“Latinx” and intersectionality

Since the issue at hand is about how to refer to people in the US of Latin American origin or descent, and since I am deliberately not favoring any particular word, in this post I will use “Latino/x/e” to describe this group.

In a previous post, I discussed why we grant members of a group special authority to talk about issues related to that group. In this post, as a case study, I examine the word “Latinx”, a contentious gender-neutral term for people of Latin American origin or descent. It’s commonly argued that this word should not be used, on the basis that Latino/x/e people themselves don’t like it, and presumably they have special authority to speak on the matter. I’ve also heard people say that “Latinx” must be coming from misguided non-Latino/x/e people.

As an example of these arguments, there was a recent NYT essay that argued that “Latinx” fails because it is rejected by 97% of Latino/x/e people in the US.

But something that the essay completely ignores, is that “Latinx” has strong associations with specifically queer Latino/x/e people. This is acknowledged by the Pew Research poll that the essay is based on:

The first substantial rise in searches [for “Latinx”] (relative to all online searches) appeared in June 2016 following a shooting at Pulse nightclub, an LGBTQ dance club in Orlando, Florida, that was hosting its Latin Night on the date of the attack.

I’m not Latino/x/e, but I was participating in queer student groups from 2009 to 2014 or so. Latinx was a term I heard in that context–although I more frequently heard Latin@ (“Latinat”), which I know to have declined in popularity since then. How popular is “Latinx” among queer Latino/x/e people today? I don’t know the answer to that, but at least I know enough to ask the question. Which is more than I can say of the NYT essay, or Pew Research for that matter.

I noticed an interesting pattern in works cited section of the essay. Of the 5 works cited (other than Pew), 3 of them are negative on “latinx”–and those are precisely the same three that never mention the queer association at all. The two citations which are positive or ambivalent about “Latinx” are precisely those which directly discuss the queer associations.

As a non-Latino/x/e person, I avoid taking any definitive stance on the matter. If for some reason I had to make a decision, I would defer to the opinions of people in the affected group. But who is the affected group? Is it Latino/x/e people? Or is it more specifically queer Latino/x/e people?

In the “direct expertise” framework I’ve discussed, the reason we defer to opinions of people in the affected group is that they have a sort of expertise over issues that affect themselves. This expertise is not necessarily based on personal experience, but may also come from talking to other members of the same group, or performing activism. Direct expertise, however, has multiple limitations. For instance, how often does the typical Latino/x/e person interact with queer Latino/x/e people?

As an outsider, I can plainly see that queerness is a significant factor. So if a Latino/x/e commentator talks about “Latinx” without even mentioning queerness, I have to conclude that in fact they are not experts on the subject.

It’s also worth thinking about this in comparison to other language changes pushed by activists in the name of inclusivity. Take for instance the creation of gender-neutral occupational terms, like “firefighter” rather than “fireman”. At some point that must have been very unpopular. And how popular do you think the singular “they” is? How popular is it to avoid the use of “you guys” when addressing groups of mixed gender? I don’t think it is correct to defer to popular opinion in any of these cases. Rather, we try to understand whose needs they are meant to serve, and we go to those people–especially expert activists–for an opinion on how effective it is.

And what is the opinion among queer Latino/x/e people? Based on the two previously linked articles,* there seem to be some mixed opinions. I should also point out a common viewpoint that Latine is a better alternative, because it’s more intelligible in Spanish. Note that this conversation is centered in the US, and I don’t think people in Spanish-speaking countries have the right to restrict the language usage of Latino/x/e people in the US… but it seems that some people in the US appreciate a word that is intelligible in Spanish.

*one of the authors identifies as queer, but I couldn’t tell about the other author. She seemed to know about queer stuff though so we’ll count her.

It sounds like we’ll have to wait for more of a consensus. For now, I accept whatever words people use for themselves. If I had to make a choice, I’d probably lean more towards “Latinx” in specifically queer contexts, but maybe hold off in other contexts.

“Latinx” is by no means an urgent issue that needs resolution right now. But I hope this illustrates how intersectionality can complicate direct expertise. Understanding intersectionality is crucial to being literate in issues affecting groups we are not part of.


  1. cartomancer says

    I’ve never understood why we haven’t settled on the much more concise and much less awkward “Latin” as the gender-neutral term.

    Indeed, English speakers very often do use “Latin” as an adjective to refer to the culture of American people who speak Iberian languages. Why not to those people themselves? We talk of French culture and French people, after all, or Romanian culture and Romanian people. In those cases we don’t feel the need to adopt the gendered conventions of adjectives in a Romance language just because we’re talking about those who speak one, and then contort them into a manufactured, non-gendered neologism for the sake of inclusivity. English already has a way of dealing with this, and it’s to leave the inflected endings off altogether.

    About the only objection I can think of is that there might be confusion with the language and literary culture of the ancient Romans, but how likely is that to be a day to day concern? I mean, sure, there might be some amusing misunderstandings – is Senora Gonzales a Latin Teacher because she teaches Latin or because she’s Latin and she’s a teacher? But we already have those with comparable cases (is Madame Fournier a French Teacher…).

  2. says

    I’ve wondered that myself, but all I know is that nobody has proposed it as a possibility–which doesn’t speak in its favor.

    If mutual intelligibility with Spanish is important, there’s the issue that in Spanish, “Latín” seems to be specific to the Latin language.

