The contentiousness of womxn

cn: It’s about language, so don’t complain to me about wasting time with pointless semantics, it was your choice to read onward!

“Womxn” is a term that was intended to be more inclusive of trans women, nonbinary people, and women of color. It recently entered the news when Twitch used “womxn” in a tweet. This resulted in backlash, with people accusing the term of being transphobic. It is a term that inspires, shall we say, conflicting viewpoints.

I first heard about “womxn” in the context of TERFs complaining about it. I don’t exactly watch TERFs, but my husband, you see, likes to argue with TERFs on Twitter. Yes, yes, there’s no accounting for taste. In any case, TERFs would complain endlessly about “womxn”, seemingly in disproportion to its actual use. This is common practice in TERF communities, to highlight something said somewhere by some trans person, and amplify everywhere as an example of why the TRAs (their term for trans activists, intended to parallel MRAs) are bad.

That’s not to say that “womxn” was only ever used by one trans person. The more you follow trans issues (or any topical issue really), the more you come to accept that even if you’ve never heard of an idea, it might still have currency in some community or subculture. And without knowing the original context, for all we know it may have even made a lot of sense.

“Womxn” is obscure, but its obscurity is not absolute. Prior to the Twitch incident, Wikipedia listed two events that chose to adopt “womxn”: the 2017 Womxn’s March on Seattle, and the 2018 Indigenous Womxn’s March in Portland. It is not hard to find sincere, authentic, and recent use cases with a tiny bit of google foo. Still other articles are extremely critical.

Personally, I can say that “womxn” did not make a positive first impression. I thought it was similar to “womyn”, motivated by a desire to excise the substring “men” from “women”. And “womyn” just makes me think of the Michigan Womyn’s Musical Festival, and their “womyn-born womyn” policy excluding trans women. “Womyn” is a word used by people who feel the need to excise even the vaguest symbol of maleness from their spaces, to the point of excluding women as well.  “Womyn” is, in short, a TERF term. Perhaps it wasn’t always, but it is presently.

But here the TERFs were complaining about “womxn”, a virtually identical term, apparently because some trans person somewhere had used it? Sometimes what makes a word “good” or “bad” is not its meaning, but who you associate it with.

My first impression was wrong in at least one respect. Where the “y” in “womyn” is intended to remove a symbol, the “x” in “womxn” serves a different purpose. It is a wild card, allowing many substitutions to include many kinds of people. It takes a page from “Latinx”, where the x is a wild card for “a” or “o” or whatever letter would include nonbinary people.*

“But what,” you ask, “could we replace the ‘x’ with, that allows it to refer to nonbinary people?” Wom-nonbinary-n? Who knows? It’s symbolic, it doesn’t need to make sense. More to the point, as someone who is not a womxn, I might form my own impressions and opinions as I try to meaningfully engage with these ideas, but I better exercise some epistemic humility about them.

dividerWhatever the intentions of “womxn”, the Twitch case shows that it was not ready for prime time. Some activists thought it was a good idea at the time, but they made a mistake and the word does not please who it was intended to please. Sometimes problems like these just aren’t apparent until you get a wider audience not familiar with the word’s original context.

The problem with “womxn” is that when you create a new word based on an old word, people assume you’re trying to make some kind of distinction. Womxn is intended to be more inclusive, so is the implication that “women” is not inclusive? Are trans women not women until we take away their vowels?

Of course, the intended distinction is not between exclusive “women” and inclusive “womxn”. Rather, the distinction is between implicitly inclusive “women” and explicitly and emphatically inclusive “womxn”. This kind of move is occasionally successful. For instance, the rainbow flag with brown and black stripes is intended to make explicit the inclusion of queer people of color, even though nobody really thinks the original rainbow flag is not inclusive. What makes “womxn” different from the POC rainbow flag is a bunch of contextual clues that push first impressions in one direction or another.

