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.”
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.