When we consider LGBTQ and women’s issues, we want to believe we’re all united in cause. Feminism has become increasingly intersectional in its third wave, prioritizing not just the needs of straight, cisgender (identifying as the gender they were assigned at birth) white women, but the needs of the marginalized: LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, people of color. Unfortunately, no matter how “woke” we think we are as a movement, feminists aren’t immune to infighting and gatekeeping.
Specifically within the LGBTQ community, you’d think those of us who have been oppressed and marginalized might be welcoming by default, but that isn’t always the case. Internal strife runs rampant. Some feel the need to exclude asexual people (those who don’t experience sexual attraction) from LGBTQ spaces and events, and other particularly vocal feminists — many of them cisgender lesbians — attempt to exclude transgender people. (How easily we forget that transgender women are said to have thrown the first bricks at Stonewall, or that transgender women have been leading our causes for decades.)
These “feminists,” known as trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs, or assholes, if that’s easier to remember), claim that transgender women are not women because they were assigned male at birth, and therefore grew up with male privilege — the same senseless rhetoric employed by right-wing talking heads, you’ll note. Of course, this argument disregards the immense challenges faced by transgender women in comparison to their cisgender peers.
So when we use the word “women” in LGBTQ and feminist spaces, we must recognize that it is loaded like a pistol, and aimed directly at members of our queer family — especially as nonbinary gender identities (themselves part of the transgender spectrum) become more visible in mainstream society.
Unfortunately, we have been struggling with the word “women” for decades.
Traditional feminism recognizes the immediate implications of its spelling: It needs “men” to be complete. Yet original attempts to remove “women” from its patriarchal structures excluded those who most needed a liberated word with which to identify.
The first documented use of the alternative spelling “womyn” is in a 1975 issue of Lesbian Connection magazine, an announcement of the now-defunct Wolf Creek Womyn’s Festival. The problem? This festival disallowed transgender women from attending. It’s not a past problem, either. Under a different name, WoLF Fest, run by the Women’s Liberation Front, continues to espouse its trans-exclusionary views. WoLF insidiously recruits young lesbians online the way the alt-right recruits lonely young men — preying on trust, isolation and a lack of experience.
So, modern feminists have run into a conundrum. How to separate the word “women” from its patriarchal roots without using language invented by the bigots within our own communities? How to prove that our spaces are feminist, yet safe and welcoming of transgender and nonbinary people?
This is why we at the Indy, for instance, have named this issue “The Womxn’s Issue,” and why this new spelling has cropped up more and more frequently in recent years. (The Indy still uses the word “women,” by the way, but used “womxn” in this case to make clear that we intended the word to be inclusive.) You’ll even notice it locally: Womxn of the Future pop-up markets, featuring womxn-owned businesses; and Pikes Peak Womxn for Liberation, a local organization dedicated to womxn’s rights.
But what does “womxn” mean, exactly? Olivia Romero, co-founder of Pikes Peak Womxn for Liberation, says in part: “The spelling of womxn is meant to show inclusion of trans, nonbinary, womxn of color, womxn with disabilities and all other marginalized genders. Our organization particularly uses this spelling to separate ourselves from exclusionary feminisms.”
By using this spelling, feminists communicate safety. With us, your gender will be respected, your pronouns used correctly, your voice considered with equal weight.
Feminism has always struggled with inclusion, from the earliest suffragettes refusing to advocate for black women, to the contemporary national Women’s March allegedly prioritizing the voices of its white organizers. The LGBTQ community, too, has often left transgender people behind in our quest for “equality,” fighting for marriage rights and nondiscrimination protections at the expense of issues that include or affect transgender people.
This new generation of feminism is our chance to change that. To ensure that when one of us takes a progressive step forward, we all do. Nothing is perfect, and the word “womxn” may go through a thousand permutations before we find the best way to convey all ways of being womxn in a single word. But it is progress toward a more equitable movement.