About that often misunderstood asterisk

Recently this post by Natalie Reed on the use of ‘trans*’ was proving controversial among many of the nonbinary and genderqueer people I follow on Twitter. I’ve talked about ‘trans*’ before, most recently when answering the Beyond The Binary panel, question 4.

I personally have mixed feelings about words involving punctuation marks, especially ones that confuse search functions and hashtags, look like footnotes and don’t sound any different when spoken (unless you say ‘trans star’). I also strongly feel that ‘trans’ should be able to include everyone who’s in any way gender variant, genderqueer or gender role nonconforming (I’m firmly in the Leslie Feinburg Trans Liberation camp on this one). I’ve tried in the past to write resources to help keep trans and transgender the inclusive umbrella terms I feel they were meant to be.

Why people felt the need to add the asterisk

‘Trans’ was originally intended to be an inclusive term, not just including people who could access medical labels like ‘transsexual’, but including everyone under the wider transgender umbrella. However in day to day usage, the concept tends to be conflated with transition from the gender one was assigned at birth to another.

I think that this is in no small part due to how the constructions ‘trans man’, ‘trans woman’ and by extension ‘trans person’ seem to make it clear what ‘trans’ is meant to denote. Because this prefix usage is so ubiquitous, it’s also common to see this prefix separated out, with ‘trans’ falling elsewhere in a sentence, or on its own entirely, but still having the same connotations.

Perhaps I can make the issue with this clearer with an example (chosen out of the myriad possible as quite a common situation that was originally one of the primary things ‘transgender’ was used to describe). Take someone who was assigned male at birth, sees himself as a man, but also identifies as transgender by way of gender expression, and presents in clothing, hair and makeup that society would see as crossdressing. That person is clearly trans* and I would hope that he would also be included fully in transgender (although I’ve seen plenty of trans and nonbinary people argue otherwise, and plenty of definitions of transgender that would exclude him), but if I were to describe him as a ‘trans man’ that would not be the ‘correct’ usage – resources, information and organisations restricted to trans men would not include him, because ‘trans’ means something specific in this context. If he concludes that he’s not ‘trans’ but is transgender, genderqueer, transvestite or any number of other labels because of this, and therefore ‘trans*’ but not ‘trans’, I don’t think that decision would be difficult to understand.

The fact is that most transgender organisations and people writing about trans stuff (including me most of the time, frankly) don’t spend equal time talking about people who don’t have dysphoria, or don’t have anything to ‘transition to’, or whose gender changes too often for any one transition to make practical sense, or who transitioned medically but later officially ‘detransitioned’, or who did what they consider to be transition for them but are still usually seen as the gender they were assigned at birth, even in some trans and nonbinary spaces.

People using ‘trans’ don’t often talk about people who are transgender by way of gender expression not identity, or who don’t have a gender identity, or whose gender identity changes at different times. They don’t tend to cover people who feel that they are both cisgender and transgender in different ways, or who feel uncomfortable with gender but can’t see their experience reflected in any of the narratives, or if they do they use words other than ‘trans’ to describe this.

I believe that all those people fit my ideal inclusive definition of ‘trans’ and ‘transgender’, and I think that they should be able to feel comfortable using ‘trans’ for themselves if they wish. But I also know that for many of them, being in trans spaces is to expect and experience casual erasure and microaggressions, or even outright policing and hostility. And that no one has the right to insist that someone must be comfortable with a term they find problematic and unwelcoming.

Because of all this, ‘trans*’ was suggested as a way to explicitly include the genderqueer, gender variant, gender role nonconforming, crossdressing, fluid gender, agender etc people who didn’t feel ‘trans enough’ to know if they would be included otherwise. To say, “we know you’re usually pushed out of or erased by these sorts of things, but we’re trying to do better”. It’s meant to be a shorthand when space is limited, and it’s meant be backed up by actual inclusion in both words, policies and actions. But it exists as a quick and easy way to show those people who are used to being pushed out of trans spaces that yes, this is for you too.

