Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Trans* - what’s in an asterisk?

I recently received an email from someone planning to do some research on experiences that trans* people have had with the British criminal justice system.

I’d not seen the use of the * at the end of trans much before – although it has apparently been used in some circles for quite a while.

At first I looked for a footnote at the end of the email explaining what “trans”meant. The way that some books use an * to indicate that there is a footnote. But there wasn’t one.

Then, having a background in computer software I thought maybe it means trans-anything. In some computer environments an * at the end of a word means anything that starts with that word.

Here it says that trans* is:

An umbrella term to include folks who identify as transgender, transsexual, and other identities where a person does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. 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.

But it also says:

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, 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.

And continues with:

A note on usage: the identities above are all self-identifying terms. 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.

That last part makes it a bit difficult, and I’m not sure that the example that’s used makes sense. Even though each of the individual terms are a matter of self-identification, if the word trans* is an umbrella term for them all then by self-identifying as any one of the things included in the umbrella it’s difficult to see the logic in saying that the umbrella term is inappropriate without redefining the umbrella term. And if the meaning of the umbrella term keeps changing then the umbrella term becomes less and less useful. I know, I’m beginning to form sentences reminiscent of Sir Humphrey Appleby.

In some circles, trans (without the *) means all of the above. So is the * really needed?

Here at the Trans Student Educational Resources web site there’s an article about Why We Used Trans* and Why We Don’t Anymore.

And here Julia Serano has a blog post dated August 2015 Regarding Trans* and Transgenderism. Julia says:

In the last few months, I have become aware of a new claim: Trans* is apparently trans-misogynistic. I am not sure where this originated, but it seems to have garnered steam (a recent google search using “asterisk” and “transmisogyny” revealed numerous pages of results to this effect). According to a recent post by Tobi Hill-Meyer (that I encourage you to check out), she summarizes the current arguments being made against trans* this way: “that female assigned genderqueers popularized it as a way to prioritize their issues at the expense of trans women.” But she then goes on to talk about many previous incarnations of the trans* in “2010, 2007, 2003, and 1998” when it was forwarded by trans women to circumvent “transsexual vs. transgender” infighting that was occurring in those settings at that time. The last paragraph of her post really resonated with me:

“I'm not really invested in whether or not people use [trans*]. 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.”

Julia then makes an interesting point that:

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.

This fits in with my understanding about how words and labels work. It’s all about how they are used and the motives and agendas that people have in using them.

There’s a way in which “umbrella” terms begin to lack usefulness as more and more people get included under the umbrella, and some of them begin to get dischuffed about sharing it.

I know people who self-identify as transsexual and others that identify as transvestite. There is no doubt that they have things in common. They are people. They identify as individuals that are part of minority groups that have a history being persecuted and of being misunderstood. They typically dress in a way that is associated with a gender that is different than their birth-gender (and the use of the term birth-gender in this context is open to debate). So they share an umbrella. Yet, with these things in common there are also some significant differences. These differences mean that some people prefer to be under a different umbrella.

When I began writing this blog I self-identified as a t-girl or transvestite. These days I tend towards gender-fluid. The main reason really is that most of the time if I sat to someone “I’m gender-fluid” they ask me about what that means. Which means I can tell them about what it means to me rather than what that label (or umbrella) means to them. On the other hand, people have a tendency to think they know what transvestite means, and just go along with their own understanding of the label (umbrella) without asking questions.

Having said all of that, personally speaking, I find the term trans (as an abbreviation for transgender(ed)) useful – with or without the *. I understand that the umbrella is quite large and it does cover groups of people that are significantly different from each other. But each individual is a person that is living their life in a way that tends to challenge societies stereotypical views on gender. And it provides some kind of context for terms such as transphobia.  And generally, if I tell a person that I am transgender(ed) they’ll ask me what does that mean exactly – which gives me an opportunity to explain to them that it doesn't exactly mean anything, because, of course, umbrella terms never do. In the same way that a * at the end of a search term in some computer environments isn’t searching for something that is exactly anything. It’s more about finding things that are a bit like something.

No comments: