In March, United Airlines became one of the largest travel companies in the U.S. to offer customers the option to choose from various gender identity options during the booking process–including “Mx.,” in addition to “Mrs.,” and “Mr.” Now, United customers can also identify themselves as “M” (for male), “F” (for female), “U” (for undisclosed), or “X” (for unspecified).
Other companies will soon follow United’s lead. Delta Airlines recently confirmed it will make its booking process more inclusive for people who identify somewhere between male and female, or neither. One industry trade group, Airlines for America–which represents Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest, and other major carriers–recently approved a new international standard that embraces the “undisclosed” and “unspecified” booking options.
These are just a few examples of how major companies are moving into the conversation about how to reflect the increasingly complex, nuanced ways Americans identify ourselves. For businesses, this is no small matter, given that consumers—especially young people—now expect companies to have a point of view on social issues, and speak authentically to them. Nearly 20% of millennials—now the largest demographic group in the workforce—identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. About one-third of Gen Z –people between ages 7 and 24—say they know at least one person who identifies as non-binary. People from varying gender, racial and ethnic backgrounds are gradually becoming a fixture in the marketing campaigns of the world’s largest companies (the relative lack of diversity among people empowered within marketing departments is a topic to discuss later). Facebook users can choose from nearly 60 gender identity options. Ten states now issue third-gender identification documents.
And yet, despite this progress, there’s still a lot of work to do – and confusion about what the evolving identity definitions mean. Let us help you get up to speed. Here are three key things to know:
1. What is “x,” and where does it come from?
In math, the “x” factor exists to represent virtually anything. The same principle applies to language. The insertion of “x” into terms like “womxn” is intended to be inclusive of people who identify as neither male nor female—but, instead, as gender-fluid, gender-queer, gender non-conforming or non-binary.
Radical respelling has been practiced in almost every wave of the feminist movement. “Women,” for example, was first spelled “Womyn” in a 1976 ad for the first annual Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, mainly to denounce the “man” in the word “woman.” The “y” was intended to imply that a woman’s identity isn’t reliant on a man, and would denote self-determination. More recently, the new spelling drew criticism from women of color, as well as most segments of the LGBTQIA+ communities. Many have come to prefer the term “womxn,” as it further widens the metaphorical tent, though it has yet to go mainstream.
In recent years, we’ve seen the arrival of similar terms to identify people. One example is “folx” — defined by lexicographer Paul McFedries as an umbrella phrase for people of various gender identities. Another example is “Latinx,” which acknowledges all those who don’t necessarily identify as the feminine, “Latina” or masculine, “Latino.” There are other variations, including “Chicanx,” “Xicanx,” and “Filipinx.” In 2015, OxfordDictionaries.com added the gender-neutral identifier “Mx.” to its lexicon. Merriam Webster followed, in 2017.
2. What businesses are using ‘x’?
Coca-Cola introduced an ad during the 2018 Super Bowl, entitled “The Wonder of Us,” that included a voiceover using the gender-neutral pronoun “them,” in reference to one of the commercial’s actors. The phrase “them,” of course, refers to people who don’t identify as male or female, or refuse to identify at all. The voiceover states, “There’s a Coke for he, and she, and her, and me, and them” – as various people appear on-screen. “There’s a Coke for all of us,” the ad continued.
Smaller organizations are touting gender-inclusive policies. One example is The Table. The New York-based company was co-founded by chefs Breanne Butler and Adriana Urbina. It’s built largely to expand opportunities for female and non-binary people in the restaurant industry. Butler and Urbina deliberately use “womxn” and “folx” in company documents, marketing materials, social channels and everyday speech. (You can hear them in-person—and taste their food—at Techonomy NYC.)
3. Why should companies incorporate “x” into their own lexicon?
This isn’t just the right thing to do, or a way to generate positive news headlines showing your company is socially responsible. Each of us has the power within our organizations, and teams, to drive conversations that lead to policies that make it possible for all stakeholders—employees, and customers—to feel their identities are accurately reflected. And given how discerning consumers can be, businesses can’t afford to not adapt. Organizations that don’t evolve – and create spaces for every kind of human—can expect another identifier: irrelevant.