The term “trans” has been used as shorthand for “transgender.” Both have been used as umbrella terms, so someone who uses the non-binary or enby might also use the term “trans” or “transgender” to describe themselves.
Wait, so is “trans” the same as “transgender” or are they different?
The GLAAD Media Reference Guide defines “transgender” as:
An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. People under the transgender umbrella may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms – including transgender… Use the descriptive term preferred by the person. Many transgender people are prescribed hormones by their doctors to bring their bodies into alignment with their gender identity. Some undergo surgery as well. But not all transgender people can or will take those steps, and a transgender identity is not dependent upon physical appearance or medical procedures.
The same GLAAD Media Reference Guide defines “trans” as:
Used as shorthand to mean transgender or transsexual – or sometimes to be inclusive of a wide variety of identities under the transgender umbrella. Because its meaning is not precise or widely understood, be careful when using it with audiences who may not understand what it means. Avoid unless used in a direct quote or in cases where you can clearly explain the term’s meaning in the context of your story.
OK, so “trans” could be referring to “transgender,” but “trans” is not inherently synonymous with “transgender”?
OK, so what does “trans*” mean?
When “trans*” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in spring of 2018, it was given this definition:
originally used to include explicitly both transsexual and transgender, or (now usually) to indicate the inclusion of gender identities such as gender-fluid, agender, etc., alongside transsexual and transgender.
How is that different from how GLAAD defined “trans” without the asterisk?
The importance is the asterisk itself. In a 2014 article for Slate, Hugh Ryan wrote:
..the asterisk stems from common computing usage wherein it represents a wildcard—any number of other characters attached to the original prefix. Thus, a computer search for trans* might pull up transmission, transitory, or transsexual. But in this neologism, the * is used metaphorically to capture all the identities—from drag queen to genderqueer—that fall outside traditional gender norms.
The Q Center is an LGBTQ center in Portland, Ore. In a Q Center post, Nash Jones explained how that “wildcard” notion is important for understanding “trans*”:
It is expanding the trans* umbrella to include folks who identify as transgender and transsexual (the terms usually understood as included when the prefix trans is used on its own) as well as other identities where a person does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. In the sense that it is a placeholder for suffixes of trans, that is, trans_____, the asterisk is standing in for *gender, *sexual,*feminine, *masculine, *folks, *person,*guy,*girl,*woman, and *man (note that not all of these are one word. For example, transgender is a single word, but trans woman is two). However, it is also inclusive of identities that do not start with the prefix “trans,” but can be understood as under the trans* umbrella. These identities include, but are not limited to, genderqueer, bigender, third gender, genderf*ck (see what I did there?), gender fluid, genderless, MtF, FtM, Two Spirit, non-binary, androgynous, and masculine of center (MOC). While all of these identities are distinct from one other, each can be understood as under the trans* umbrella because the folks who identify with them do not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth and/or are “queering” (deviating from norms; blurring) gender expectations and assumptions.
When the asterisk is put on the end of trans*, it expands the boundaries of the category to be radically inclusive. It can be understood as the most inclusive umbrella term to describe various communities and individuals with nonconforming gender identities and/or expressions en masse. In addition to its use as an umbrella term, it is also used by some individuals as an identity to describe just themselves (e.g. “I identify as trans*”).
How is “trans*” to be pronounced?
Some will treat the asterisk as silent. Others will say “trans star” or “trans asterisk.” When Katy Steinmetz wrote about “trans*” for TIME in April 2018, she talked to Susan Stryker, an associate professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona, who joked that “trans*” should be said as “trans whatever.”
How long has the term been used?
Steinmetz said Oxford English Dictionary lexicographer Jonathan Dent discovered it had been used for decades:
Based on Dent’s research, people in the LGBTQ community started using trans* as an umbrella term in the 1990s, as a way to “cover a wide range of identities” that do not conform to “traditional notions” about gender. At the time, some of the more common terms did in fact start that way (transgender, transsexual). Others, like crossdresser, didn’t. But the term trans* came to encompass those too.
