TW: Mentions of transphobia
Recently, Harry Potter fans were hit hard when author J.K Rowling released a transphobic tirade on Twitter and, later, a virtual manifesto of transphobia on her website. Rowling essentially stated that she didn’t believe transgender women to be women. In several subsequent tweets and messages that demonstrated dangerous ignorance about ideas of sex and gender, Rowling dug herself deeper and deeper into her mess.
While I found all her tweets deeply disturbing, one, in particular, stuck out to me.
‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?
Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate https://t.co/cVpZxG7gaA
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
The issue here is that Rowling implies that the phrase “people who menstruate” can and should be replaced with the term “women”. This idea is not only morally flawed, but scientifically incorrect, for two primary reasons.
Not all people who menstruate are women, and not all women menstruate.
Firstly, not all people who menstruate are women, and not all women menstruate. The phrase “people who menstruate” was specifically used in order to be more inclusive than the term women. Transgender men and non-binary or gender-conforming individuals are not women, but issues of menstruation still pertain to a large number of them. Similarly, not all women (not even all cisgender women!) menstruate: people with PCOS, people with hysterectomies, people past the age of menopause, etc., may not menstruate, even if they were assigned female at birth.
Reading Rowling’s tweet made me incredibly frustrated, but it also made me question the nature of inclusive language as a whole. As a linguistics major, I’m intrigued by the way we use language to express our views, our emotions, and how the use of one word can change everything. How, at its very core, the curl of our tongues and the strokes of our pencils hold so much power.
Recently, people have been advocating to make languages more gender-inclusive. In this advocacy, one of the biggest phenomena is the use of the letter “x” to sidestep gender markings.
At its very core, the curl of our tongues and the strokes of our pencils hold so much power.
The most widely known usage of this phenomenon is Latinx instead of Latina or Latino, in an attempt to make the identifier gender-neutral. Spanish is a highly gendered language, leading to people advocating for a shift to more inclusion. This goes beyond just the commonly used term Latinx. For example, my Spanish professor would consistently begin his emails with “Queridxs todxs” instead of “Queridos todos” (“dear all”) in order to avoid gendered language.
However, the term Latinx, and all other efforts to erase gender in Spanish, have been met with opposition. Many Hispanic-Americans believe that the term is actually an elitist idea. Opponents have argued that altering Spanish to remove gender markings erases identity while also implying that Spanish is an exclusionary language and needs to be changed. It’s even argued that the term is a form of linguistic imperialism, with the US forcing their ideals on the Spanish language despite pushback from speakers.
The use of “x” is also quite widespread in English. Words such as Mx. instead of Mr. or Mrs., and, most controversially, womxn instead of women, represent examples of pushes to make English more inclusive.
All these terms make for fascinating case studies, but I have been particularly interested in the term “womxn” as well as the controversy surrounding it.
The term “womxn” is meant to include transgender women, cisgender women, and non-binary individuals (typically women-identified nonbinary individuals, or those assigned female at birth), and to reject the sexist sequence “men”. However, many non-cisgender women, who are meant to be accommodated with the term, feel that it actually others them (as “women-lite”) and would prefer that the term “women” is continued to be used.
Then there is also the issue of no one being able to pronounce the word, or having it pronounced the exact same way as “women” which many argue defeats the purpose.
When I consider the validity of the term “womxn”, I struggle to accept it as a part of the English language. If the term “womxn” alienates the very people it’s meant to include, should we really be using it?
As a cisgender woman, I don’t think it’s my place to draw a hard line here. But I do fervently believe that our language needs to be evolving to be more inclusive of those it has long excluded. For example, Chester M. Pierce coined the term “microaggression” in 1970 to easily articulate a specific form of discrimination that did not have a clear name. Conversely, we’ve effectively eliminated the acceptable use of derogatory slurs against racial and gender minorities. These are both examples of how our language and language use has changed to accommodate our changing society.
Oftentimes when I discuss the issue of inclusive language with others, I’m surprised at the opposing view, especially those of older generations. They view language such as “people who menstruate” as clunky, unnatural. After all, we didn’t use this language before, why now?
It’s not strange for people to push back against blunt changes in our language. Yet the truth is that language change is one of the most natural phenomena we have. Every time we create something new, whether it be technology or political theory, we need to expand our language to articulate these new ideas. Our pronunciations can change leading to huge shifts in language, such as with the Great Vowel Shift in England. But these changes don’t ruin our language at all – they just contribute to its perpetual evolution.
There’s a reason why Shakespeare is akin to a foreign language, why “y’all” is no longer just a Southern quirk, why we don’t hesitate to use the singular “they”. Whether we like it or not, notice it or not, our language is always changing right alongside our society. And more often than not, this change is for the better. Adjusting our language use to be more inclusive is a necessary change as we make strides towards real, not surface-level, inclusivity.