by Nash Jones.

More and more, when the word “trans*” is written, folks who are hoping to use the term in its most inclusive sense are throwing an asterisk on the end. Why this is the case has become one of the more common questions that I get when I am out in the community (at various schools, organizations and businesses) conducting Bridge 13 trainings (and when I’m wearing my Legalize Trans* shirt out and about). In light of these questions, I thought I would take a moment to break down what exactly the asterisk is doing to the term trans, and why it is doing it.

Let’s start with why the asterisk is being used. If you aren’t an expert google searcher, you may not know about the availability of the “wildcard” feature for when you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for or when you’re looking for a whole heck of a lot. The * (asterisk) is used as a wildcard in web searches by acting as a placeholder or a fill-in-the blank symbol. Let’s say you are looking for studies on LGBTQ youth risk behavior (which, if you’re anything like me, is how you spend your Sunday mornings), and you want your query to come back with a broad array of studies and behaviors. You could search “LGBTQ youth are * likely to *”, where the asterisks are acting as “blank”s. Go ahead, google it right now, and then come back totally getting how it works.

So, the asterisk is a blank, a placeholder, an etc., an includer. What the symbol means when it is put at the end of trans* is rooted in this same “wildcard” use. 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*”).

I want to end this post with a couple of cautionary suggestions. First, remember that all of the identities discussed here are self-identifying terms. It is quite possible that someone holds an identity that can be understood as under the trans* umbrella but does not identify with the term trans*. It is not for you to say then, “Well, I read a blog post that said genderqueer people are trans*, so if you identify as genderqueer you are trans*, whether you think so or not.” Respect the words that people use to describe themselves by using those same words to describe them and not questioning their use of the terms.

If you have another perspective to add to this conversation or more questions about the term, trans*, put them in the comments!

For more information about Q Center’s Bridge 13 Community Education Project, or to schedule a training, please click HERE.

21 Responses to Bridging The Gap – Trans*: What Does the Asterisk Mean and Why Is It Used?
  1. Addie,
    Thank you for this blog! I do not consider myself very knowledgeable about the “T” in the LGBTQ acronym, and I am always willing to learn more. The term “trans*” is not something I had encountered in the past, but am very glad I know the basics of it now. I will continue to research this aspect of life, along with many other subjects.

  2. My dislike of “trans*” is twofold. First, we often use the asterisk mark in written language to mean “not really.” Second, the fact that the asterisk mark is a typographical mark and not something meant to be said on a regular basis, meaning either you’re left with a clumsier word (“trans-asterisk” or “trans-star”) or you simply don’t say it (and then the asterisk might as well not even be there).

    • I feel that asterisks are used as a reference. When you see a stared word or sentence while reading book or articles, you automatically look at the margin to see if it has any more meaning to it. Same stuff applies here only that it references to much more than just one kind of transgender. I think it’s a smart notation

  3. My partner is a trans-person. I truly dislike labels. Why do I have to be called, lesbian, bisexual or queer? Those words tell the world who I choose to have sex with. I understand labels help keep minority folks in line, just below the norm, But there is no true definition for the word is simply an idea. I refuse to be a label and so does my partner. I can’t wait when we can get married and the word “partner” goes back to someone we do business with.

  4. @katie, I just tried to reply to your comment directly but something silly happened and you might have received it as an email? The internets can be bonkers.

    What I said, which was meant to be a public discussion, was that there is not a lot of consensus within the discussion around how to say “trans*”. You are right, that some people say “trans asterisk” or “trans star” out loud. I’ve also heard “trans inclusive”. The goal of including and representing non-binary identities, which are so often erased from discussions and narratives of trans* experiences, seems totally worth the possibility that, initially, the spoken terms sound clumsy or awkward. Also, time and again, I hear this same argument used against gender neutral pronouns. However, gender neutral pronouns should not be avoided because their use may be initially a little clumsy. We should instead work toward integrating them into our language through using them until they are common place and so not awkward any more.

    Also, I’ll add that I don’t say “trans asterisk” or any other addition to the pronunciation, “trans.” When I say trans*, pronounced “trans,” I mean trans*. This can be known because when I write it, I always write trans*, and because I define my terms. I have heard folks say that trans is already meant to be inclusive of all identities that fall under the trans* umbrella, so there is no need to add the asterisk. If such a person writes trans and I write trans*, but we’ve defined our terms, are intentional about their use, and know that we are using them in the same way, I say right on.

    Language is situated and ever-changing and so there might never be consensus, and that’s got to be ok.

