Stop Trying to Make “Womxn” Happen
This week, the livestreaming platform Twitch came under fire for announcing their programming for Womxn’s History Month. Their use of the term womxn — which is often used by cis people to signal trans and nonbinary inclusion — was rightly criticized for being ill-conceived and performative.
What’s the matter with “womxn”? Well, if you took to Twitter the day of Twitch’s announcement, you’d probably get the impression that its major problem is cringey-ness. And it’s true, the word does make me wince. Womxn’s a word that does nothing to change trans people’s material circumstances, and it condescends to us and misgenders us far more than it extends us an olive branch. Mockery of arbitrary gender-neturalizing-x’s abounded in people’s social media posts about it (the word “folx” also came under fire). Even right-leaning people got in on the action; a word like womxn is easy to hate.
But as a trans person who is both a fan of precise thinking and a critic of language policing, I wish to clarify things: the real problem with “womxn” isn’t that it’s silly or laughable. Exactly where it falls on the performative-allyship-cringe-o-meter is up for debate. The problem with it isn’t that it’s out of date or offensive, either. It’s a relatively new term, and it’s one some individual nonbinary people do identify with (which is absolutely their right).
We Can Abolish Language Policing
Words can inspire reflection and growth, instead of prompting attacks
The problem with womxn is not the word itself, but the thinking that drove its creation. It’s the latest in a long, long line of attempts by cis people (usually cis women) to craft an oversimplifying catch-all word that encapsulates all gender-minority experiences, which is impossible because we’re not all the same. Our experiences are vast and our communities are diverse. My perspectives and feelings as a trans-effeminate person are nothing like what a gender fluid person goes through; a “binary” trans man knows very little about the life and perspective of a nonbinary trans femme. A lack of clarity when speaking about trans people doesn’t show any respect for us. It flattens us into a monolith and erases our ability to articulate each of our sub-groups’ distinct needs, and the unique ways we’re oppressed.
If you want your event to be for women, well, the word “women” is already there. “Women” already includes trans women, there’s no need for adorable gender neutral x’s to defang the term and implicitly misgender the trans women you’re seeking to include. Don’t get me wrong — if you’re worried about trans women not feeling welcome at your event, you’re probably right to. It’s good you’re considering that. But it is a problem that can’t be solved by changing language. You’ll have to go deeper.
Are cis women the only people planning the event? Is the event being held in a space created and shaped by cis feminist ideas? Do people in your space routinely talk with disgust about “male” bodies, or about the social and physical signifiers associated with masculinity? Do the cis women in your group think of themselves as fundamentally more pure and innocent (and less capable of abuse) than men? Do you treat assigned-female trans people such as myself as if we’re “just one of the girls”? If so, your space isn’t trans inclusive. Fix that before your work on the terminology. You’ll be busy for quite a while, I promise.
If including nonbinary and genderqueer people is what you’re aiming to do, a word like “womxn” still falls flat. It signals that even if a nonbinary person doesn’t identify at all as a woman, they’re close enough to being one, in your eyes. “Womxn” pastes over identities like agender, bigender, demigirl, demiboy, and the like, implying that such distinctions don’t matter and that everyone who isn’t 100% a man is the same. I’ve spoken to nonbinary people who are partially female-identified who’ve told me that even they feel condescended to and erased by this term.
What if you’re trying to include all gender-variant people? Well, if that was your aim, then your use of “womxn” is somehow even worse. Trans men aren’t womxn, no matter how desperate many cis women are to deem us soft, non-threatening women-lite. Seeking to include trans masculine people in an event like Women’s History Month simply does not make sense.
Trans men are not members of the political class targeted by sexism. We’re men. With much of the privilege and entitlement that attends it. I may have taken a slightly different route to manhood than most cis men do, but if you’re organizing a space under the belief that men lack some essential experience women have, or are fundamentally less safe than women are, then you better exclude me. And you better bend over backward to empower trans women in your spaces, and ensure they feel safe and recognized.
In practice, of course, this is never what happens. Events branded as for “women and femmes,” “women and nonbinary people,” or “womxn” make great overtures to appeal to people like me — people who aren’t at all women, but have been forced into a womanly role all our lives. In their very architecture, these groups betray their belief that my body makes me safer than a cis man, that my gender assignment means I belong even if I say that I don’t. A core, transmisogynistic belief lurks behind every event branded as for everyone but cis men: if you have a certain kind of body, you are allowed to be here no matter how you identify. But if you have the “wrong” kind of body, the scary kind, you are seen as suspect by default, and you must work very hard to prove you’re really one of the gxrls.
