Like most Indo-European languages, English has a lot of gendered words. Most have standard gender neutral alternatives (boy/girl/child, brother/sister/sibling, etc.), and a few do not (Sir/Ma’am, aunt/uncle, niece/nephew, etc.).
This article is specifically about Mr./Ms./Mx., but I’ll start with niece/nephew. The nonbinary/genderqueer community has suggested a few gender neutral forms, the most prevalent being “nibling”.
This has raised a question: Is “nibling” a gender neutral term that also includes all nieces and nephews, or is it a term specifically for the nonbinary children of one’s siblings?
Personally, I like it as a gender neutral form, especially in the plural. I have a total of eight nieces and nephews, and saying “I have eight niblings” is more compact.
However, as nonbinary people have developed our collective identity, some have gotten frustrated at the lack of language specifically for us. “Nibling” (and aunt/uncle equivalents like auncle and entle) were designed by us… so are they specifically for us?
Myself, I feel like such arguments lead to the establishment of nonbinary as a “third gender”, which I don’t feel like it is. At the same time, I’m sympathetic to the frustration that taking terms coined by the nonbinary community and using them for everyone contributes to erasure of nonbinary people.
Which brings me to Mx.
Prior to the 1970s, the most standard prefix titles for people were Mr., Mrs., and Miss. While Ms. is a little older than that, it wasn’t culturally widespread until Gloria Steinem used it as a magazine title, starting in 1972.
The title Ms. addressed a cultural imbalance: Mr. says nothing about marital status while Miss and Mrs. (when used according to etiquette) do. Ms. allowed women the same privilege as men: To not disclose their marital status merely by being introduced.
Shortly thereafter, Mx. was suggested as an option for people who didn’t even want to disclose their gender. But while Ms. became the cultural norm within about a decade (one of the last opponents, Bill Safire, relented with Geraldine Ferraro’s VP run in 1984), Mx. remained in obscurity for several decades.
Mx. came back around the beginning of this century as nonbinary people started to use our public voices. While Ms. had addressed a valid inconvenience, we had a separate problem: There was no way to refer to ourselves in a formal way without being misgendered.
We found Mx., either through research or independent development. x was already in use as a gender inclusive place-holder in, for instance, Latinx and folx, so Mx. seemed the perfect title.
Some people adopted Mx. as a label of pride: We are nonbinary. We are announcing ourselves with this title. When we sign our emails, when we are introduced, we are independent of the gender binary!
Some people adopted Mx. as a true generic: No other title fits, and this one does. Indeed, I personally started using the title before I accepted myself as nonbinary.
So… that brings me to the question in the title: Is Mx. only for nonbinary/genderqueer people, or is it for everyone?
I know some people who feel very strongly that it’s only for us. The foundation for that belief is largely that the title was unused for decades, we found it and started using it, and now people who aren’t NBi/GQ want in on the title.
The fact that the title sat around for decades unused suggests that there wasn’t any real interest in degendered titles until NBi/GQ people started having a public voice. For people who aren’t part of that struggle to start using the title does feel like silencing and erasure.
There are at least three major rebuttals to this.
One depends on how someone sees being nonbinary. Is it a third gender category? If so, the category deserves category-specific language. Is it an umbrella for anyone who isn’t one of the two binary genders? If so, why does it need category-specific language?
Another is: What about people who are comfortable with their binary gender, but don’t feel compelled to announce it every time they’re identified? That was the original intent of Mx., after all… just because hardly anybody picked up on it at the time, that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful idea. Besides, isn’t the spirit of being nonbinary to break down gender distinctions in the first place?
A response to this, though, is: Fine. Come up with a new title that’s for everyone, but don’t use Mx. Mx. is for everyone, but don’t use Mx. Mx. is for nonbinary people.
The third relates to another, longer-standing issue in the queer community: What is the role of allies? I’ve objected to interpreting the A in LGBTQIA as “ally”; I prefer the interpretation of asexual/aromantic/agender. But it’s been pointed out to me that many people who are closeted present as “allies” in order to defend their affiliation with the queer community to their friends and family.
That is to say, many “allies” are really queer folk who are using “ally” as a cover.
As I already said, I used Mx. before I accepted myself as nonbinary. My full cycle was: (a) Mx. is for everyone! Let’s all use it! (b) Uh… I’m nonbinary but closeted, people will know that if I use Mx. (c) I’m nonbinary, so I use Mx.
If we get too aggressive about not letting people use Mx. without publicly identifying as nonbinary, we risk suppressing our eggs.
I don’t have a firm position on this, myself. I see both sides of this debate and, while I’m mostly on the side of “It’s sometimes okay if non-nonbinary people use it”, I’d prefer that people who are totally confident in their binary gender status stick to Mr. and Ms.
If people want to try it on to see how it fits, okay, that’s good with me. Be mindful, though, that there are nonbinary people who vehemently disagree with that, who feel that Mx. is only for nonbinary people. Consider that reality before using the title.
Postscript on Ms.: I was motivated to write this article today because of a social media discussion on cis women using Mx. to avoid revealing their marital status. After I wrote this article, a friend (in an unrelated discussion) commented that Ms. has come to mean “older unmarried woman”, despite the originally intended meaning.
Yes, I’m aware of this, and that’s extremely frustrating. I’ve met younger people who think that Ms. is just short for Miss, for that matter. Because Ms. came to be associated with feminism, and because many people (entirely wrongly) associate feminism with unmarried, politically aggressive women, the meaning of Ms. quickly got narrowed down.
I’ll note that the Ms. who changed Bill Safire’s mind was indeed married, and that’s why she changed his mind in the first place. Geraldine Ferraro could not be Miss Ferraro because she was married and she could not be Mrs. Ferraro because that wasn’t her husband’s last name. So she had to be Ms. Ferraro, there was no other choice.
All this said, while I get it and am sympathetic to the frustration that the intended marriage-neutral honorific for women was in a very short time span converted into something else, I don’t support this argument as why cis women should use Mx. instead. Taking something away from another marginalized community isn’t a solution.
Perhaps the best solution is to get rid of honorifics entirely. I only use Mx. because I work in an industry where they’re used as a matter of course. If I could, I’d go by my first name.