And of course, X famously marks the spot. As far as I’ve been able to tell, no pirate’s map has ever been found that actually uses X to mark buried treasure, but that scarcely matters; the legend has eclipsed the history.
X’s holding of space in identity would appear to be newer. The leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, encouraged his followers to shed the last names that had come from their ancestors’ enslavers; in 1952, Malcolm Little became Malcolm X — the letter marking what had been stripped and stolen.
It befits X’s history that the letter has become used for sex and gender beyond the binary. In 2003, an Australian named Alex MacFarlane, who is intersex, became the first person known to receive a passport listing the holder’s sex as X to indicate a nonbinary response. MacFarlane told an Australian newspaper: “Finding a niche to crawl into has been impossible, so I’ve made my own.” MacFarlane had fought to obtain documentation that matched their identity; X was the only letter other than M or F that was legible to the machines that read passports. X simultaneously declared MacFarlane’s sex and declared it indeterminate, known and unknown at the same time. By the mid-2010s, the word “Latinx” entered popular American usage, its X both inclusive and expansive.
I love the X on my license, even welcome the way it stands in for anything wholly knowable. Recently I was in a car at night with another trans masculine nonbinary person when we were pulled over by a police officer. They were driving and stiffened with fear. What their license indicated no longer matched who they were.
After the officer let us drive on, my companion mused that they might someday get not an X on their license but an M, just to move through the world less noticed.
Only when they said that aloud did I realize that I never would. Like the child I once read about, I will keep my X. I have friends who experience their gender as ever-fluid — friends who delight in being inscrutable, rightly question why the state should need to track gender and reject X as just as bounded as any label.
But if I must be labeled, X is the letter for me. We live in a time when so much of our language feels insufficient to describe the complicated world in which we find ourselves. It feels right to be named with something definitive that also marks what is unknown — a destination that will, like all of us, necessarily and always evolve.
Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, an assistant professor of English at Bowdoin College, is the author of “The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir” and the forthcoming memoir of nonbinary identity “Both and Neither.”