And it could even be older. In Ryan’s piece for Slate, historian and writer Cristan Williams is quoted as saying, “In talking with older trans community members, they tell me that they had used t* as a short code for all things trans back in the early 1980s.”
Wow. I hadn’t heard of it until recently.
You wouldn’t be alone. For his Slate piece, Ryan talked with Nash Jones, the same person mentioned above:
It may well be that the asterisk has been appearing and disappearing from gayspeak for decades. But why is it suddenly so popular? Jones has a theory: “When communities are no longer limited by physical proximity,” people are more likely to look for words that invoke broad inclusion, out of sheer necessity. As our (virtual) worlds get bigger, so must our language and our salient exemplars. Before the Internet, an isolated trans* person might have used a term that didn’t really fit because it was the only one they’d encountered. Now, a new label is just a click away.
I still don’t understand what makes “trans*” different from “trans” or “transgender.”
You wouldn’t be alone. In the TIME article, Steinmentz noted that not everyone does see a difference, with some people calling it “redundant.” After all, the GLAAD definititons did list “trans” and “transgender” as being umbrella terms without an asterisk. Then there are the people who say we shouldn’t use the asterisk because they see it as offensive and exclusionary.
In a 2015 blog post, Julia Serano wrote:
The first such complaint that I heard was from a trans woman who felt that the asterisk seemed to suggest that being trans is illegitimate—the example she offered was how asterisks are used in sports statistics to imply that a particular record is not legitimate for some reason. I suppose that somebody somewhere out there has probably complained about how asterisks are often used for footnotes, thereby insinuating that trans people are merely footnotes rather than part of the main text!
So do transgender people find the asterisk offensive?
Some people do, some people don’t. In a 2015 Facebook post, Tobi Hill-Meyer suggested that the disagreements around the term seemed to ignore the historical context and initial intents of the term:
One of the oddest things about seeing folks debating the “trans asterix” is how people try to explain the 2012/2013 context that explains why folks are upset with it — that female assigned genderqueers popularized it as a way to prioritize their issues at the expense of trans women. This is shown as the origin story of the asterix and why it is inherently bad.
But I remember context from 2010, 2007, 2003, and 1998 that’s very different. The first people I knew using it were all trans women computer science nerds that took it from the search function wild card (searching for car* would return results for “car” “carry” “card” and anything else starting with car). It was a way to short cut the transgender vs transsexual infighting that was raging that whole decade and was a way to make a political statement that the distinction between transgender and transsexual was unimportant. It was originally an attempt to create space that included transgender women and transsexual women together.
I’m not really invested in whether or not people use it. I don’t feel it’s important enough to fight over. But seeing the way people talk about it now makes me sad that the trans community seems to have a historical memory permanently limited to only 2-4 years back.
So should I use “trans*” or not?
That will be up to you. The people behind Trans Student Educational Resources have opted to stop using “trans*,” they explained in a post:
There is nothing inherently problematic with the asterisk but it’s often applied in inaccessible, binarist, and transmisogynist ways. It is unnecessary and should not be used. Claiming the asterisk itself is fundamentally oppressive denies accountability and ignores the culture of binarism and transmisogyny that affects the community. People also often misattribute its history to cisgender and binarist people…
…In the end, we decided to stop our use of the asterisk because of how unnecessary and inaccessible it is and its common application as a tool of binarism and silencing trans women. We encourage you to do the same. We are in the process of removing all asterisks from our web site, publications, and infographics.
Serano said something similar in the 2015 post:
The word trans* is not inherently inclusive or trans-misogynistic. Rather, like all words, it gets its meaning from the way in which people use it. And it may be utilized towards positive or negative ends. Just because some people may use it in an exclusionary way doesn’t mean that the word itself disparaging or exclusionary.
Like many words, it is advised to not apply a word to someone unless you know that person would use it.
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