The truth is, there is no such thing as an all-encompassing trans-inclusive event or label. Under the trans umbrella there are a wide array of communities and identities, each with our own competing access needs. The steps you take to make cis women or woman-aligned nonbinary people feel welcome in your space will often, necessarily, make me feel less welcome. And maybe that’s okay. I’m a man; I don’t need to be catered to all the time. But don’t pretend a space is for me when it isn’t. The more widely you cast your net of gender-inclusion, the fewer specific steps toward inclusion you’ll actually take.
People are often surprised to hear that I feel safer around men than I do cisgender women. But it’s true! Cis women have been invasive and disrespectful toward me my entire life, more so than any other gender group. Men, on the other hand, are pretty good at minding their own business and treating my identity with matter-of-fact respect. And unsurprisingly, most trans people “get” me. If I was organizing a space on the basis of my own identity and desire for safety, I’d make a “men and trans” group.
Women Who’ve Told Me How My Body Should Be
Women have been responsible for some of the most body-shaming, objectifying, sexist experiences of my life.
However, I recognize that a lot of people would feel uncomfortable being thrown together under my grouping of “men and trans people.” So I don’t make events like that. My own idiosyncratic feelings of safety shouldn’t be imposed on the identities of everyone around me. Yet that is what cis women do every single time they create a “womxn” event, or even an “everybody but cis men” event, and invite primarily cis women, and people like me. Their biases toward bodies like their own mean my identity gets erased, and trans women get implicitly told their acceptance is tentative at best.
There’s no big gender melting pot space (or word) in which each of us gets to feel equally safe and comfortable. Many trans women that I’m friends with prefer to gather not in “women and trans” spaces, or even in “women and femmes” ones, but specifically in trans women’s spaces. Around cis women, they have to worry too much about being seen as predatory, or being called “girlfriend” all the time in treacly and insincere ways.
Unfortunately, around trans masculine people like me, they often have to worry about that too. A trans woman I’m close friends with told me this week that she never, ever discusses her sex life with anyone but other trans women. She’s been accused of being a perverted male by members of every other group too many times — sometimes even by very close trans male friends. So for many trans women, gender inclusion by definition means exclusion; they’ve been excluded by every group but their own, so they have no choice but to form their own private space.
I’ve organized workshops that were “trans only” before. Specificaly, I once put together a boot camp for trans people who wanted to practice correcting people who misgender them. I wanted to ensure that everyone present at the event understood how it felt to be misgendered on a regular basis. I wanted trans people to be able to practice self-advocacy in a secure-feeling space, away from accusations of being “too sensitive” or “too aggressive” that cis people hurl at us when we self-advocate.
My boot camp wouldn’t have made sense as a “women and trans” type event — it was specifically trans people I was targeting. Even still, my “trans only” label had flaws. There are cis women with conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome who have beards and get called “he” by strangers all the time. I know detransitioned people who get called the wrong pronouns regularly, too. If someone had asked me about these groups, I would have said I wanted them to feel welcome at my event too, but my whole conception of the event left them out. A hasty change to my branding wouldn’t have fixed that.
Every time we make an attempt to categorize, we exclude and oversimplify in ways that reflect our agendas and prejudices. It’s like MC Hammer says, when you measure, include the measurer. Far too often, the ones doing the measuring are cisgender women, who center their own bodies, experiences of sexism, and comfort levels (which are informed by transphobia and transmisogyny) rather than anyone else’s. And so they keep creating insulting words like “womxn” instead of calling us by the specific and varied labels we use for ourselves. Ultimately, that’s how they see us. Women-adjacent. Woman-enough. Woman-friendly. On-the-way-to-womanhood. Woman-safe. Woman-bodied. Woman-looking. We’re just like them, only less important.
Cis wanna-be allies keep rearranging the deck chairs of gender-neutral language while the ship that is social recognition of trans personhood sinks all around us. Trans teens in the UK are rapidly losing access to puberty-blockers. A prominent trans woman cartoonist and all her fans were targeted this week by the hate site Kiwifarms. Writer Ana Valens was run off Twitter the week before that, simply for observing that pop stars like Katy Perry profit from co-opting transfeminine aesthetics.
In short, trans people have bigger and more pressing battles to fight than getting swept up in the “womxn” wars over and over again. If you’re a cis person who’d like to be a true ally to us, please focus on the beliefs and systems of oppression that undergird our vulnerable position in society. A linguistic band-aid isn’t enough.
Cis friends, you can worry about which cutesy branding to use to signal your event’s trans-inclusive status once you actually take concrete steps to make our world trans inclusive. In the meantime, use the terms we use for ourselves, recognize trans people are a massive and diverse group with many distinct experiences and labels, and for the love of god, stop trying to make “womxn” happen.