Another aspect that makes “womxn” contentious, is the attempt to include nonbinary people. If a nonbinary person is not a woman, is it really such a good idea to say, “you may not be a woman, but you are a womxn”? It feels a bit like trying to pin them as a woman without being upfront about it. (There’s a lot more to say about nonbinary people and their relation to women’s spaces, but I would have to spend a whole essay talking about a topic that I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to cover.)

“Womxn” strongly reminds me of another term that briefly went in and out of fashion a number of years ago: “trans*”. “Trans asterisk” or “Trans star” if we’re being Google friendly. The history of this one has mostly been lost, and we’re stuck with secondary sources. But the intention of “trans*” was to use the asterisk as a wild card, to include many people under the trans umbrella, such as transgender, transsexual, transvestite, transmasculine, etc. The problem is that this appears to imply that “trans” wasn’t inclusive to begin with. So into the garbage bin with that idea.

The point of talking about these ideas is not to paint trans people as inconsistent or capricious. Rather, trans people are human, and their communities are living breathing things with fascinating disagreements occurring all the time.


*“Latinx” is another term that draws many complaints. The biggest legitimate complaint is that “Latinx” is far more legible in English than in Spanish–and “Latine” is arguably a superior alternative. But, in English, “Latinx” is the term that has greater currency, for now. (return)


  1. sonofrojblake says

    “it doesn’t need to make sense”

    Just as well.

    “The point of talking about these ideas is not to paint trans people as inconsistent or capricious”

    That ship has sailed.

    I honestly look forward to a day when this sort of stuff is history – right now it feels like we are somewhere like the 70s when people complained about “gay” being debased out something, “queer” was a slur that hadn’t been reclaimed and “LGBT” was still off in the future.

  2. says

    It may be history to you, but arguments over those words continue to this very day, and you’re just behind the times. (Which is just as well…)

  3. Trickster Goddess says

    Regarding ‘trans*’. I was coming out in that era (mid 2000s) and active in many LGBTQ forums. My recollection is that at that the time the plain ‘trans’ was not yet in use. The terminology at the time was using the full word ‘transsexual’ or ‘transgender’. There were divisions and political nuances in the use of the terms.

    There were some, particularly those who transitioned in earlier decades and survived by becoming invisible (‘stealth’) and blending into cisnormative society, who were upset by the newer generation of trans people who were more open and feared they would draw political attention that would jeopardize their invisible protection. They were also aghast at the idea of a ‘non-op transsexual’ (someone who didn’t want, or was unable to complete their transition with surgery.) Some described themselves as ‘true transsexuals’ (i.e. ‘post-op transsexuals’). They also associated the term transgender or ‘transgenderist’ with earlier usage in the late 20th century by activists they described more or less as full-time cross-dressers.

    Other people preferred transgender instead of transsexual because it de-emphasized ‘sex’.

    Posting in forums, ‘trans*’ was adopted as a shorthand and an umbrella term for transsexual/transgender/transvestite and was in general usage for a while. Eventually people dropped the awkward ‘*’ character and just wrote ‘trans’. It also works better when speaking.

    So yes, ‘trans*’ was introduced as an inclusive term, but the shift to ‘trans’ came about through the natural streamlining of language. Trans* can be seen as a transitional terminology. (No pun intended.)

  4. says

    @Trickster Goddess,
    I had no idea that “trans*” went so far back! None of the secondary accounts give it any date, except that Julia Serano says she started seeing it in 2013–which is around when I started seeing it as well. I wonder if it was perhaps an older term that was revived circa 2013, after it was no longer necessary.

    It goes to show how sometimes words that don’t make any sense now, made much more sense in the context where they were created.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    arguments over those words continue to this very day

    Well, yeah… ach as a cishetwhitemale I’ve got NO skin in this game but as the same set of qualifiers I can’t help noticing that homophobia when I was a kid was the stuff of primetime mainstream family entertainment compared to now when “It’s a Sin” and “I May Destroy You” are getting all the plaudits (if not any Golden Globe recognition) and my wife’s mate Kerry married her girlfriend.

