Transsexual, Transgender, Trans… and that damn asterisk

I’ve been asked again about why I sometimes use an asterisk after the word “trans” when describing the broader transsexual and transgender community (which, tbh, aren’t even thought of that anymore so much as just “the trans community”). Me being me, I didn’t just throw up a link, but I attempted to write again what it has meant in my life. I like this version, so I’m copying it from where it was originally written over to here. This way, hopefully, this bit of community and individual history is less likely to get lost, and maybe next time I can simply offer someone a simple link instead of spending 3 hours collecting my thoughts on the topic again.

It came up on Wonkette this time, when Sister A, House Moderna, noted my use in a comment about trans health and Planned Parenthood. After briefly discussing PP, they asked:

Nomenclature question: tell me about the asterisk after “trans” which you used some of the time but not always?

This, in turn, is what I wrote:

It dates back to the 90s, and trans* folks coming up these days don’t seem to care much about it, but at the time there were many people coming out as “transgender” (specifically) and not “transsexual” (which had been the primary “trans” label up til that point).

Though things were always fuzzy, and use always varied somewhat from community to community, transgender folks were generally less likely to be interested in hormones or surgery. The point of using “gender” instead of “sex” for those people was often an intentional assertion that what was going on for them that they felt important to acknowledge was not about their bodies.

This is a great thing, that people can understand themselves this well and make good choices for themselves and even coin new words to aid new conversations.

Unfortunately, as will happen with new and often (though not always) young activists, a lot of the transgender activists popping up at the time weren’t careful with their language. Instead of saying that the issue was about gender and not about sex for them, they might say – they too often said – that the issues were about gender and not about sex, period.

There were people among those using the word transgender who insisted that after the gender revolution that no one would ever take hormones or get surgeries for trans-health related reasons. Many of those people, who overlapped with enthusiastic new activists but certainly did not encompass all enthusiastic new activists, also made statements articulating a sentiment similar to the idea that transsexual people had been deluded by trans-hating social messages, and that no one really wanted a surgeon to cut on their genitals. All this played into a general hostility to transsexual health care that came from outside transgender or transsexual circles.

There were also others who adopted transgender as a form of respectability politics. The word “sex” was gauche, since it was associated not merely with biological sex, but with the activity of sex. This, the respectability politics advocates believed, prevented people from seeing trans* folk as anything other than sex-obsessed perverts. By using language that was more appealing to, and less harsh on, the white, middle-class ear, these advocates thought we would be more likely to make social progress more quickly.

So there were three camps, with respect to language, and initially things did not go well.

It’s hard to know which came first, and probably there were multiple first missteps by the various sides in different communities unconnected (or largely unconnected) to other communities where things played out differently. But whichever side acted badly first, and whichever side responded, there were a couple problems that quickly developed.

Some (too many!) transsexual people who were worried about their access to medical care being undermined by people in those other two groups and the message that transness was all about gender started calling transgender people fake and inauthentic. While it’s certainly true that messages that no one would take hormones or have surgery after the revolution invalidated transsexual experiences, this transsexual assertion of invalidity was a pretty in-your-face denial of transgender experiences.

At the same time, because there are simply more people who feel compelled to bust out of gender boxes than there are people who feel like genital or chest surgeries are important to them, there were suddenly more transgender people than transsexual people speaking as guests in local colleges or to local civic groups or on local TV, and they didn’t usually have the experience to represent themselves solely as individuals whose experience cannot be generalized. The result was that, in their eagerness to help everyone, they framed their statements as if they were speaking for everyone. Transsexual people soon started encountering non-trans people who thought they knew what transsexual experiences were about without realizing that they were talking solely about transgender experience – and not even their own, but the experience of a transgender person who had spoken to some class they took once.

Now, certainly everyone involved wanted things to be better for everyone else, but there’s no question that transgender people who had no intention of taking hormones or having surgery arrogated to themselves the right to speak for transsexual people who had either done those things or intended to do them. And there’s no question that transsexual people were bratty and catty and pissy at times in their turn. They sometimes trivialized the issues faced by transgender people as things transgender people could solve themselves, as if there was no need for a transgender liberation movement. After all, anyone can buy a new wardrobe on their own, but it takes the cooperation of medical personnel to change one’s body. And that cooperation depended on the concerns and perspectives of transsexual people being seen as valid.