  3. A Lurker from Mexico says

    I don’t know that it’s even possible to get truly gender neutral terms in spanish. Every noun is gendered and has been for a while.
    The problem with Latinx, Latin@, and even Latine stems from the fact that all of these solutions were created as written form and haphazardly translated into spoken word, that’s just not how language works. Every example I can think of goes the opposite way around, like the written “it’s” reflecting the way people contract “it is” when speaking. The spoken word changed the written word. Seems to be a one way street.

    Trying to say it out loud in the speed that a fluent spanish speaker talks will usually make your pronunciation fall into one of the gendered versions of the word. You only need to accidentally open up your E a little bit and your “Latines” will sound indistinguishable from “Latinas”. You’d also need to create a gender neutral article to go with your gender neutral noun that also doesn’t fall into sounding like it’s gendered counterparts, and that’s easier said than done.

    And after all that, you’d have the problem of implementation. Even if you create a consistent set of rules for gender neutral spanish, it would likely be very different from normal spanish. Language usually moves in the direction of being lower effort, and learning a whole new language to communicate with people who could understand you just fine without it is anathema to that.

    Personally I don’t think any version of this idea will ever catch on, but I hope that the values and ideals behind making the effort in the first place do.

  4. Bruce says

    Some Latinos want to be thought of as Latinos, and some don’t. Just like any group and any name for the group. To have broad support, any group label has to have some consensus support from the actual usage of that group. Thus, there will never be a widely accepted consensus name for Latinos. But, at the least, Latino is a word that is used and understood by many Latinos, which most substitute terms cannot claim. If one tries for too much artificial setting of definitions, people would start arguing about definitions of the concept. For example, is a Latino any combination of Western Hemisphere born person with native Western Hemisphere ancestry, or with ancestry from the Iberian peninsula, or both? If two people who are both natives of the same Latin American country have non-intersecting ancestry from the two extremes above, then should it be ok to label them the same, despite their being unrelated? Consensus will not be forcesble.

  5. anat says

    A Lurker from Mexico, Hebrew is even more gendered than Spanish (Hebrew genders not only nouns and their corresponding pronouns and adjectives, but also verbs and numbers, and uses gendered pronouns for 2nd person, not just 3rd), but when people will it they manage to find less gendered ways to communicate. Back in the 70s recipes and instructions for using laundry detergent were in the feminine singular, at some point (90s?) they were changed to masculine plural, which is considered the inclusive form (since mixed gender groups have always been considered masculine). It would be nicer to have a completely new inclusive gender, to avoid the ‘male as default’. It might yet happen, LGBT writers are working on it.

  6. bugfolder says

    > How popular is it to avoid the use of “you guys” when addressing groups of mixed gender?

    For once, my fellow Southerners are ahead of the curve on 2nd-person plural non-gendered addressing: “Y’all” works great.

  7. billseymour says

    Although I’m a Midwesterner and “you guys” is my native language, I too prefer the Southern “you all” when I feel the need for a false plural of “you”.

  8. A Lurker from Mexico says

    @anat actually spanish also genders adjectives and pronouns and the masculine is also used as the gender neutral. These gender neutral solutions that are being proposed are a rejection of the masculine as inclusive. I don’t know that there is a way to do this without having your gender neutral words collapse into their gendered counterparts when used or altering the language so much that it’s implementation becomes a non-starter.

  9. says

    @A Lurker from Mexico,
    “Latinx” is not ambitious enough to transform Spanish. It’s not even a Spanish word, it’s an English mutation of an English word that was borrowed from Spanish. “Latine”, on the other hand, sounds potentially more ambitious. The comic I linked, at least, was talking about applying it to all sorts of words. I can’t say how likely that is to work.

    I like “y’all” too, and in my experience it’s well liked in queer/feminist spaces. On the other hand, it feels a bit difficult for me to actually use, like it’s someone else’s slang. “You all” works just as well while feeling more natural. But, I like hearing other people use “y’all”.

  10. cartomancer says

    A fair number of people use phrases like “you guys” and “chaps” in an entirely gender-neutral way in English. Indeed, this was the only way I myself had heard them used for most of my life, and it took people a good deal of argument to convince me they were ever used in a gender-specific way. I currently teach at a girls’ school, and they are pretty universally used among both students and staff to refer to entirely female groups.

    I acknowledge now that they were meant to come across as gendered in most of their original contexts, but it still seems weird to me when they are used that way. For over a decade I thought that the title of the musical “guys and dolls” was not meant to signify “men and women”, but rather “normal, down-to-earth, everyday people” (guys) and “prissy, entitled, narcissistic people” (dolls). I presumed that “guy” was derived from “guy rope” (the most usual context I knew it from), connoting solidity, support and good, honest workaday effort of the sort the rope puts in to hold things up. Admittedly, “guy” for “person” was an obvious. obtrusive and odious Americanism in England for most of my life, so I did not grow up using it. Hence, perhaps, the unwarranted assumptions about it.

  11. says

    @cartomancer #10,
    That’s pretty funny. Yeah, in American usage, “you guys” doesn’t exactly call attention to gender, and yet it usually wouldn’t be used to address a group of all women, so it’s gendered but kind of in an invisible male-as-default kind of way.

    The use of male plural in Spanish to refer to groups of mixed gender feels pretty similar, but *shrug* hard to tell how analogous it really is without being a native speaker.

  12. anat says

    Siggy @11:

    Yeah, in American usage, “you guys” doesn’t exactly call attention to gender, and yet it usually wouldn’t be used to address a group of all women,

    I became aware of how much ‘guys’ has lost its gendered status precisely because I was hearing ‘you guys’ being used to address women-only groups. What i have yet to hear is ‘this guy’ being used for a woman.

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