  5. @cathy, labels can be totally limiting and isolating and oppressive, but can also be empowering and have an ability to connect and bond people. How each one of use feels about labels, in general or those placed upon us, is valid and should be respected. Self-identification is really important. If identity terms don’t feel good for someone (sometimes or all of the time) for any number of reasons, they shouldn’t be forced upon them. (This is a bit complicated by the need to own one’s privileged identities within society and not deny that position). But, on the flip side, If any number of terms do feel right for a person, no one should be there telling them that they aren’t included, that they don’t count, that they can’t use that identity term.

  6. Gianni Paolinzetti October 20, 2013 at 10:48 am Reply

    How is it that “queer” does not include all the variations on sexual identity and orientation that “trans*” purportedly captures, other than by virtue of the fact that certain persons and groups have decided to adopt that term?

  7. The term “trans*” definitely smacks of computer culture. I don’t think we need to explain to less computer-savvy folks the meaning of trans. We have a big enough job, if we choose to take it on, explaining our trans status to those who are curious enough to want to know more, much less to the computer culture explanation as well. I’m inclined to believe this is an unnecessary addition that somehow isolates us even further from the mainstream. If I were gay, I wouldn’t want the identification “gay*.” (Gay*, of course, would be all inclusive, signifying the possibility of top or bottom, gay OR lesbian, bear, lipstick lesbian, dyke, drag queen, and on and on.) It’s unnecessary, and to some even implies an elite status.

  8. […] So, clearly, there is a lot we could be talking about during Transgender Awareness Week. Like, why do some people refer to transgender as trans*, with that asterisk? There’s an answer for that: […]

  9. […] the time of the year to be thankful for everyone and everything we hold near and dear to us. In the trans*gender community and its allies, the end of November signifies more than that. This November 20th is […]

  10. […] about this word and concept often when I’m watching television or a movie where a queer and/or trans* person is introduced (e.g. Laverne Cox, who is a trans woman of color portraying Sophia Burset, a […]

  11. […] I have been tossing around the word trans with the * following since way before this blog post. Initially, I don’t think I even understood why I was doing it. But I eventually understood it as being the way to include a variety of trans identities. If gender isn’t binary, neither is trans identity itself. A pretty neat explanation can be found here. […]

  12. The mention of “genderf*ck” made me smile, as I often used that term to describe myself in my private blog out of frustration when I was starting to come to terms with my identity confusion. And while I tell people that I am non-binary for politeness and formality’s sake (even though that label doesn’t quite ring true for me), nothing has fit how I feel about my gender (in terms of society’s concept of gender and gender roles in general) quite as perfectly as genderf*ck does. My own gender identity still causes a lot of negative emotions mostly towards myself and partly towards people who laid the foundations for me to have to make a big deal out of this in my head in the first place.

    That being said, I’m uncomfortable identifying as “trans” or “trans*”, because it makes me feel extremely guilty. Maybe it’s tumblr talking, but part of the reason I stayed closeted for so long was because most people see others who identify outside either cisgender or FtM/MtF to just be people grabbing for attention and trying to “fit in with the cool trans kids” or whatever, and even though I know that’s a load of bull, I feel bad identifying as trans* because I don’t want to prove them right. I want to convey to everyone that I know my place so that I can be myself in peace. Even if that means avoiding talking about some things I really relate to because, according to the majority of the LGBT community, I can’t relate to any of it.

  13. Addie–
    Thanks so much for this explanation!

  14. […] is used here to capture all the identities that fall outside traditional gender norms—read more here and here). His mother supported him and dedicated her life to fighting for her son’s right to […]

  15. […] 4. Trans* people face a specific set of challenges when it comes to gender-based violence. […]

  16. […] 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT. 68% of those kids were kicked out of their families and homes because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and 54% reported being survivors of abuse from their families. These experiences leave these young people particularly vulnerable to mental and physical health issues, and lead to unfair criminalization of queer and trans* youth. […]

  17. […] wonder what the asterisk (*) after trans* is all about? This piece by The Q Center in Portland, Oregon, says it better than I […]

  18. […] seventh day, it provides a safe bike workspace specifically for folks identifying as women, trans*, and femme. The transition from all-volunteer staffing to paid employees happened gradually and […]

  19. Comments like Carly’s above are a good example of why the asterisk is toxic. Trans/transgender on its own is already an umbrella term and adding the asterisk only helps to reinforce the concept of “trans enough” aka that some people are “more trans” than others. Anyone who identifies as trans is trans, without or without an asterisk. Those who do not identify as trans probably wouldn’t appreciate being called trans* either.

    Additionally, the asterisk makes many trans women feel further marginalized. tbh this agender/non-binary person would love if we deleted the asterisk forever because it’s just another reminder that some people don’t think I fully belong in the trans community. It’s great that you use it as a boolean indicator, but most people do not use it with that in mind, and it doesn’t read that way to the majority of people. It’s also not necessary. It’s just not.


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