Not that transgender people would know this, but there had already been a lengthy history of medical personnel seeing transsexual people as invalid unless they lived up to a very narrow stereotype. And, of course, then the fact that people who had surgeries either fit the stereotype or pretended to for long enough to get care was used against them by anti-transsexual feminists and others to say that transsexual people (transsexual women in particular) were in favor of rigid, sexist, gender roles. (Of course they did not advocate rigid, sexist gender roles to be enforced on others, even if they happened to fit into the existing gender roles of their time, which many of them did not.)

So transsexual people were very scared of and sensitive to people saying that they don’t really need surgery or don’t really understand why they are wanting surgery. They were very sensitive as well to people talking about them without being one of them, because for 30 years already we had been involved in organized efforts to get the gender clinics to stop saying that they knew who was really trans by their clothing or whatever the fuck and start actually listening to transsexual people’s own words.

Transsexual people had really only just begun to be able to tell their own stories (relatively) unfiltered on 80s TV talk shows (local or national ones) or be thought valid and interesting enough to be invited to visit a local college’s human sexuality class for an hour and put their own experiences in their own words. It felt like a very cruel blow that at that moment, just as the liberation work that they had been performing to open up new discussions made it possible for their voices to be heard, transgender people had come along and spoken over them, with their greater numbers drowning transsexual voices out once again. That time period must have felt hardly different for my transsexual elders from the past few decades when they were forced to listen to gender clinic “experts” speak, and speak wrongly, on their behalves.

In short, transsexual people were fucking pissed. And they were not always gentle with transgender people about it. People who went to the gender clinics were typically required to accept a mentor or at the very least attend support groups with other transsexual people and so those people were much more often aware of trans history than the new transgender activists that had no formal connections to trans community memories. As a result, not only were transgender people often articulating a message that was undermining efforts of transsexual people to broaden and ease access to health care, they were very often doing it from an ignorant point of view, getting many basic facts wrong along the way. Correction was necessary, but there are kind and less kind ways to go about that, and the transsexual people did not always choose to approach the task with generosity or gentleness.

But while I’m talking about transsexual folk and transgender folk as two different groups, things weren’t at all that clear cut. Some people simply used the word that their friends used for them when they were first coming out, or used the word adopted by the author of some book or article that was influential to them. Later they might find that their experiences were better represented by the other common label in the discussion. And, of course, there were people who were interested in taking some steps that were thought to be more transsexual in nature (like changing a driver’s license sex designation) but which weren’t necessarily about changing one’s body. And in the midst of debate about who was “really” transsexual – a vital topic to many transsexual people since they felt non-transsexual people were speaking over them and for them and misrepresenting their experiences to the public – the policing of transsexual identity could vary dramatically from place to place and cause a lot of damage to, for instance, people who felt their lives were saved by hormones but who didn’t trust the surgeons or didn’t want surgery for some other reason.

And, of course, the people who kill us weren’t only killing transgender people or only killing transsexual people. They, to be blunt, didn’t care how we categorized ourselves when they bashed our heads in. Erasing our ability to determine and define our own lives is rather the point of anti-trans murders. So while there was some necessary struggle to get each other to recognize the different points of view amongst those of us who were coming together to fight gender oppression manifesting in forms other than sexism, we really kinda needed to get past those necessary procedural things sooner rather than later so we could start accomplishing the actual goals that was the reason we were willing to put up with another god damned consciousness-raising group in the first place.

In short, it was a cluster-fuck.

Fortunately most of us were well-meaning people who wanted to get past the problems between these two semi-separate but clearly overlapping groups so that we would both stop hurting our own and be more accurate/effective in our advocacy.

