A question I have been receiving a lot lately is about the contested use of the asterisk in the word trans(*). Some people use it, some people don’t, and a lot of people have feelings about it, even if those feelings are confusion about how to feel. When people contact me, they usually write one of two things:
Now, I will say that whilst most people who are asking me about the (non-)use of the asterisk are cisgender, they are—almost all of them—doing their own research. They often send me webpages like this and this, which discuss the asterisk and its contestations in detail. Whilst I will not go into the disputed history of the term—indeed, I already have written about this in my book—I will lay out why I choose to use the asterisk more often than not. I will also discuss the cultural contexts in which I am making my choices to use the asterisk (more often than not), and how context has a great influence on the overall decisions I make regarding this symbol and its incorporation into my work.
First, it is important to note, as the webpages and my book linked above point out, that the incorporation of the asterisk was originally intended to be inclusive, and was created and used outside of academic circles. The asterisk was meant to push beyond the trope that all trans(*) people transition and/or are transsexual. In this sense, it moved beyond normative tropes of visibility and any potential hierarchies of who was “trans(*) enough.”
Despite this original intent, it has become clear that some people have used the asterisk as a tool for excluding others and instantiating their own hierarchies within, between, and among transgender communities. Right when I began hearing questions about the asterisk, which was when I was collecting data for Trans* In College, I was told the symbol was used to ostracize transgender people of color and transgender women. I was also told the symbol was “no longer needed,” because the idea that transgender was not synonymous with transitioning was common knowledge, so to use the asterisk was redundant.
Now, as a trans* femme, I cannot even begin to tell you how intensely wrong the idea that we are “beyond” the transgender-as-transitioning trope is. For example, each time someone asks me how long I have been on T, or just assumes I am a trans(*) man when I say I am transgender, should be enough to remind folks that we are not beyond the policing of who is or isn’t trans(*) enough, be it in or out of the “LGBTQ community” (or even the QT* community). I know my individual experience is not isolated, and I also know many people who have been transitioning for years who also are made to feel “not trans(*) enough” because they are positioned as being “binary” for transitioning (a really messed up and violent positioning of transgender people that requires its own post). So no – I refuse to believe that the asterisk is redundant and no longer serves a purpose. As Sara Ahmed (2012) reminded us in On Being Included, speech acts are commitments, and to suggest a speech act (e.g., using the asterisk) is “no longer relevant” may reify the harmful and violent notion that one is no longer relevant. In other words, the use of the asterisk was originally intended to expand notions of trans*ness, and as such, to neglect this is still important is to neglect those of us on the margins of the trans(*) community who are saying it is still important.
Now, there are some who rightly point to how the asterisk has been used by some to hurt and harm our own. There are some who are rightly articulating that the asterisk, despite its original intent, is being used to further trans-antagonism and violence, epistemological and otherwise.
Quite simply: this shit sucks. There is no academic or tidy language I can use for this other than: this shit sucks. I hate that we are eating our own. I dislike that trans(*) oppression has become so embedded in our culture that we are internalizing that oppression and turning it toward ourselves and each other. Whilst this is a lesson that what was once liberatory is not always so, it hurts to recognize the effects of such a lesson.
So yeah, there are people who use the asterisk as a way of marginalizing other trans(*) people; however, I am not quite sure that it makes the most sense to throw the term out due to some people using it in exclusive, marginalizing, and violent ways. In fact, I think that in some places, and at some times, using the asterisk can further liberatory goals and processes by requiring readers to pause and reflect on just who is in their frame.
In elucidating this point, let me tell you a story.
In my book, I write about the participants alongside whom I worked. In doing so, I did not write physical descriptions, fearing this would gender them based on socialized markers and cues. Instead, I created—as best I could—complex and ethereal descriptions of participants, especially as many of them did not seek to be pegged into any particular identity, expression, or embodiment, regardless of their gender identity. When I was writing my dissertation, on which my book is based, several of my committee members said they struggled with my lack of description, but then realized that was the point of the text. The text, in this sense, was performative; I was engaging in the fluidity of gender at the very same time that I was writing about the participants.
A part of this performativity was—and is—the use of the asterisk. Especially in my field of education, which continues to be highly conservative (Pinar, 1998), I find it important to textually remind readers that who they think they are reading about (e.g., transgender-as-transsexual students) is not always the case. I find it important to remind readers that the use of symbols and prefixes as words must be given time and attention, and that one may need to slow down to understand fully who the people at the center of the narrative truly are. The asterisk is a textual disruption, and I use it as such in a performative turn. The asterisk, then, does the same work that trans(*) people do—we destabilize notions of “appropriate” gendered futurity.
And in a field like education, this disruption is incredibly important.
And especially when the field of education may want to claim going through its own “trans(*) moment,” it becomes imperative to interrogate what that “moment” means for us all (Nicolazzo, 2017).
So, more often than not, I use the asterisk. Particularly when I am writing in my field of education, I will gravitate toward using the asterisk. I often do this by discussing the tensions of its use, and by being up front about my reasons for using the asterisk. And whilst I know this term has been used by some to marginalize, I am up front about my choices and why I have chosen them.
Now I know this will not satisfy everyone, nor is it meant to do so. As I have shared with some of my colleagues who have asked, I want people to make the best choices for them when they are writing. I want people to think about their own positionalities and how their contexts may influence their choices in particular ways. And above all, I want people to be open and trans(*)parent—giggle—about their choices. Because although our final choices may be different, our thinking may well be aligned.
Do you agree? Disagree? Have lots of your own thoughts? I would love to hear from you – feel free to comment below and we can keep the dialogue going!
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.