Jargon evolves quickly in the trans community, or should that be the transgender, gender variant, gender non-conforming, or gender minority, community. What it certainly should not be is the trans* community. Trans* is a term that has been gaining traction within (but not outside) the trans community. It is a well-meaning attempt to bring to attention that the trans community goes beyond just transsexuals and transvestites (who generally prefer to be termed cross-dressers), and includes those identifying outside the gender binary of male and female. It is well-meaning, but wholly misguided, as trans* as a term has been used to promote exclusion (of transsexuals), needs constantly explained to outsiders and insiders, and is both unsearchable on the internet and unpronounceable.
I am someone who is uncomfortable not knowing how something sounds as I read, so how trans* is pronounced is important for me even when it just appears on the printed page (or more normally on the internet). Technically in English, trans* is pronounced trans, as an asterisk does not get vocalised. I first came across trans* at a meeting of TransLondon (a trans discussion group without an asterisk) when I was informed that from now on we must always write trans with as asterisk and pronounce it trans star. On the internet the term appears to be pronounced trans asterisk, although few of those defending its use bother to explain how to pronounce it. In fact, most outsiders will not even try to pronounce it, rather they will look to the bottom of the page for the footnote that they expect the asterisk to point towards.
Trans* is even more of a nightmare to find via an internet search engine. Even when a computer science student explained the origins of the asterisk as a regular expression in text searching, she fails to notice the basic anomaly that renders trans* the very opposite of being geeky. For it to be geeky, it should be something that you can do with technology, but trans* is what probably seemed like a clever idea at the time to non-geeks, but is a technical failure. Trans* may have been inspired by the asterisk used in text searching, but only a non-geek would think of using a regular expression as a new umbrella term for gender variant people. A geek would test it first and discover that it is next to impossible in the era of search engines to search only for a word containing a regular expression. For example, a search for “trans*” on Bing took until the fifth page to return a summary containing the term trans*. Google fared much better returning a title (but not a summary) on the second result of the first page, but nothing else on that first page refers to gender variant people.
Purely at the level of a sensible coining of a term, trans* fails as it is unpronounceable and unsearchable. Those are minor problems compared to the fact that it fails in the most important criteria for an item of jargon; namely that it saves time giving a long explanation. If you enter “trans asterisk” into a search engine you will be given various results along the lines of “several people are asking what the asterisk after trans means.” So this item of jargon is not meeting a very basic criterion, while meeting very well the most negative connotation of jargon – that it reinforces the power of the in-crowd who know all the code words.
Even the well-meaning purpose to trans* has failed, as it has provided a weapon for non-transsexuals to belittle transsexuals with a supposedly inclusive term for a supposedly inclusive movement. These inclusive and exclusionary sides of the term trans* are reflected in a recent online spat around Trans* Pride Brighton. One of the principal organisers of this event was Sarah Savage, a star of the 2011 reality show My Transsexual Summer. She wrote about her successful campaign to get The Argus newspaper to re-edit their online edition to correct the original report on Trans* Pride. One commenter took offence at Savage and the broader Trans Pride Brighton team for (apparently) assuming that trans* meant transsexual. This was because Savage, in talking about the minority status of trans people (the asterisk was omitted at this mention, but probably as a typo), stated that only 20,000 had passed through the NHS system [for gender identity issues]. Not only did Savage not claim that these were the only trans* people, but not all who go through that NHS system identify as transsexual. The commenter was really wanting to have a go at the organisers for claiming that it was the first Trans Pride in Europe (it was the first of a recent development imported from North America), and ignoring Sparkle, a Manchester-based trans event that is unconnected to Pride. The use of the asterisk to score points in a flame war shows how dangerous the term trans* can be in the wrong hands, and how odd that the one group generally happy with an identity beginning trans are the ones to be excluded.
There is great value in having an umbrella term to refer to different gender variant identities that share some common political goals, but there is no value in trans* as a candidate for such a term. Trans suits me fine and if it is not inclusive enough for others then please choose something other than trans* as that term has proved to be a short-term fix for an umbrella that remains broken.
© Mercia McMahon 2013