Trying for something more unifying, some people in the transgender crowd would tell the public that transgender was an umbrella term that included transsexual people, but that being under the same umbrella did not mean everyone’s experience under that umbrella was the same. But of course that didn’t work for the transsexual people who were already pissed about people speaking over them, and representing “transgender” as an umbrella term seemed to come very close to putting transgender perspectives literally over transsexual ones. People who, in the quiet of their own rooms, cannot resolve their conflicts with their own bodies, simply are not a subset of people who have irreconcilable differences with rigid gender roles but not their bodies. Of course transsexual people wanted to get rid of those rigid gender roles too, but the internal relationship of one’s mind to one’s body is not a subset of social relationships.

Transsexual, of course, was right out. That was never going to fly as an umbrella term. After all, transgender was coined specifically because some people felt that transsexual was a bad fit to describe their experience.

But still, people needed and wanted a term to unite the various communities. While we had hurt each other, none of us wanted to create a world in which the others weren’t welcome, couldn’t live their own lives happily and free of oppression. So we had to come up with something for those times when we were really speaking of everyone in the broader community that we could set off against those times when we used transgender or transsexual specifically. If we got it right, it could even make the original terms more useful since it would be immediately apparent that – since we could avoid mentioning sex or gender if we wanted – when we did use transsexual or transgender, we were specifically mentioning sex or gender for a reason.

The first solution was simply to articulate “transsexual and/or transgender”. But that, of course, is a mouthful. The next solution was to drop references to both sex and gender, leaving it ambiguous.

This probably happened verbally before it got used in print, but people are gonna people, and activists are going to write leaflets and manifestos and zines (it was the 90s) and whatnot. Eventually that word was going to get written down, even if it started as a verbal abbreviation (which it probably, but not certainly, did).

As commenter Beetletheknee noted, in computing languages, searches, and other operations, wildcard characters were often used. The asterisk was one that stood for an unknown string, not just a single unknown letter, in a number of contexts. They were useful for contexts like searching for the word “resist”. With “resist*” one would find “resist” but also “resists”, “resisted” and “resisting”, among others.

Transfolk including more than their fair share of nerds, “trans*” came into being because it equally represented the possibility of “transsexual” and the possibility “transgender” (and also “transexual” – don’t get me started on the politics of the second “s”).

“Trans” represented the spoken form just fine, but for whatever reason this computer-age convention caught on and “trans*” became the common form when written. Perhaps it was that everyone was being extra careful, in a time with so many recent wounds, to make sure others knew that they weren’t just abbreviating a word for their own experience, but consciously choosing to acknowledge that of others. We’ll never know for sure.

Of course, not everyone was a programmer or otherwise nerdy. And as more people joined trans* communities, not all of them took up the asterisk, for whatever reason.

Nowadays the asterisk seems more historical than anything, but I’m old enough that I was coming out at the beginning of the 90s and I remember those old conflicts. I remember the reasons why we made the distinctions we did at the time. And most importantly, I still see people confused between sex and gender, uncertain where one concept ends and the other begins.

So for me, I still see value in being very, very intentional about how sex and gender are used. For that reason, and maybe old habit, I still see a reason to use the asterisk as a reminder that, yes, we’re using a term that encompasses many people in what is today seen as a single community, but also yes, the members of that community have a multitude of experiences, and we don’t all end up in that community for the same reasons.

I still get rankled, for instance, when someone calls me transgender. In some communities that might even describe me well, since I hardly ever wear makeup or dresses or skirts. But I live in the Pacific Northwest, and I have for my entire adult life. I’m also a queer woman in queer women’s community. In the spaces I travel, makeup is not expected. Flannel & waffle knit are perfectly normal materials for queer women’s shirts. Going braless is completely unexceptional for a woman of my breast size.

My gender presentation, in short, is completely ordinary for someone of my gender in my context, even if my context might not be entirely ordinary. What is extraordinary is the history of my sexed body characteristics given that gender.

I have come to resist easy and simple choices in pronoun use. I often encourage other people to use they or them for me, or even xe and hir. But that’s not because I don’t identify as a woman. That’s because I refuse to allow the gender binary to go unquestioned. That’s my stand as a feminist, not as a transgender person.

