‘Latinx’ and the Debate Around Gender-Neutral Language

March 4, 2021 Updated: March 4, 2021

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My Word” was a public radio quiz show decades ago that deliberated word meanings and word origins. When a question stumped contestants, audiences could anticipate a clever response in the form of a “feghoot,” a lighthearted vignette ending in a pun. The responses, though entertaining, were always bogus. Fake or not, it didn’t matter. It was just pretend.

Nothing is bogus these days about the ruckus that a single word has caused. Reflective of changes in attitudes on gender and culture, this word, “Latinx,” draws both ire and admiration. A gender-neutral reference to persons in the United States with cultural and linguistic ties to Latin America, Latinx has cornered correct discourse in American business, government, and the media.

Minhae Shim, of San Francisco, a Ph.D. candidate and a writer in areas of social issues, states that although the exact origin of Latinx is not certain, it’s believed it “emerged from the Spanish-speaking queer community to challenge the gender binary.” The word may have started in the 1990s, she adds, but the catalyst for its popularization was the mass shooting at the Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016.

A signal that Latinx has been carved into the English lexicon is evident by its placement in standard dictionaries. The only debate is whether to claim Latinx as a count or non-count noun. Merriam-Webster and Oxford cast it as both, yet the plural ending breaches spelling rules children learn in second grade, where the plural form after a noun ending in x, is “es,” not “s.”

The avant-garde Urban Dictionary, whose opinionated “definitions” by users can bring hilarity and bewilderment—and outcry—suggests a different take on Latinx and brings attention that change is not welcome by all. “Latinx is a [expletive] word made up by people who are not even Latino themselves,” states an entry. “Spanish is a gendered language, get over it.”

The “X factor,” as it is sometimes called, amends the connotation of Latinx to be inclusive to persons on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. This movement of inclusivity also transforms traditional honorifics “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” and “Ms.” to Mx.

Says Jack Qu’emi Gutiérrez, a self-described queer, non-binary femme writer, in an interview with Public Radio International: “The ‘x,’ in a lot of ways, is a way of rejecting the gendering of words to begin with, especially since Spanish is such a gendered language.”

Statistical data on the preferences of Latinx people is available with ThinkNow, a market research firm in Burbank, California, whose services are sought by businesses, including Fortune 100 companies, and government agencies. Founded by two Latinos, Mario Carrasco and Roy Eduardo Kokoyachuk, ThinkNow helps its clients to discover the cultural drivers that influence consumer decisions.

Despite the widespread use of Latinx, ThinkNow data dispels notions that Latinx is embraced by Latinos. To some, this finding might underscore cries that this word is being thrust onto society by a few.

The company’s research shows that a sizeable plurality of Latinos prefers to be identified as Hispanic, the term coined by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1970. Prior to that, Hispanics were categorized as “whites.” The second preference was Latino or Latina—identity as a male or female—followed in third place by recognition as from their family’s country of origin (Cuban, Mexican, etc.). At the bottom of the taxonomy, only 2 percent preferred Latinx. No one above the age of 50 selected Latinx, a fact which ThinkNow conjectures reflects traditional cultural values. This statistical factoid could foretell the future use of Latinx as older generations die off and the younger ones emerge as orchestrators of society.

“Millennials and Generation Z are open to the word,” believes Guillermo Castro, a teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District. “They were not born into the cultural biases of generations before them.” He adds that this group stands to present a potent voting bloc. “Politicians know this, and woe be to he or she [politician] who sounds old-fashioned by using ‘Latino.’”

Castro’s sentiment that Latinx is a way to be inclusive of identities that transcend the everyday gender and racial norms are echoed by Tanisha Love Ramirez and Zeba Blay in the Huffington Post: “Latinx also makes room for people who are trans, queer, agender, non-binary, gender non-conforming or gender fluid,” they write.

“Non-binary” characterizes those who identify themselves as neither a man nor a woman. People who are not in the loop of what is known as “Woke Culture” tend also to be nonplussed with the use of “gender-fluid,” an identification that isn’t fixed to one gender and can fluctuate. In past times, individuals in this category might have been deemed to have confused states of mind and confined to mental institutions.

Gallup Poll released findings on Feb. 24 that signaled that stigmas of the past associated with non-conforming expressions of sexual preferences and identities are fading. Almost 16 percent of Generation Z Americans (18–23 years old) identify as something other than heterosexual.

This doesn’t stop criticism of Latinx, which, like the entry in Urban Dictionary, argues that the word is “linguistic imperialism” by the imposition of English on another language. “Latinx” is not known to be in the Spanish vernacular anywhere but the United States, which leads to a claim of it being a manifestation of American Exceptionalism, defined as a license for Americans to proselytize. In other words, the rest of the world should use Latinx.

Opponents attempt to quiet criticism by countering that Spanish is no stranger to linguistic imperialism. “Are we not aware that upon the arrival of the conquistadores and subsequent acts of genocide, a few thousand indigenous languages existed in the Americas [but only] a few resilient hundred continue to be spoken today?” state Brooklyn College professors María Scharrón-del Río and Alan Aja in the online magazine LatinoRebels.com.

Lost in Scharrón-del Rio and Aja’s interpretation is that languages and cultures are impermanent. The ancient Etruscan civilization exemplifies a longstanding culture and language absorbed by the conquering Romans. That’s the story of civilization—a fine word for discussion should there ever be a redux of “My Word.” And what a feghoot Latinx would make!

Timothy Wahl is an ESL teacher, reporter, essayist, and author living in Southern California. His most recent book is “Footballogy: Elements of American Football for Non-Native Speakers of English.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.