*The first part of this necessary conversation by Ramona Rio can be found here.
Politically and personally, there is a continued conversation about the nuances between cis gender identities and trans identities. Specifically, conversations about words and language used to deconstruct patriarchy and recenter womanhood have simultaneously been conversations about dismantling cis-supremacy and cis-normativity. Feminists have brought to light that words such as “mankind”, “humanity”, “kingdom”, and “history” normalize maleness at the expense of womanhood. I believe it is very powerful when cis women and trans-women reclaim words such as “womankind”, “queendom”, and “herstory”. Women have also pointed out the term “woman” has the word “man” in it. This motivated feminist to develop new spellings of the word “woman”. However, this has led to some difficult conversations between cis women and trans-women.
The feminist movement created new spelling such as “womyn” and “wombyn” to deconstruct patriarchy in every language and recenter womanhood. These new terms, which seemed like initial improvements, immediately became criticized by trans-women. Trans-women have pointed out that the word “wombyn” has the word “womb” in it, and that this equates being a woman with possessing a womb. Trans-women have pointed out that not all women have wombs, which cis women falsely assumed. The same critique has also been articulated in regards the prevalence of cis women wearing pussy hats at Women’s March. Many trans-women have pointed out that equating womanhood with possessing a womb and vagina negates that reality that not all women have wombs, and that some women possess penises. Trans-women have also pointed that that equating womanhood with possessing a womb and vagina is reducing women-centered identity to a biological essentialism. There have also been other alternative spellings of the word “woman” which cis feminist have created which have also come under legitimate critique.
Feminist created the word womyn as a means to take the word “man” out of woman. However, the term “womyn” was, at times, being used by cis women who believed that trans-women were not women. Cis Women who self-proclaim to be “feminist”, and who believe trans-women are not women, are known in the trans community as trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERFs. Most notably, this problematic position was taken by cis women who founded and organized the Michigan Womyn’s Festival who continue to refuse to invite, allow, or include trans-women as part of their gathering and festivities. TERFs are generally considered by trans folks as people to be avoided at all cost.
The seemingly dialectical synthesis of the spelling the word “woman”, to “wombyn”, to “womyn”, has yielded a new spelling: womxn. To be honest, I am not too familiar with by whom or where this words was created, but is has has garnered much attention and common usage. This term has been recognized as being more inclusive all of gender identities along the womxn-identified spectrum of gender identities, including trans-women. This conversation about the spelling of the word womxn is very significant in broadening womxn-centredness as a more inclusive identity. We see in this conversation regarding the spelling of the word womxn that deconstructing patriarchy and recentering womxnhood is also a simultaneously a discussion about deconstructing cis-normativity, binary gender identities, and re-centering trans identities. Withstanding this difficult, but also creative, discussion about the spelling of the word womxn to include trans-women, we as a society must still consider folks who identity as non-binary, agender, and gender non-conforming.
Folks who identity as non-binary, genderqueer, agender, and gender-nonconforming may not identify with womxn or masculine identities or they may self-identity as a combination of both. Some of you cis and straight people reading this may think to yourself, “If I don’t know the gender identity of someone, how should I speak of them?” I want to, again, encourage cis-straight people to actually never assume the gender of another person. I would encourage cis-straight people to not hesitate to simply refer to some as person and using they/them pronouns continually until that person feels comfortable enough to disclose their gender identity.
Let’s go back to the previous position I brought up regarding family titles, such as “brother” and “sibling”, there have been some strides to articulate family title gender neutral terms. Two such terms are nibling and sibling. Nibling is a gender neutral term identifying a child of a one’s sibling, traditional what people say as “nephew” or “niece”. The term nibling has increasingly becoming used to identify a child of one’s sibling in gender neutral terms. Another gender neutral term is sibling. I personally can relate to the word sibling because, now that I don’t identify as a cis man or a womxn, I am still a sibling to my sister, and I would choose my sister address me as sibling and not as “brother”. The same can be said of the word “parent”, instead of gendering parent in the form of “mother” or “father”, some non-binary, agender or gender non-conforming parents may simply decide to use the word parent. As a non-binary person I hope to raise a child some day. When that time comes, I would not like to be referred to not as “mother” or “father”, but simply as a parent. As of right now, and to my knowledge, gender non-conforming, agender, and non-binary folks have still not developed alternative terms of parents or other family titles, or at least not to an extent that such terms have acquired a critical mass of support and common usage.
