Why Is the Latinx Debate So Fierce?

Gender, Language, and Identity Are Complicated. But Inclusivity Doesn’t Have to Be

Is it Latino? Latine? Latinx? While debates around these identity labels flare up, ethnic studies scholar Sebastian Ferrada explains what they mean for trans and gender-nonconforming people. Illustration by Be Boggs.

In 2018, I was interviewed for Univision’s morning talk show ¡Despierta América! (Wake up, America!) to discuss the meaning of the identity label Latinx. I was nervous because I had never discussed gender and sexuality in a “formal” Spanish setting, let alone on national television—I mean, my 92-year-old abuelita was going to be watching! At the end, the reporter asked if I identified with the term Latinx. I knew what he was asking: Are you, personally, gender fluid? I surprised myself when I replied “yes” without pause. It was the first time I had publicly affirmed my non-binary identity.

In the months that followed, I would have several conversations with family and friends about what this meant for me, what pronouns I would now use, and how we would have patience with each other in learning and moving forward. Patience was necessary, given that the debate over the use of Latinx (and more recently, Latine) to refer to people with origins in Latin America has gone in dizzying circles. Since the term Latinx gained popularity in 2016, it and its variations (for me, Latine offers more phonetic fluidity)—have become a source of fierce disagreements among Latine people of all races, ages, genders, and sexual identities.

But the debates largely miss the point: whether one prefers to use Latinx or Latine, both terms recognize and honor the presence of gender-fluid identities. What is most striking about these “debates” is that they rarely (if ever) center the voices and experiences of those who do identify with the term—namely, transgender, non-binary, and gender-fluid Latine communities.

The linguistic debate on Latinx, then, serves as a useful example to understand the transphobia prevalent in our community and the importance of adopting language that better reflects our communities writ large.

Critics of the term Latinx often cite linguistic purity and Spanish heritage for their critiques. Some claim that Latinx is an abomination to the Spanish language because it does not follow proper grammar or phonology, noting that the “o” in Latino—or any other identity label such as dominicano, chileno, mexicano, for example—is already inclusive of the collective.

While this argument may be grammatically “correct” according to mainstream Spanish, it does not take into account the invisibilities the “o” creates. Latinx provides a linguistic vehicle to represent gender fluid experiences and to organize these communities under an inclusive umbrella. However, some people use Latinx as a catch-all term since the x can be a stand-in for any of the other identities: -a, -e, and -o.

The critiques also ignore the political context. In my research on queer and trans Latine communities, I first noticed the use of the “x” in my fieldwork in 2016 when community organizers were debating more inclusive language in their social media presence. Some have also cited the emergence of Latinx after the tragic Pulse shooting in Orlando, Florida, when media outlets faced having to accurately represent the diverse gender identities of the victims.

But the debates largely miss the point: whether one prefers to use Latinx or Latine, both terms recognize and honor the presence of gender-fluid identities.

This expansion and reconsideration of gender, it turns out, is of vital relevance to Latinx communities. In 2018, the GenForward Survey, housed at the University of Chicago, published a study on Millennials’ attitudes surrounding LGBTQ issues. The study found that while approximately 14% of Millennials in the U.S. identify as something other than straight or heterosexual, a greater number of Latinx Millennials identify as LGBTQ (22%) compared to African Americans (14%), whites (13%), and Asian Americans (9%). These numbers are also worth noting considering that Latines make up 19% of the U.S. population and are the youngest of any ethnic group in the country. As of 2019, the average age of a Latine person is 11, while the average age of a Black person is 27, 29 for an Asian person, and 58 for a white person. From this perspective, the future of Latine communities in the U.S. is looking a lot less heterosexual and cisgender.

But this inclusivity is exactly what critics of Latinx dislike. Last year, the Atlantic published an article claiming that staffers encourage Latino legislators to avoid the term because it is “divisive.” But the rationale of avoiding being divisive aims to create the illusion of a politically unified Latine voting bloc, as opposed to choosing to understand the complex experiences that are categorized unilaterally as “Latino.” For decades, both Congresspeople and Hollywood have discussed “struggling” with understanding the vastly diverse group of people that the terms Latina/e/o/x include. Calling attention to this diversity is precisely the point of Latinx.

Negating the term Latinx also contributes to an erasure of trans experiences that perpetuates violence. Currently, the rights of transgender communities across all races and ages in the U.S. are under attack—a forceful effort to erase the experiences of transgender people and deny them protections from discrimination. Trans women already experience greater employment discrimination than any other demographic: According to the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute “nearly half (48.8%) of transgender employees reported experiencing discrimination (being fired or not hired) based on their LGBT status compared to 27.8% of cisgender LGB employees.” On top of that, there is a growing rate of murders of trans Women of Color in the U.S.—In 2021, the Human Rights Campaign tracked a record 50 fatalities, an overwhelming number of whom were Black and/or Latina. In 2022, at least 38 trans people have been murdered; many additional cases go unreported or misreported.

Latine transgender communities also include a significant undocumented population, who face not only employment discrimination but further marginalization due to their legal status. For instance, in their study on trans Latinx health in California, trans activists and scholars Bamby Salcedo of TransLatin@ Coalition and Jack Caraves found that of the 129 participants they surveyed, 37% were undocumented, 26% were unemployed, and just 20% had full-time employment.

The insistence on rejecting the use of Latinx is a transphobic act because it denies trans Latine and Latinx people a term that represents them. When conservative leaders in our communities are the first to double down on that denial, it shows that they don’t see trans Latines as part of the communities they represent. For instance, the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which is the oldest and largest Latino civil rights organization in the U.S., claims that we should drop the use of the word altogether since so few people like it.

More recently, Republican congressperson María Elvira Salazar of Florida introduced an amendment to the House appropriations bill that would prevent the executive branch from referring to Latinos as Latinxs in official, public-facing documents, and preventing any funds from being allotted for producing documents that use “Latinx” or “Latin-x.” This tactic has also been used by non-Latinx leaders: Last month, on her first day in office as Arkansas governor, Sarah Huckabee banned the use of the term Latinx in all official state use. And early this month, a group of Hispanic Connecticut Democrats introduced a bill to follow suit.

Untangling fluid social constructs like language and gender can be challenging. But perhaps the point is not to untangle. Linguistic expressions hold so many possibilities in how people affirm themselves, their communities, and more importantly, how they can imagine other ways of identifying, loving, and being in the world. That’s where I see the power and hope in these language practices—the power in recognizing someone else’s beauty and their humanity. Whether the terms Latinx and Latine become widely adopted or not, both resist the urge to fall in line with the collective “o” in Latino and both enforce the idea that trans people do, in fact, exist in our communities. While changes in language may seem “difficult” for some, or unimportant for others, language is constantly shifting and evolving. The move to gender-inclusive language is a reminder and a call to action for all of us to actively engage with and recognize the experiences, struggles, and joy of transgender communities.

Sebastian Ferrada is a faculty member in ethnic studies at Cuesta College in California. Ferrada, who produced and co-hosted the podcast, Café con Chisme (2016-2022), is currently developing a new podcast project centered around Latine experiences in the U.S.
PRIMARY EDITOR: Talib Jabbar | SECONDARY EDITOR: Caroline Tracey
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