And because it is a more comfortable and less pressured term for some people, there are now good numbers of people who feel more comfortable with ‘trans*’ than ‘trans’, or who still don’t consider themselves ‘trans’ but will use ‘trans*’, or who aren’t fully comfortable with any form of ‘trans’ but understand that ‘trans*’ is more welcoming to them. There are now even those who identify with ‘trans*’ itself as their primary label of self description.

I don’t believe that ‘trans*’ has done more to push people out of ‘trans’ than make people feel included. I believe that they were already feeling pretty strongly pushed and excluded before this. From what I’ve seen, it’s pulled in more people who previously only felt comfortable with descriptions like ‘transgender’, ‘not cisgender’, ‘genderqueer’ etc and allowed them to also use ‘trans’ or ‘trans*’ for themselves.

Who owns, and gets to criticise ‘trans*’?

While I do have problems with the way ‘trans*’ is constructed, and do find it unwieldy and somewhat inconvenient to use, I’m also very cautious about criticising something that is another person’s identity, or the only gesture that keeps some marginalised transgender people from disengaging from trans communities entirely.

I know that I shouldn’t really be criticising it, because ‘trans*’ isn’t really FOR me. It’s for people who have to defend themselves and their right to use ‘trans’ because other trans people outright tell them that they’re not allowed to. It’s for people who almost never see ‘trans’ used in a way that doesn’t casually erase their experience. And it’s for the people who are questioning whether they really qualify. And also for those who are certain that ‘trans’ definitely doesn’t include them, because they looked and already decided that it was talking about something different to their transgender, gender variant or gender role nonconforming experience. It’s for people who already discounted that ‘trans’ could include them and chose different words for self description, who have only come back to trans spaces at all since the asterisk has included them.

I also know that, even if I wanted to, I don’t get to say whether we should only say ‘trans’ or that people who use ‘trans*’ for themselves should choose a different word. And that’s because it’s not my word to criticise. As someone who’s confident that ‘trans’ and ‘trans person’ DO include me, it’s not me who would lose out if ‘trans*’ was taken away. Yes, I’m nonbinary, genderqueer and mostly agender and these are reasons that people are excluded, and reasons why I remember how crappy it is to be unsure, starting out and not feel welcomed or even understood by any groups or resources. But I now speak from the position of having a gender dysphoria diagnosis, validation from gender specialists and a clear transsexual medical history (albeit a nonstandard one).

If someone were to erase, ignore or dismiss my right to define as a trans person now (and it does certainly happen), I can laugh them out of the room. I know that I fit almost every part of the transition narrative except the binary gender that some people expect, and even then I can point those people to the DSM-5 and version 7 of the Standards of Care to show that ‘an other gender’ is now officially legitimised (even if many gender clinics are trying to avoid following those guidelines).

Do I think that fitting the narratives or having medical validation should be in any way relevant to who gets to count as ‘trans’? No, absolutely not, I would strongly reject that assertion. But I also can’t ignore the fact that this does nonetheless grant me a type of privilege, security or confidence that other types of transgender, gender variant and gender role nonconforming people might not have in many trans spaces.

It isn’t necessarily whether your gender fits the binary options that defines whether you’re secure enough in these spaces to not need more than just ‘trans’ to welcome you in (and, of course, I don’t just mean words or a symbol as ‘more’ here, I mean some actual inclusivity work to back that up and make sure they actually mean anything real), it’s whether you fit enough of the dominant transgender narrative. If you’re not one of the people who is used to being erased in the vast majority of ‘Trans 101’ primers, even the ones that include nonbinary identities in some way, then the asterisk probably isn’t meant for you.

Reasons for respectful, constructive criticism

All this said though, there is legitimate criticism of the way ‘trans*’ is misused, usually by people who don’t need the asterisk themselves. This isn’t to criticise the identities and experiences of anyone who uses ‘trans*’ for themselves, but to look at certain problematic ways that it’s used by or about others.

Since this current wave of criticism and controversy started, I’ve seen plenty of people who have previously used ‘trans*’ to describe others, make it clear from their comments that they had very little idea what the connotations of ‘trans*’ were actually meant to be. Most of them seem to have just assumed that it meant ‘transsexual and transgender’ (but not the all inclusive umbrella term form of transgender), some others thought it meant ‘binary and nonbinary’. This is worrying, but explains a lot of confusing misuse I’ve observed.

Since ‘trans*’ has spread and been adopted outside of the groups who coined and popularised it, I’ve seen way too many posts and discussions using ‘trans*’ in a way that excludes the people it was meant to be including (like the people who actually use the label) by, for example, talking in terms of transition or in terms of dysphoria or in terms of gender identity, using words that imply that these are universal experiences for all ‘trans* people’.

If we put an asterisk on the end of ‘trans’ and don’t change anything else, this could genuinely be worse than nothing. It really is ‘inclusion theatre’ as Reed suggests, no better than people who use ‘LGBT’ interchangeably with ‘gay’.

That trend honestly makes me wonder if we do need another word that makes the intentions of wide inclusion and not needing to fit the narratives as clear as possible, one that people can’t misconstrue. But then it also makes me wonder if there’s a general trend by which any word or umbrella term coined by marginalised people to include a wide disparate group who don’t fit the dominant narrative (e.g. ‘transgender’, ‘genderqueer’, ‘trans*’ etc) will ultimately end up being associated with the most visible group of people within that umbrella. Either way, we definitely do need more primers, resources and articles like this one that make it harder to misunderstand the intentions and connotations of the asterisk.

It’s also important to consider the types of exclusion that ‘trans*’ doesn’t address. There is no shortage of examples of events that advertised trans* inclusivity but in practice excluded some segment of the trans* umbrella. Intersectional oppressions are often at work here, be it the privileging of masculinity or androgyny, transmisogynistic exclusion of trans women or of people based on the gender they were assigned at birth. There’s also the intersectional oppressions that can affect people regardless of how they are trans*, be it the privileging of certain ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds, or the lack of effort taken to accommodate the access needs of all abilities and disabilities.

So what now?

The situation with ‘trans*’ isn’t perfect, and I’ve seen a lot of criticism from people on all sides of this discussion, including some marginalised people who don’t use ‘trans*’ and do feel that they have to resist the pressure caused by the existence, and potential policing, of there being two variations on ‘trans’.

And yes, maybe I’d prefer a better word, but it isn’t really my word to critique, it’s not me who needs it. ‘Trans*’ isn’t there for people who fit the narratives and feel comfortable owning ‘trans person’, it’s for all those whose experience of gender differs not just from societal norms but also from perceived trans community norms, who wouldn’t have shown up at an event or used a service otherwise, unless there was something to say that yes, this really is for you too.

Wherever you fall in this debate, whether you want to use ‘trans*’ or not, I’d suggest that the way to make a real difference is to actually demonstrate inclusivity, in your words, in your descriptions and in your actions. Don’t just use ‘trans’ or ‘trans*’ thoughtlessly, but actually consider who it is that needs transgender resources, events and services but doesn’t feel ‘trans enough’ to use them, or who experiences discomfort, erasure, policing or even outright hostility when they try to get involved. Think about what you can do to actually include everyone under the wider transgender, gender variant and gender role nonconforming umbrellas, and how to demonstrate this clearly to make them all feel welcome and included.

12 thoughts on “About that often misunderstood asterisk”

  1. So as far as I can gather, the is * about people who didn’t feel ‘trans enough’ to know if they would be included otherwise versus others who feel the asterisk actively discriminates against those that do.

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  2. This is really interesting, thank you for writing it.

    ‘Most of them seem to have just assumed that it meant ‘transsexual and transgender’ (but not the all inclusive umbrella term form of transgender)’

    Guilty as charged. My first real education on trans terminology was on LiveJournal in the early 2000s, and there in the most prominent communities (I’m thinking of VP particularly) ‘trans*’ was the preferred inclusive term. It was a while ago obviously but from memory, the asterisk was specifically explained as being there in order to include both ‘transgender’ (defined as someone who was ‘FTM’, ‘MTF’ or ‘genderfluid/genderqueer’) and ‘transsexual’ (defined as someone who had got or was interested in medical intervention for this). I never got a hint of it including half the groups you mention above, I’m fairly sure it was understood was a shorthand, the long form of which was ‘transgender and/or transsexual’.