No, I came to trans* community as a transsexual person, and that’s a different journey. Even if I sometimes use “trans” without the asterisk, I see the value in a character that makes explicit the idea that “trans” is not the end, “trans” is not a fair summation. With the asterisk we make visible that there are experiences, there are possibilities, that are valid and valuable even if we have not yet written them all down.







  1. says

    This is interesting, because it came up on my blog earlier, and nobody really seemed to know the history of it.

    My perception of it, which reflected what was going on on Tumblr around 2012-2015, is that “trans*” briefly became very popular, to the extent that people would criticize “trans” as not being the appropriate term because “trans*” was better. (The fact that advocacy for “trans*” was accompanied by active hostility for existing umbrella terms explains a lot of my prejudice against the term.) And then suddenly the tables turned and everybody came to the consensus that instead “trans*” was unnecessary and bad. And even understanding that “trans*” was initially a response to conflict between transsexual and transgender people, I continue to believe that “trans*” was an inappropriate term for that context. Tumblr in that era wasn’t dealing so much with the transgender/transsexual conflict, or at least not as far as I know. They were just kind of adopting a term without understanding why.

    You can see a bit of this attitude in Sam Killerman’s popular 2012 post on the subject. He just says “trans*” is inclusive of a bunch of groups, but strips away any context that might serve to explain why that inclusion might be important, or why it’s any different from “trans”. (Also he made a deliberate decision to remove crossdressers??)

    A commenter on my blog had a different narrative. Said that “trans*” was used around 2007, and that it was a precursor to “trans”. I believe that this was true in the online spaces they participated in, but it seems to be broadly inaccurate–“trans” is attested at least as far back as 2005 in Julia Serano’s writing.

    But as you suggest, “trans*” seems to go back even further. And, I have to imagine that it goes back to a time when people didn’t realize the importance of SEO, lol.

    Do you think “trans*” is still a necessary term in today’s political context, when the most famous transgender people I can think of are also transsexual? Or do you use it, not because it’s necessary, but because you find it useful to convey extra shades of meaning?

  2. says

    But as you suggest, “trans*” seems to go back even further.

    I don’t suggest. I’m flat out telling you: I was there in 1992 when all this was happening and I personally used “trans*” no later than 1995 and probably earlier. Maybe as early as 1993, though I didn’t keep a notebook from the time and can’t be sure.

    And, I didn’t didn’t invent “Trans*”. I got it from others who were using it before me. Though I don’t know exactly how long it was in use, it couldn’t have been common before the struggles between transsexual & transgender people made the term necessary/desirable, and that was in the 90s. If it showed up before 1992 it had to be quite the aberration (though I can’t rule it out).

    So, yeah. First hand witness, first hand user in the early-to-mid 90s. You can be dead certain it goes back at least to 1994.

    Do you think “trans*” is still a necessary term in today’s political context, when the most famous transgender people I can think of are also transsexual? Or do you use it, not because it’s necessary, but because you find it useful to convey extra shades of meaning?

    I use it for the extra shades of meaning, but no, I don’t think it’s strictly necessary now.

    But what makes it unnecessary isn’t that some famous trans people are transsexual. What makes it unnecessary is that we as a community have already made places for people who want to modify their bodies and for people who don’t. It was never really that there were people who didn’t want everyone the freedom to make their own decisions about hormones and surgeries and clothes and names and passports and whatever.

    The real problems were that people with different priorities often spoke as if their own lives were the most important. It’s hard to say for sure, but I think that this came about in part because it was actually fairly easy to be isolated from other trans* people in the 80s and 90s. While the gender clinics that existed in that era would connect people who found medical intervention important to other people who found medical intervention important, they didn’t connect those people to the folks who were attracted to the label transgender. So transsexual people weren’t experienced with the idea that there were a lot of people who did not want medical intervention but still needed serious societal change in order to get to a place where it was minimally possible to live a sane life. And the people attracted to the word transgender weren’t connected systematically with anyone, certainly not with the people who had been attending (and FIGHTING) the gender clinics since the mid-60s.

