Q: I recently went to see Tony-nominated artist Justin Vivian Bond, who has spoken about preferring to be addressed with the gender-neutral honorific “Mx.” instead of “Ms.” or “Mr.” My question is, how widely accepted is Mx. as an honorific? When is it appropriate to use? For example, without knowing your preferred honorific, is it appropriate to address you as Mx. Petrow? How about Mx. Jenner for Caitlyn Jenner? Or should it be reserved for use with those people whose gender is unknown or unclear to me? — All Mixed Up, New York
A: Fasten your seat belts, folks; it’s going to be another bumpy ride. My last column — about the lesbian moms who didn’t want the Catholic bishop to insult their family at their daughter’s upcoming confirmation — angered some readers, one of whom accused me of trying to incite “a gay revolution against the Catholic Church.” With a wink, I fear today’s advice might be misconstrued as an attack on another revered institution, the Oxford English Dictionary.
First, a brief introduction to “Mx.” (usually pronounced “mix”): Just as “Ms.” came to be a marital-status-neutral alternative to “Miss” or “Mrs.” in the 1970s, its gender-neutral cousin Mx. is now being used by some to represent those who don’t want to be identified by gender, including transgender individuals. Although Mx. would seem to be rooted in what Time magazine calls our current “transgender tipping point,” its origins go back to a time long before Caitlyn Jenner and “Orange Is the New Black” actress Laverne Cox — to 1977. That year, it was used in an American magazine, Single Parent, reports Jonathan Dent, an OED editor.
Despite that its use is almost unheard of in the United States, Mx. is widely used in Britain, where documents and online pull-down menus requiring an honorific often include this new option. (Another difference between the two countries: The British don’t use the period in any of their titles.) Count the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency among the many public and private groups offering the choice.
Puzzled about who wants to use Mx.? Performance artist Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, an early adopter, e-mailed me this week to say, “I prefer Mx. because I’m transgender and don’t identify as either male or female. . . . I use Mx. because that says exactly what I am — a mix of all genders.”
Jacob Tobia, a trans activist, also explains: “I use Mx. because it helps me avoid the unfair gender expectations that come with choosing Mr. or Ms. Having a title that reflects my identity helps make the world more inclusive.”
Okay, so what are the rules when it comes to Mx.? It’s still too early for consensus.
“I think Mx. should be adopted as the standard form of address for everyone,” says Shannon Gilreath, a professor at Wake Forest University and a nationally recognized expert on sexual minorities, “because the real promise of the transgender movement was not the freedom to figure out ways to become more fully male or fully female, but rather freedom from gender entirely. Loosening the gender grip on language is a step in that direction.”
On the other hand, Alice Eagly, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, asks: “Who needs titles except perhaps in some professional contexts in which we have gender-neutral titles such as Dr., professor, etc.? In daily life, we can appreciate people as we see them — male, female, trans, etc. We do not have to be warned by the titles Mr., Ms., Mx.”
Frankly, I think this is one to watch. If people want to be addressed as “Mx. Bond” or “Mx. Tobia,” then that’s how I would refer to them. That’s called respect. If pull-down menus on Web sites and intake forms continue to require titles such as Mr. and Ms., then it’s time to include Mx. in the mix. As one reader of mine on Facebook put it: “If I have to choose a title [when filling out online forms], I prefer to choose one that is as neutral — gender, marriage status, and education level — as possible — thus Mx.”
As for me, please call me “Steven Petrow,” as I see few circumstances to use honorifics in this day and age. But because I identify as male, I do check “Mr.” on all those forms. Similarly, Caitlyn Jenner is a woman; please call her “Ms. Jenner” unless she says, “Call me Cait.”
As for the venerable OED? Just a few months ago, editor Dent announced that the dictionary would consider adding the Mx. title. “This is an example of how the English language adapts to people’s needs, with people using language in ways that suit them rather than letting language dictate identity to them,” Dent said to London’s Sunday Times. He said it, folks, not me. So hold your fire!
What do you think about using the title Mx.? Let me know in the comments section below.