This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.
When Ya-Ya Fairley first saw the job listing for womxn’s coordinator at Salt Lake Community College, the deliberate spelling caught her eye.
“I saw myself,” Fairley recalls saying in her interview for the position. “My response was, ‘This is one of the first times I can see that a job is for me.’”
Fairley got the job, a newly formed position within the school’s Gender and Sexuality Student Resource Center, and started in February. The center was established in 2019 following a push from students and staff for a physical gathering space dedicated to gender issues and the LGBTQ community. It is currently supported by student fees.
Student Thonda Lillian Naluyima said the center has been purposeful in its inclusion of people of color, and women of color in particular, who fall under the umbrella of LGBTQ.
“The center has been a safe space for women, women of color, and LGBTQ folks. Intentionality is very important for these groups of people,” Naluyima said.
Student leader Patricia Salgado agrees.
“With people of color, it can be more challenging to express themselves and accept their identity. The center has done a great job of including these individuals,” Salgado said.
The GSSRC team — comprised of staff and student leaders who are almost exclusively trans, nonbinary, and women of color — agreed on the addition of a womxn’s coordinator position.
“We felt it was important to have a woman coordinator lead the women’s initiative for the center,” said GSSRC coordinator Peter Moosman.
But the term “women,” Moosman noted, encompasses more than cisgender women — a term used for people who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, according to the Trans Journalist Association. The position for a womxn’s coordinator was created with the “x” spelling, he said, to include all people who identify as women or are affected by women-related issues.
While the position received broad support from the college community, the spelling of “womxn” caused confusion.
Heather Graham has followed the creation of the womxn’s coordinator role since it was announced. Graham, an SLCC student who is also majoring in writing and rhetoric and minoring in gender studies at the University of Utah, said the spelling originates from feminist movements that tried to separate “women” from patriarchal language by using terms such as “womyn” instead.
“The ‘x’ was born from queer people of color looking to signify that it was more inclusive than just the white narrative of feminism,” she said.
However, some say “womxn” is used to exclude trans individuals.
“There is an assumption made with the different spelling that it makes it so trans women are not women,” said Graham.
Moosman explained this is not the case at the GSSRC.
“The spelling here is intentional in being representative of all women, whereas not all women are included with the spelling of w-o-m-e-n,” Moosman said.
Fairley echoed that view.
“When we say ‘womxn,’ that includes all women. White cis women; Black trans women; disabled queer women,” she said.
Confusion about the spelling prompted the GSSRC to post an open letter elaborating on its decision to use the spelling as well as acknowledgment of the discourse surrounding it.
While Fairley’s new position is meant to help anyone who identifies as a woman or is affected by women’s issues, she said her hope is to support groups and individuals with histories of marginalization.
“There’s an emphasis on highlighting marginalized experiences we don’t typically see illuminated at the college. Women of multiple marginalities including, but not limited to, of the queer and trans experience,” said Fairley, who received her bachelor’s in gender studies and focuses on Black, queer, womxn/femme identities in higher education.
Fairley’s goal is to enable women at the college and help amplify their voices. For example, during Womxn’s Heritage Month at the college, Fairley helped schedule March events that included the Unsung Sheroes Awards Ceremony, which honored women involved with SLCC’s Black Student Union.
“I want to be that bold light of advocacy and support for students who are oftentimes silenced,” she said. “As a coordinator, I would love to impart empowering knowledge onto students so they can also advocate for themselves. That would bring me so much joy.”
Cristian Martinez is a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. This story is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.