    So transsexual people had other stories to draw from, but the gender clinics kicked you out if your story deviated too much from the acceptable transsexual narrative. Thus they told each other the same story in group meetings because they were compelled to tell each other the same story in group meetings by the cis professional gender tyrants. Transgender people were struggling to create their own narratives, often in isolation.

    So everyone spoke from their own experience (it was the feminist thing to do, right?) but no one had enough experience with others to recognize the limits of their own experience. Too often we assumed that other people **had** to be like us because we simply didn’t have access to any other stories about how to be trans, or what it might mean to be trans.

    And so we spoke from our own experience, but we told people This is how it is for everyone.

    The desperate need for separate words came from the fact that people were hearing other people run roughshod over their own stories and wanted a way to say, “No, wait! That’s not my story. My story is different.”

    But now it’s not so much about which trans people are famous. Now it’s about the fact that we really do have access to so many stories. It’s much more rare to run into someone who thinks that their way to be trans is the only way to be trans, because by the time they’ve come out, they’ve heard 50 different ways to be trans, all of them different (sometimes a little, sometimes a lot) and had a chance to realize that their own story can’t match them all.

    So the advocates and activists you run into today have more appreciation for our diversity before they ever get to the point of being advocates and activists, and thus are much less likely to deny or invalidate the experiences of others.

    Everyone generally agrees that the courts shouldn’t force you to get surgery to change your name or your sex identifier on your license or passport. Everyone generally agrees that you should be able to get surgery – and have it covered by your insurer – if that’s what you need to have a sane life. And everyone agrees that the only person fit to judge whether or not an individual needs something to live a healthy, sane life is that individual’s own self.

    We have enough stories, now, that we can be generous with allowing each person to use their own language in their own way to tell theirs. The threat that someone is using a word important to us in a different way is simply not as potent.

    Our different stories were always important, always valuable, but when society made no room for multiple stories, we went through an unfortunate (but inevitable) phase of fighting between ourselves with each person determined to make sure that if only one story was going to be told, it was damn well going to be their one.

    But we were strong, and we were generous and in the end we were wise enough to realize that the problem wasn’t inside the community. The problem was with society and their insistence that trans lives were too complicated to understand, too complicated to care about unless we could simplify them down to a single story, a single sound bite.

    Now? We have the confidence to say, We are complicated. We are more multifaceted than a floor-length ball gown entirely covered in Swarovski crystals. We will let you get to know us, but you can never know all of us. And even so, even with the vast, vast ocean of your ignorance, STILL we will not tolerate your bigotry, your violence.

    We are confident enough to say, just as we can live our lives without ever meeting, without ever knowing more than a handful of the seven billion cis and trans people around the world and yet we can love you all, and we can value your health and safety and sanity and comfort, we now believe that cis people are amazing enough, capable enough, wonderful enough, that they, too, can go through life without ever knowing more than a handful of us, and still they can give up their bigotry. Even in ignorance, they can still love.

  3. Allison says

    There appears to be another split going on: I notice that instead of just saying “trans,” now people say “trans and non-binary.” I had always thought that non-binary was included under the trans umbrella, since to me, “trans” basically means “not cis,” but I guess some people fear that non-binary people will feel excluded unless language is used that explicitly includes them.

    I do recall hearing that a lot of non-binary people refuse to describe themselves as “trans,” apparently because they’ve had bad experiences in trans communities, such as being told that non-binary isn’t Real Trans(tm) or even that it doesn’t exist. One on-line trans community I know of lost pretty much their entire non-binary membership because a few people were insisting that non-binary people were mentally ill and the management of the site didn’t step in.

    I’ve counted myself lucky that I haven’t run into much identity or presentation policing, but I’m also not an activist and don’t hang out in trans activist spaces or get involved in trans politics. I do know a number of people who have had bad experiences.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    I always hit a wall with “trans*” – namely, how do ya pronounce it?

    The brief interval of calling Spanish-speakers “Latin*” gave me the same problem, but I can at least see why “transx”, though pronounceable, never made it to “thing” status.

    My own attempted proposal, trans_ (as in, fill in the blank), somehow never even got up enough momentum for an audible crash.

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