Way back when (because it seems like eons ago), there was a discussion on tumblr. Someone, somewhere, asked which term was more inclusive as a general umbrella term when it comes to trans gender identity, trans or trans*. I responded with my perspective on the situation, though from my understanding it went largely unnoticed. So I’m just going to reconstruct that perspective here with a bit more clarity. This is coming from two general directions – one from a computer science geek perspective, and one from a more general social justice queer folk perspective.
In the IT world, the asterisk is generally seen as a ‘wildcard character’. Wildcard characters stand for any character or unit. However, they may have certain parameters that they’re limited to or attached to, based on what you’re trying to do with said character. For example, if you wanted to list all of the Word or Open Office text documents in a folder in a Linux distribution, you would use the command ‘ls *.doc‘. The asterisk would represent any combination of characters, be it several or even none, as attached to the .doc extension.
The reason why I bring this up is because in search terms, which are increasingly common with the further expansion of the ‘information technology age’, this wildcard character continues to apply. Including in, say, Google. So if someone were to search for ‘trans*‘ in Google after coming across the term in something they’re reading, they’d come across things like the Trans Union credit report website, the band Trans Am, the music and video retailer company Trans World Entertainment, Google Translate, and (one of my favorite bands) Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Needless to say, this is very confusing. Especially since Google also uses wildcard characters in a way that is unique to internet search engines – you can use multiple asterisks to highlight the words before or after a given search term in the results.
Wildcard characters, while effective and powerful, can be very confusing. Especially if one assumes that the wildcard is to be taken literally, not conceptually. When using the term trans* to refer to folks whose identity doesn’t actually use ‘trans’ in it, people may – and frequently do – assume based on terms that they’re familiar with that include that term. For example, transgender, transsexual, and transvestite. While one can argue that conceptually, the asterisk is meant to be a wildcard or umbrella term to include all people who identify as trans and not just those who identify as something that use trans as a prefix or suffix, this is not something that is always easily understood. And often, it takes a lot of explanation.
Similarly, this assumption may be used within the trans community itself to deny the identities of various people. I wish I could say that it’s uncommon, but from my experience it’s not. On numerous occasions, from trans and cis people alike, I’ve been told that since I use a term other than transsexual or transgender to actively describe my identity, I’m not actually trans. Since I’m not a trans man or trans woman, and since my disconnect with society’s concept of gender identity is more socially based than biological (though I do have dysphoria, what people are often more familiar with), I don’t ‘count’. This isn’t just a passive assumption and passing over based on prefixes either – this is active denial of my identity. Being nonbinary on top of it all doesn’t help matters.
Trans* as an umbrella term utilizes the assumption that the person or people you’re trying to communicate with will understand what it includes. Seeing as there isn’t a whole lot of public awareness of nonbinary identities or things like genderfuck, boi/grrl et al, these things frequently don’t come to mind. And without further explanation, it can result in the exclusion and erasure of such identities based on context.
On the other hand, the same problem arises with the term trans. In fact, the only real difference is that the term doesn’t come with a wildcard attached to it, adding to the confusion the assumption that it’s a prefix. Both terms also rely on the development of the terms throughout history, further proceeding down a linear time line. With the history of the term comes the assumptions developed as a result of what was attached to those terms, such as the path of sexual reassignment surgery and binarism.
Many people, including myself, want to move away from this linear progression that assumes things like surgical procedures and Gender Identity Disorder with all of its baggage, and instead look at things more from the angle of self identity, expression and the effects of socially constructed differences in gender. Because things like genital and surgical essentialism isn’t cool and erases a lot of people who don’t want surgical reassignment or may not even have access to it for reasons such as medical, financial, even cultural. If anything, maybe we should branch away from such terms, instead going with something that focuses more on the concept of gender identity and what it means for people on an individual basis instead of building off of assumptions regarding one or a few groups. Which is one of the reasons why I use, and prefer, queer. Because sometimes, trans doesn’t fit. And often it’s used to isolate and exclude me from the community of people that share similar experiences with me. But it’s about all that’s around and recognized.
That doesn’t exactly feel very inclusive. If anything, it feels more like a label is being slapped onto me for the sake of pigeonholing me. And that’s no more comfortable to me than this skin I have to wear for the cis-centric society I live in.