Sunday, June 2, 2013

Why I Don't Use An Asterisk After Trans

This essay is consistently one of the most common first things people read when they come to my blog, linked to from Tumblr a number of times that is actually kind of staggering to me, considering I'm not so much a fan of Tumblr (but Gods help me do I try).  Because of that, it's really the first impression most of you will get.  It's for that reason that I decided--since it was written way back in 2013--that it needed a rewrite.  My opinions on the subject are largely the same, but I'm not so much a fan of the writing style I was using at the time.  If you want to read the original essay, I have ensured that the Wayback Machine has it archived.

So anyway, the trans asterisk, the thing that brought you here, probably from Tumblr (but with a good chunk just from organic search results and, I don't know, direct links).  For those who don't know, rendering trans with an asterisk--"trans*"--was for a short time a quite common way of talking about the trans community.  It was used as a way of being inclusive of many different forms of trans identity, including not only binary trans women and trans men, but the many variations of non-binary people, gender fluid people, crossdressers (and since some of your Tumblr blogs feel the need to insist you don't agree with me that crossdressers deserve a place in our community, I wrote this to explain), and so forth.  The asterisk is a wildcard, so basically it means trans[insert anything here].

By now if you've been in the community for a while you probably have heard some shady story about how the asterisk was somehow intentionally added to exclude trans women, or to exclude non-binary people, or some other agenda.  This is in fact extremely unlikely and I wish people would stop trying to argue that.  Has it been used to exclude?  Yes, and it's something I'll talk about in this essay... but it's important to recognize that people using the asterisk are not inherently attempting to exclude, and are most likely writing in good faith.

Now that I've talked about why the asterisk is used by some, I'll talk about why I don't use it and would prefer other people don't, either.

The first and most important reason in my opinion is this:  People often don't know what it means.  Just looking at the search terms people use to get here it's clear a lot of people don't understand the intent I was talking about above.  This might seem trivial, but it's not; it means there are multitudes of people out there using the trans asterisk for no reason other than they see other people using it and think that's just the way you're supposed to do it.  It had gotten to the point where people were using really weird phrases like "I'm a binary trans* man!," a statement that makes absolutely no fucking sense, because if you're talking about only one person there's no reason to ensure your language is explicitly inclusive anyway.  The meaning winds up being entirely lost, trans* turns into a way to get cookie points rather than a genuinely inclusive term, and you wind up with people using it while also excluding people.

That said, people who talk about how the asterisk has been used to silence and exclude sectors of the trans community may or may not have an inaccurate perception of how it was originally meant to be used, but the fact remains that it's easy to use as a tool of exclusion rather than inclusion, although I would argue it's more likely to be used to cover up exclusion rather than outright facilitate it.  The most common complaint is its use to exclude trans women, although it's probably more accurate to state that it's used to decenter trans women and universalize issues that aren't actually universal among trans people (for instance, talking about "the trans* murder rate" sucks acknowledgement away from the fact that it's really trans women and male-assigned feminine people of color who tip that scale).

"Trans*" is linguistically unnecessary.  There's a perception that we need it because otherwise how will people know we mean transgender and transsexual and nonbinary folk?  That's a silly concern, though, because "transgender" already in its current incarnation includes transsexuals and nonbinary folk anyway.  That is, of course, an addition to the earlier problem where people don't know what it means, so you have a situation where people don't understand that "transgender" and its shorter form "trans" are already inclusive, they add the asterisk to try being inclusive, and people reading it just assume trans* means whatever subgroup of trans the person was writing about, usually binary trans folk.

Speaking of nonbinary people, the asterisk has been used to imply that nonbinary people are a recent addition to the trans community that needs some sort of special nod or they're clearly not welcome.  There have been nonbinary folk referring to themselves as "trans" and being active members in the community long before that, though, I mean look at Kate Bornstein and Leslie Feinberg.  And you know, I guess it would be one thing if it actually helped people be mindful of how inclusive they're being with their language, but again--because it's such an important reason--since people get confused by it, it winds up being used at inappropriate times by people who assume it's just a fancy decoration or something.  It's tiring how many people use trans* when only talking about binary trans folks, or only talking about transmasculine folks, or so on.

On a fun related note, the vegetarian and animal rights communities have a similar problem, because somebody thought it was a bright idea to create the word "veg*n" or "veg*an," meant to mean "vegetarian and vegan" but very often used to mean "VEGAN (but people who eat eggs or milk can tag along because strength and numbers)."  Like trans*, veg*n is both absolutely useless--vegans are just a specialized type of vegetarian, so just saying "vegetarian" would work--and really confusing.  It's really annoying how many people use "veg*n" when they just mean vegans, or say things like "veg*ns don't eat honey!" when the term inherently includes lots and lots of people who eat honey.  That said, veg*n--like trans*--is quite easy to use in a manner that is absolutely not inclusive, but which looks inclusive if you squint hard enough; a handy way of hiding shoddy, undernuanced discourse under a carpet of Internet niceties.  It's like politicians who have repeatedly voted against LGBT rights but who still enshrouded their Facebook and Twitter photos with rainbows after same sex marriage was legalized.  They may not have done shit, but they look like they did if you don't read too far into it.

Which brings me, finally, to my last point:  Internet activism is an incredible force that is changing the world very rapidly and opening this discourse to people who would never have been able to find it without it, and I would never argue that Internet activism is unnecessary, or useless, or lazy.  But when a convention is solely based on the written word, when it's something you can't really pronounce or express when having an oral conversation with somebody, it in its own small way implies that being trans is a product of the Internet that can only be appropriately discussed through text.  And while the Internet trans community is valuable--especially to people who have no way to find other trans people in person--there's so much more to our community than that.  There's more than Twitter and Tumblr, more than anything textual at all, plenty of in-person activism to be done, and unless you're going to say "asterisk" there's no way of translating that discourse properly.

But let's conclude here... again, to reiterate, I don't believe that individual uses of the trans asterisk are inherently exclusive of any specific group of trans people, but there is no reason to use it that isn't contraindicated by the amount of confusion it causes and the shady way it's used.  That's why I don't use it and suggest that other people don't, either.