Unfortunately, we still need to develop gender neutral language for family titles. However, there have been some words which have served as gender neutral language for other social titles which have become quite common.
One word which has become more and more popular since the increasing acceptance of same-gender and same-sex couples has been partner. Whilst partner has become used by same gender couples to affirm their couplehood, this term also has served to break binary gender assumptions. Many unenlightened cis people sometimes express cis fragility and anxiety when they are not able to identity with whom they interact as a “man” or a “woman”. The movement to affirm the existence and rights of trans and gender non-conforming have put forth the powerful notion that what exist between a person’s legs is no one’s business.
Trans and gender non-conforming movements and communities have advocated that a person’s gender identity and expression encompasses someone’s personal space which should not be investigated, interrogated, or questioned by anyone else.
The usage of the term “partner” serves to positively reinforce the idea that the gender of a person’s significant other is no one’s business; and, it is up to a person if they want to disclose the gender of their partner. I have heard of situations wherein a person identifies their significant other as “partner”, and a unenlightened person assumes they are in a same gender relationship, which may not be the case. If you are a cis straight person and you ask someone if they have a partner, and, they say yes, I would ask you to resist the temptation to ask about the gender of the partner. Perhaps, this person may not want to disclose the gender of their partner, and, in fact, the gender of their partner is no one’s business. Another term which has become quite popular to express a gender neutral identity is Latinx.
As a Latinx person, I am proud that my community has developed this term which provides people within the community to identify with their national lineage in a way that is neither masculine or feminine, and a way to identify with their cultural ancestry that is non-binary, agender, or gender non-conforming. Spanish language is heavily gendered. All words either end in “o” which denotes a masculine signifier or “a” which denotes a feminine signifier. Why words for general things such as book, libro, or table, mesa, are expressed in masculine or feminine way is something that I cannot cover here. Latinx is a gender neutral way to identify a whole community and various nations of in a gender neutral way. The “x” is a way to signify a whole community of people without constraining their identity within the masculine or feminine binary.
Whilst cis straight Latinx people may use this term to be more inclusive of non-binary and gender non-conforming in everyday language, which they should, using this term means a lot for non-binary and gender nonconforming people. Until I learned about and starting using the term Latinx to self-identify, the words Latino or Latina seemed socially dysphoric for me because I neither identify as a “man” or a “woman”. Luckily, it was around the time that the term Latinx was becoming more popular and used by those around me and in social media that I began to use it. Now, I can use the term Latinx to identify myself in a way that affirms my gender as a non-binary person and affirm my nationality and culture.
Our everyday language, and the words we use, are rooted in the worldview of cis-hetero-patriarchy. I hope someday we live a world where people don’t assume someone else’s gender, and people consistently ask everyone with whom they interact their required and preferred gender pronouns.
Fortunately, there have been great strides in the past few decades with regards to breaking the binary in the everyday language. From developing gender neutral terms for family members, significant others, gender neutral pronouns, expanding the spelling of words which denote gender, and ethnic and national identities, these improvements point to a future where the everyday language we use might someday be free from all binary gender assumptions.
If you are a cis straight person, I would encourage you to be mindful of using language which reinforces binary gender assumptions and start using gender affirming and gender neutral language. If you are a trans, gender non-conforming, agender, or non-binary person, I would encourage you to develop alternative words or spellings of words which reference people in a way that is gender neutral or affirms their gender.
[Feature Image: Group of individuals stands outdoors with their back to the camera. One person has a rainbow flag around their back. Pexels.com]