    I wonder what terms they’re using over there now that things have moved on quite a lot… in any case, that’s how I first encountered it. I picked up that ‘trans*’ was the ‘correct’ usage, then when I moved on to other spaces (at the time, blogs) it seemed that there ‘trans’ was used for much the same concept, and someone using the asterisk there just provoked questions about what qualifiers were being footnoted – the opposite of the intent of inclusiveness.

    It’s only more recently on Twitter and tumblr that I’ve seen the use you talk about here. Note I’m not AT ALL trying to imply it’s a recent coinage just because it’s new(er) to me, but more that it’s frustrating how context-specific these interpretations and nuances are sometimes.

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  3. I’ve always taken trans* to be wholly inclusive due to its deliberate non-specificity as to what is being “trans”-ed — sex, gender, gender expression, etc – and in what way that “trans”-ing is achieved or desired. I guess “trans*” therefore works as an indicator of inclusivity, whereas the meaning of “trans” very often depends on context. Your “trans man” example was very pertinent. Yes, “trans” and “man” as a pair of words (which describe me to some extent) have a different meaning as paired words (and don’t describe me). Good post.

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  4. All I know is that these people are ruining the English language with their moronic desire to shove two words through a wringer hundreds of times a day. Sex is what you are and gender is a grammatical term.

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    1. Oh, boo hoo, poor English language. How dare millions of human beings have difficult and often painful life experiences that don’t fit into its vocabulary.

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      1. Sometimes, yes. The naming of things, especially one’s self, is incredibly powerful. It may not be the MOST important, but it is not UNimportant.

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  5. Thanks for this. I think it homes in really well on a key issue of the language we choose: about belonging, and signalling who’s welcome.

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  6. I guess I wonder why gender variant was not a good term. Saying “trans*” still feels like it it trying to place some level of trans on individuals who either do not feel trans or are actively working to resist the colonizing implications of everyone being placed under some form of (essentially white, Western) trans labeling.

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  7. It seems that words start out inclusive and, slowly, lose that so that we end up coining new ones. I remember when transgender was being promoted as a way to de-medicalise trans issues AND to include those who were not included under the term transsexual … and yet, not 20 years later, I ended up writing a piece for Wikipedia on the term Sex and/or Gender Diverse (or Sex and Gender Diverse – the politics were peculiar), another term which was designed to do what transgender had done in the ’80s.
    And then there’s the reverse – which is almost as frustrating. Words which were seen as positive in their day – and here I’m thinking about the oh-so-controversial at the moment “tranny” – are now bordering on evil. The thing is, I’m old enough to remember when people were being actively encouraged to use the word “tranny” as a positive, affirming word.
    Sometimes, I almost feel sorry for those who object to the “hijacking” of the word gay … but then I remind myself of the etymology of that word and I get over it!

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  8. For my part, I don’t use “trans*” much, but I appreciate it. ‘Transgender’ I don’t feel applies to me. I sometimes describe myself as a transwoman, or ‘trans-sexed.’ I went through a ‘gender-blip’ when I began open social/medical transition but now I am back to where I started – non-binary in my gender world-view. I am altering my sex-characteristics so ‘trans-sexed’ seems the correct term. ‘trans-sexual’ is an awful term as it aligns my trans-status with ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’ implanting an idea in people’s heads that it has something to do with my sexuality.
    ‘Transsexed’ aligns it more with terms like ‘intersexed’ which implies a physiological change.
    I am generally okay with ‘transgender’ though, for me, I don’t feel it is entirely accurate as I have always been non-binary and seen gender as a social construct, even pre ‘transition’, though it is true that my gender expression has varied in that time, still, my gender identity is stilnon-binary and my belief is still pretty firmly that, in a world where people *didn’t* ascribe behavioural traits to sex-characteristics (external physical and internal hormonal/chromosomal) then gender would simply not exist as a viable concept.

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