Language can have a huge impact on how people understand themselves, their experiences, or the world around them. Language can be extremely limiting, especially when trying to describe aspects of who we are, how we identify, or our experiences. Language can also be beautiful, freeing, inspiring, artistic, etc.
Within trans communities language is rapidly changing and expanding as people push the limitations of language to better encompass the multiplicity of identities that exist in the gender galaxy. When it comes to language the most important practice is to listen to and to reflect back the words people use when describing themselves.
Where it gets complicated is when a community that is constantly in flux and that is diverse in every imaginable way tries to find that magical “umbrella” word to encompass many many people. For us in our trans inclusion process this word was “Trans*.” Overall, it seems as though “trans,” which is primarily used as a shortened version of transgender or transsexual, is often used online and within communities. Though umbrella terms have their limitations, there are certain advantages to having a term that is short, sweet, and encompassing of people who have completely unique stories of how they have lived through an imperfectly “shared” experience of not identifying with the gender they were assigned at birth.
The issue at hand, therefore, is the asterisk. You may have noticed that on our website we have changed “trans*” to “trans.” It has been brought to our attention by community in a few ways that there are good reasons to not use an asterisk after trans. Of course, even people who do not think the asterisk is necessary have differing opinions as to why.
Key Reasons Why We Dropped the Asterisk
1) We don’t need it. For some the asterisk is represents inclusivity of non-binary gender identities. However, if language is what we make of it in practice asterisk or no asterisk, “trans” can be encompassing of all people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth (if they decide they want to use this term of course). At least, that is how we use it. As Natalie Reed puts it: “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.”
2) There is still work to be done. Reading more blogs and opinions of trans people online, it seems as though “trans*” gets used as a rubber stamp by organizations to signify “look how great we are, we are inclusive of all trans people – as shown by this great catchy word on all our pamphlets and resources.” We don’t want to be that kind of organization because we recognize and know first hand that any process of inclusion or accessibility involves hard work and community input. The asterisk also seems to be derived from parts of the trans community that often gets listened to more readily or whose voices tend to carry more power such as trans men, trans-masculine, designated-female-at-birth (dfab) genderqueer people, white, and/or able-bodied folks.
3) The asterisk can be exclusive. It follows that if the history of where the asterisk comes from is connected to voices that tend to hold more power that the asterisk would be seen as excluding trans women, trans-feminine folks, or designated-male-at-birth (dmab) genderqueer folks. Even though the asterisk was originally meant to be used as inclusive, it has not necessarily played out this way. As blogger Kai, puts it: “Asserting that the trans community is not excluding anyone prevents us from critically examining the dynamics of privilege that exist within our community. Perhaps the asterisk itself is not exclusive, but it seems to encourage complacency when it comes to assessing where we, as a community, could do better.” We don’t want anyone to look at our website, see an asterisk, and then feel that our services will be exclusive of them.
We recognize that no matter what language we use there is lots of work to be done making our services accessible and being accountable to trans community. Language, including deciding whether or not to use an asterisk after trans, is a part of this conversation. Through the complexities of language what is most important to us is that everyone has the right to self-determine the language they use when talking about themselves. We respect and honor those who do choose to use the asterisk when describing their own identity.