i guess it feels weird to separate out cis women conceptually, like trans women are more trans than woman?? but if you get rid of the “cis’ then it feels like that even moreso!
although also i realized this isn’t an exact descriptor of the group we’re often trying to name for AS, because we want to specify queer women (cis + trans), trans men and non-binary people not just ‘all people who aren’t cis men’
i used to often do “lesbian, bisexual and queer women and/or trans people,” but that felt weird too, just like, grammatically. they all have downsides!
i wish we could just invent a new word, except then google would have to catch up with that which could take a million years!
Straddlers! Make it happen Merriam-Webster!
YES! Next we have to talk about how “pansexual” is just performatively progressive spelling of bisexual and how that’s also harmful.
Heh? It’s literally a linguistic difference. Bi means both, pan means all. That’s not performative. There are more than two genders. I personally use both bisexual (to mean same and other genders) and pansexual to describe myself, but both terms do have legitimate purposes.
The bisexual community has been defining bisexual as attraction regardless of gender for literally over half a century and pansexuality is erasing that so now bisexuals have to use clunky definitions like “same and other genders”. It’s the same sexual orientation, we don’t need a new label for it that’s pretending to be more progressive (and thus making bisexuality out to be the less progressive one).
Actually on dating apps, the vast majority of bi people seem to use bi as meaning both men and women (as indicated for example by the use of emojis, further explanation in their profiles or what they say when you’re talking to them). So it‘s true that there has been this effort in the community, but there are many bi people who use the word differently
As a trans person, I love seeing some (also) use pan, because it more certainly signals a non-binary worldview and potentially more safety for me.
i think the danger here is the personal ‘we’ may not be as encompassing as it feels individually. there are lots of people who identify with the ‘pan’ prefix as a specific statement of inclusive progress. it is progress to them, it’s no comment on anyone else who sees bi as inclusive, & it’s easy not to quibble. the same way we can accept the multitude of pronouns people find necessary. it’s a lot to keep track of but i’m ready to apologize every time i fall short because i care more about hurting or invalidating someone than structural concepts and whether or not they are complicated.
i might be fine with straight/gay-lesbian/bi, and think trans/cis/pan/(pronouns) wouldn’t be necessary because people are what they are and the further details add complexity to what seems simple – i.e., trans women are just women. i’ve talked to other folks who agree, but as a ‘we’, we don’t have a stronger claim to being right than the group of people who see value and find community by using more specific nomenclature.
I am also bi and I don’t use pan to describe myself and I think there are more than 2 genders and in the spirit of all that I want to say: whattttttttt are you sayinggggggg???? It’s fine for people to use pan, it doesn’t make bi any less of a valid label, there’s just more than one word to describe a situation: sometimes I say bi, sometimes I say queer, but I’m describing the same chaos that is ME. jeezs. leave pan people alone and stop gatekeeping language.
The bi community has definitely been doing this, but spending a little time online or on a dating app will tell you that this inclusive understanding is not yet widespread. There are a lot of bi people who very much do not want bi to include anything other than cis men and women.
That being said, there’s no agreement within “lesbian community” about whether trans women are included, either. But we didn’t create a new, more-inclusive term for trans-inclusive lesbianism, so I get where you’re coming from. Or maybe some people did, but they didn’t catch on? Maybe TERFs created a trans-exclusive term for lesbianism that I thankfully don’t know about?
Would it be useful for anti-trans lesbians to have a new term to indicate they’re only into cis women? Probably. It’s not like we’re going to change their minds.
In the same way lesbian communities have had to (and continue to) fight it out, I think the bi community has to keep doing so. If somehow y’all are able to marginalize trans-exclusive bi people out to the degree that they have to create a new term to indicate their exclusion, that would seem like a win? Then “pansexual” would no longer be necessary. I think?
In the meantime, I think “pansexual” comes from the same place a lot of these language interventions come from – trying to mold language to fit growing and changing understandings of ourselves and of culture. And like all of them, it has varying degrees of usefulness.
Whenever I read “folx” my eyes roll so far back in my head I feel dizzy…
on the other hand, as a gen x type, the more x’s the better :)
persxn, though… i mean fine, but **takes a step backward, not w/ those folx**
The comments here have been a mix of just fine, to downright upsetting.
We’re transgender, non-binary femmes.
We use “folx” the way many LGBTQIA+ folx do, to refer to people *like us*. :(
And for the person complaining about pansexuals… if we see a dating profile that says “bisexual”, we’re just going to move right on. Because we’re non-binary.
Despite the claim that the “bisexual community has been defining bisexual as attraction regardless of gender for literally over half a century”, in our personal experience, most of the bisexuals we’ve met have been interested in men and women.
Not folx elsewhere on the gender map, not enbies, not genderqueer, nor fluid, demigender or agender…
Sorry, Abeni, but there’s a smell of enbyphobia over this :/
Maybe don’t blame Abeni for what one commenter said? Just a thought.
What I described in the post was the modern usage of “folx” – to “refer to people like us” – and I argue that I don’t think it works effectively and that it has downsides.
I agree with you, of course, about pansexual vs. bisexual. Yes there’s movement to have “bisexual” be more inclusive. Tons of it at this very website! But clearly not enough. It’s my belief that “bisexual” will not be fully inclusive until there’s a massive transformation in how gender is viewed in our society, so … pansexual has an important place. Cheers to the bi folks working to shift its meaning, though?
I think there has been non-binary erasure in some of the comments, though I hope you don’t see my aversion to the use of “folx” as enbyphobic. I think I laid out in the piece why I have issues with it.
Oh no, I was definitely referring to the comment section.
thank you so much for this!! i always thought womxn was specifically about nonbinary people and not trans women bc that would have been covered under women, but still found it confusing. this helped explain things for someone (me) who wasn’t sure if womxn was an inclusive thing to do!
** specifically to include, not about
I think the intentions were always good. But the question is: do non-binary people feel included? As a “womxn?”
I don’t think so, but I’m not non-binary. It seems like the comments here indicate that there isn’t widespread acceptance of that being an inclusive term among non-binary folks.
“Is there a clear difference between ‘making something queerer’ and intending it to be more inclusive?”
Honestly, I’ve been wondering that myself, after I wrote my comment. When I wrote it, I was thinking of using folx specifically for queer audiences and making it more queer, rather than using it for a general audience to signal being more inclusive. But I’m not sure there’s really that much of a difference.
I wish you had taken your own advice as a non-Spanish speaker and stayed out of the latinx vs Latino vs latine debate as you still missed a lot of nuance.
I am a Spanish speaker, just not a native one. I thought my take on the debates was pretty nuanced, as did the multiple queer Latinas I consulted on that section.
I did quite a bit of research on that bit, but I’d love to learn more about what I missed. It’s obviously not your responsibility to help me better understand that nuance, but maybe you have a link or two I can read to better understand some of the perspectives I missed? If not, I understand though.
I am wondering about the line ” Who are these “womxn,” especially when the statement also says “non-binary?” On their website, every speaker featured uses she/her pronouns, except for one person who also uses “we/they” in addition to “she.”
It seems to suggest that people who identify as non-binary can’t use more than one pronoun or that using “she” somehow nullifies one’s status as being non-binary. Your articles main thesis, at least from my point of view, explains how language that intends to be inclusive actually become exclusive. To me, it seems a way to account for that is to use multiple words as opposed to finding a single world that defines them all. I would also argue that the very project of trying to find a singular word is in and of itself colanialist. But yes, I am not sure if that is what you intended but it reads like people who use more than one pronoun are not non-binary.
This is a good point, well made. I’ve actually edited the piece a little bit there to reflect it. Thank you!