Personally, my problems with the asterisk aren’t of a nature of “this excludes trans women!” or whatever. It doesn’t. Nor are they based in an ignorance of the issues of non-binary semantic inclusion.
My criticisms are principally of…
a) the relative worth or value of the term, and the degree to which it represents “inclusion theatre” rather than meaningful inclusion.
b) how this term exists in contrast to others, and thereby suggests some exceptional requirement for acknowledgement… a problematic pattern one can also note in things like people insisting “pansexual” is more inclusive than “bisexual” (and thereby that trans men, and trans women and non-binary-identified individuals require some special and exceptional acknowledgment and consideration in people’s sexuality), or how “always ask pronoun preference” translates, in practice, to “always ask people who look like they might be trans their pronoun preference, regardless of how clear their identification is through their presentation. But go ahead and make the usual assumptions about people who look cis.” (thus treating trans men and trans women’s genders are exceptionally questionable, no matter how clearly we’re already communicating them).
We don’t append an asterisk onto the end of “gay” to indicate that it also includes gay trans men and other gay men who don’t fit the normative, privileged gay identity, or indicate that not every man who exclusively fucks men identifies as gay. We don’t append an asterisk onto “lesbian” or “bisexual”, either. We don’t put an asterisk on “white” to acknowledge that definitions of race are fluid and immaterial and that there are people with white privilege and white identities who may have bits and pieces of interracial geneology. We don’t put an asterisk on “People With Disabilities” to provide an extra reminder that not all disabilities are visible, or physical. Etc.
With such terms we generally acknowledge that the real battle is in combatting the problematic assumptions that less-obvious iterations of that identity AREN’T included. We don’t CEDE that battle by admitting no one’s ever going to interpret the term broadly enough, and deciding to hold the hands of the naive or non-intersectional and provide them very special extra reminders that there’s other identities in the term.
Language is fluid, shifting and mercurial anyway. “Trans”-without-an-asterisk only fails to include non-binary trans identities if that’s how we choose to treat and interpret it. Just like “bisexual” only means “has the dangerous connotation of "only into cis men and cis women and nothing else”, and the “bi” in “bisexual” only refers to a “male/female” binary rather than a “same gender/other gender” duality, BECAUSE WE TREATED IT THAT WAY AND BEGAN ENCOURAGING EVERY TRANS/GQ-FRIENDLY PERSON TO USE PANSEXUAL INSTEAD. We *created* the meanings and definitions we opposed, by opposing them.
This is what could easily happen with “trans*” as well. But why are we assuming “trans” didn’t already include non-binary iterations, and didn’t already mean more than just transsexual? And why are we fighting for the asterisk instead of fighting for the original term to simply mean what it should have meant? Especially since it’s still the same word.
And to elaborate on issue a, the inclusion theater aspect…
“Inclusion Theater” is a term I use to refer to any instance where exceptional energy is being put into presenting an outward PERFORMANCE or APPEARANCE of inclusion or “progressiveness”, while neglecting (or at the expense of), actual meaningful ACTIONS and MANIFESTATIONS of inclusivity or intersectionality.
For instance, organizations like HRT billing themselves as fighting for “LGBT” rights despite having a history of not caring at all about anything trans or bi related. Or a pharmacy sticking a rainbow flag on its front door and then being suspicious, interrogative, and asking invasive questions, when someone goes in to pick up medicine for her wife. Or a labour rights meeting insisting on accessibility, but interpreting this in such a way that they choose an office room with no elevator access (only stairs) because it’s in a scent-free building. Or a Comic-Con talking up how they’re interested in diversity, but hiring no female or PoC panelists except the ones they put on their “diversity in comics” panel. Or a queer women’s one-day punk festival putting “trans-welcome!” on the flyers, but trans women end up treated decisively and clearly UNwelcome when they arrive. Etc.
Putting an asterisk on the end of “trans” is INCREDIBLY EASY. A lot easier than actually working towards making spaces, events, projects, organizations or instutions GENUINELY trans / genderqueer inclusive.
That terrible anonymous ask is a perfect example of how easy it is, and how using it doesn’t actually indicate any trans awareness, or effort towards sensitivity and understanding, whatsoever.