    I’m “behind the times” for thinking gay rights are in a more advanced state than trans rights? Really? I mean again, fair enough, but if any mainstream celeb was as openly racist or homophobic as JK Rowling is transphobic, how much of a career do you think they’d have going forward? Would they have many mainstream figures defending them? It’s taken Mel Gibson DECADES to sorta-not-entirely recover his career after his racist outbursts.

  6. says

    @sonofrojblake #6,

    I’m “behind the times” for thinking gay rights are in a more advanced state than trans rights?

    All I said is that arguments over terms like “queer” or “LGBT” persist to this day. It is your assumption, not mine, that this implies anything about the relative state of trans or gay rights.

  7. says

    > Personally, I can say that “womxn” did not make a positive first impression. I thought it was similar to “womyn”, motivated by a desire to excise the substring “men” from “women”. And “womyn” just makes me think of the Michigan Womyn’s Musical Festival, and their “womyn-born womyn” policy excluding trans women.

    I was talking to a friend about this, and we had the same reaction – I wasn’t familiar with the more recent movement to try and (re?)coin “womxn” as a more inclusive term until the whole twitch scandal, but I did have vague memories of seeing it mentioned as a rare alternative spelling of womyn/wimmin/other “take the men out of women” variants back when that was a hot topic five or ten years ago, in a “here’s why we avoid using these words because even if they seem kinda feminist, in practice they’re most popular with anti-trans people” way, so that’s what my mind went straight to – which made it a bit confusing to see it was ostensibly intended to have exactly the opposite purpose.

    Overall, it definitely seems like a problem that someone more familiar with the history of the tensions around trans people and “womens” movements could have caught early on; although I’m not sure if that lack of awareness here came from overeager allies or if it’s an age gap thing from people who never went through those previous waves of language controversy and don’t have the same hangups about it that I do.

  8. says

    @Siggy on a tangent re: trans*, I was definitely seeing it as early as 2011 when I first started really diving in to reading about nonbinary/neutrois/agender blogs, and iirc I think it was growing in popularity in at least some of my campus undergrad groups around that time as well, although I’m not sure where it came from as it seemed to be already established by the time I got involved.

    My personal impression was that at the time, it was actually quite popular among nonbinary people who for a few years (at least many of the ones I followed) who had experiences with “transgender” or LGBT resources that didn’t really account for the existence of nonbinary people, but it fell out of favor as nonbinary identities started being more understood and included in mainstream trans and LGBT spaces and as “trans” became more accepted as an umbrella term in it’s own right.

  9. Trickster Goddess says

    I was active on Pam’s House Blend blog during the Bush second term when we started using the trans* shorthand in our writing, so probably around 2006-2007. I think the asterisk started getting dropped around 2014. By that time, too, public discourse was expanding the umbrella beyond transitioner/cross-dresser to include genderqueer, non-binary and other presentations and identities, and 2 of the 3 original suffixes the asterisk stood in for weren’t really used anymore.

  10. says

    @Trickster Goddess,
    Thanks for the context! I remember being aware of Pam’s House Blend, although I never read much of it. That would have predated me coming out, along with my awareness of the subject.

  11. sonofrojblake says

    Has anyone seen or suggested “wom*n”?

    arguments over terms like “queer” or “LGBT” persist to this day

    All I’m saying is that those arguments have shifted, at least in my perception, from being arguments between mainstream society in general and LGBT people (when I was a kid) on opposite sides (the attitude then being as Tom Robinson put it “the buggers are legal now, what more are they after?”), to now, where whatever argument there is against LGBT rights is coming from the loony right fringe, and society in general has settled down and accepted gay marriage etc. I was looking forward to a time when acceptance of trans people has reached at least that stage.

    It does occur to me that my perspective is based on not living in what by the standards of my home is a far right theocracy. Europe isn’t like a lot of other places, so that’s likely at least part of the reason for my view differing from someone whose experience is of the US.

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