An even more telling example is from RadFemRiseUp!, the conference in Toronto over the summer that had a no-trans-women policy. They used “trans*” CONSISTENTLY throughout the actual statement of their policy about trans women not being permitted to attend. Yeah… “inclusive”. Sure.
If the term can actually be co-opted in service of the actual statements of policy used to exclude us, there’s clearly nothing particularly radical or inclusive about it, and nothing that demands anyone rethink their conceptualizations of what it is they’re naming. It’s as easy for our oppressors to use as the non-asterisk version, and will make NO difference in their thoughts about us… or anyone’s thinking on the matter, really (I, for one, was already only using “trans” and “transgender” as broadly inclusive umbrella terms).
Other terms, though, aren’t as easy. Other terms. DO seem to be controversial to, and resist co-option by, oppressors. The word “cis”, for instance, was nowhere to be found in RadFemRiseUp!’s statement, and I believe this is not coincidence, but indicative of the fact that the term has real substance in equalizing the conceptual playing field.
And we’ve ALL seen cis people “offended” by it. Much like other oppressors are offended or bothered by, or significantly resistant to, terms like “privilege”, “people of colour”, “white feminist”, “rape culture”, etc. Again, this resistance because there’s enough potency there for them to feel it’s WORTH resisting.
What is there in the asterisk that would ever make our oppressors flinch, or rethink, or redefine?
Unless these kinds of questions are answered, I don’t see any particular point to the asterisk… not any more than I’d add it to ANY broad, variable, subjective or negotiable noun (which is almost all of them).
Summary: 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.
The asterisk originated from search Boolean, where trans* would search for any words starting with trans (transgender, transsexual, etc). The asterisk is useless as a way of attempting to be more inclusive because trans already included all trans people. The asterisk did well for explicitly noting that being trans is not limited to trans men and trans women (as trans without the asterisk was misinterpreted as meaning) but it subtly began working with this misinterpretation and contributed to the incorrect thought that “trans” by itself only means binary trans people. This does not indicate that the term itself is problematic but that it is just not a useful tool. Trans without the asterisk is already inclusive of all trans identities.
The history of the asterisk is not well known. Often, it is misattributed to itspronouncedmetrosexual (Sam Killermann, who is notably a white, cisgender, heterosexual man). This attribution is incorrect, as itspronouncedmetrosexual was just one web site that popularized it long after its inception. The graphic he produced also incorrectly included “two-spirit” under trans* identities, while many two spirit people do not identify as trans. Some claim the asterisk was originally created and popularized by nonbinary female assigned at birth (FAAB) trans people and trans men (note that these groups are not necessarily separate). Others claim it was trans women programmers.
Another historical misattribution present online is the asterisk being created to include drag queens and other gender nonconforming cisgender people. This is incorrect and no version of “trans” should include cisgender people, with or without the asterisk.
In the mid-2010’s social justice bloggers (particularly on web sites such as Tumblr) began to claim the asterisk excludes trans women and nonbinary people. The asterisk does not “exclude” trans women and this statement is simply inaccurate. However, we often see it being applied in ways that silence trans women and decenter those struggles as white female assigned at birth trans people who have more access to this sort of language use it to prove how involved in the community they are. The asterisk being used to represent trans (without the asterisk) being exclusionary of nonbinary people comes solely from (mis)interpretation. That was not the intention of the asterisk and is not an inherent factor of its existence, just a common misunderstanding. Similarly, people using “trans* women” instead of “trans women” to subtly delegitimize trans women’s gender identities comes from a misinterpretation of this occurrence. Blaming the silencing of nonbinary and transfeminine people on the asterisk instead of the groups who silence them and the culture that actually perpetrates these actions denies accountability and ignores the systems of oppression that are really affecting these groups.
While it’s white queer and trans FAAB people who started the asterisk, it’s also white queer and trans FAAB people who are at the front lines of critiquing the use of the asterisk, including the use among trans people of color, trans women, and nonbinary people who use it to describe themselves. The call-out culture prevalent online is something that does solidly contribute to the oppression of some of the most marginalized members of our community by privileging access to the most up-to-date theoretical work around what it means to be trans over actual trans experiences.
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 are in the process of removing all asterisks from our web site, publications, and infographics.