about that asterisk / some trans women’s history

so i’ve been wanting to write something about the damn asterisk – the one in trans* – for a while now, and now i’m finally getting around to it despite a touch of flu. i suspect no one wants to read as much as i’ve got to say, so here’s a slightly passive-aggressive summary to encourage (?) that…


the asterisk in trans* was invented by (folks who now get called) trans women. specifically, by geeky trans women, as a tool in fights against assimilationist/One True Path trans women. you can like the * or hate the *, but it’s trans women’s term, and trans women’s history. trans women who hate it need to deal with that. folks who aren’t trans women and want to use it need to take that into account.

i’m gonna comb out my long grey curls and give you the full version now. this is based on my experience in the mid-90s, and backed up by the research i’ve just started reading which david valentine did on the history of ‘transgender’ as a term and concept (Imagining Transgender, 2007).

a way back when i got on this roller coaster, and shortly after i got internet access in 1995, i spent time on alt.transgendered. remember usenet? nevermind. and a bit of time on soc.support.transgender, but what i was looking for were ways of thinking, not technical transition tips, so i was in that group much less.

i, and other folks on alt.transgendered, spent a fair amount of time in intense ideological debate.

bear in mind: there were almost no female-assigned folks in this space. these were arguments happening among folks who would now get defined under the umbrella of “trans women”, and basically no one else. when it was necessary (mainly for political reasons), we’d distinguish between “MTF”/“M2F” and “FtM”/“FtM” – but it was rarely a practical need. this is a deep difference between alt.transgendered and other newsgroups of that era and later spaces of online trans women’s organizing, like strap-on.org, which brought together trans women, trans men, and other trans gender non-conforming folks.

it’s also worth mentioning that i assume this was a very white group – at least among folks who posted. i don’t recall many folks mentioning their race; i’ve met few regulars face to face. but i’d hazard a guess that it was a less white group than most of the mid-90s internet, but not by much. and there was certainly not any assumption of even the most minimal race analysis, politically (more so on class, at least about access to, but not much farther than “it’s harder to be poor”).

at any rate: the deepest divide in the debates on the newsgroup was partly a matter of politics, but deeply connected to specific identity positions and specific relationships to them. and that’s where the * came in. to explain that, i have to go into a bit of terminological detail, because almost none of the terms we used then still carry the same meaning. there were understood to be three basic categories of folks on alt.transgendered, labeled as:

“ts” – abbreviating “transsexual”, “transexual”, and “trans-sexual”. “ts” folks were further broken down into “pre-op”, “post-op”, and once in a while “non-op” – mainly defined in relation to “bottom surgery” / “SRS”, but with an assumption of a medicalized hormones-then-surgery transition track. “ts” folks were assumed to be identified as women, gender-normative in presentation, most likely sexually interested in (implicitly cis) men, and on a trajectory that focused on definite moment of transition.

“tv” or “cd” – abbreviating “transvestite” or “cross-dresser”. “tv” folks were assumed to be male-identified and primarily living as men, probably sexually interested in women (potentially including ts folks and other tv folks), and not on a transition-centered trajectory.

“tg” – abbreviating “transgender”, “transgendered”, and (rarely) “trans-gender”/“-ed”. this was the catch-all category, first of all. i’d describe the assumptions/assertions about those of us who used it as: folks who don’t present in a gender-normative way in their everyday life (or in a lot of the social spaces we move through), but who aren’t interested in medicalized transition or don’t consider it central to their identity. which was a mixed bag, to say the least: folks under it were talked about as also identifying as drag queens, folks resisting being called ‘non-op ts’, third-gender positions of various kinds, genderqueer, and other things.

“tg” also was where “FTM” folks (and drag kings and other female-assigned folks) got included, when they got included (…y’know, there’s no ‘bottom surgery’ that isn’t awful, so there’s no sense saying “pre-” or “post-op”, and that means they might not really be ts, after all…).

other terms were also in circulation – “new woman”, apparently, among others – but i don’t recall them getting much use. and certainly not enough for an abbreviation.

so: the major debate on alt.transgendered that underlay almost everything else was about whether and to what extent these three main identity groups could come under one political umbrella. more on that at the bottom, but let’s stick to terminology for one moment more.

the territory that battle was fought on was the word “transgender”. could it be a term encompassing ts, tv, and tg folks – and both “MtF” and “FtM” folks, even – on the basis of shared relations to traditional gender roles and compulsory infant gender-assignment?

but to even have that conversation, we needed a way to distinguish between “tg” as a specific sub-category and “transgender” as an umbrella.

luckily, trans women are often geeks. and in the mid-90s that meant programmers, more definitively than it does now. so if you need an umbrella term for a set of three abbreviations that all start with “t”, followed by an arbitrary string, the answer is obvious:


that’s where the damn asterisk came from. though, really, back then i’m pretty sure i’d’ve said “t-star” is anyone had asked.

not everyone in that conversation used it, but if my memory serves – i’m a bit flu-y right now and not gonna dig through the 1990s alt.transgendered archive (shudder) – it was used by folks on both sides of that argument, because we needed a common language.

the main camps, as i recall it, were:

one, centered on “ts” folks who fit the above-mentioned assumptions best, who were actively hostile to the very idea of sharing anything with folks different from themselves – in particular sharing an identity with folks who might want to be visible as something other than a normative-presenting, straight, cis woman.

and one, far less homogenous, anchored by “tg” folks of various kinds, as well as “ts” folks with wider political visions. those folks were the first people i remember describing themselves as trans by choice, as trans dykes, as “non-op”, and generally as many things that don’t fall cleanly into the category of “transsexual”.

overall, i don’t recall a lot of participation in this stuff from the “tv” side. i think everyone was pretty hostile to them in ways that would’ve made it tough, and (to the extent that our assumptions about them were right) it mattered less to their everyday lives.

as i see it now – and i’m excited to read the rest of david valentine’s book, and argue with it and agree with it and both, in the ways that happen when someone does fieldwork in your life – this specific moment set up a lot of our current political language and ideas about trans politics.

his story is about the successful creation of “transgender” as a mainstreamed umbrella category – and about where it fails. which, unsurprisingly, is mainly in relation to the folks the “ts” folks were trying to distance themselves from, and the folks us on the “tg” side were trying to act in solidarity with. folks we now tend to label as “trans women of color”, some of whom use that term and some of whom don’t. which is to say: the specific folks who were the reason for the *.

and i believe that line from “t*” and “transgender”-as-umbrella, through “woman of trans experience”, “originally male-assigned trans and gender-variant/gender-non-conforming folks” to “trans”-as-umbrella, is politically crucial. it links those of us who use “trans women” in an expansive, political sense back, through the folks who reinvented trans politics in the 1990s (love them or hate them), to the first very public organization to try to use an umbrella term for all of us: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.

which was not called “transsexual” for a reason.

which i assume had to do with its founders, sylvia rivera, marsha p. johnson, and their comrades knowing that term had already been colonized in a class- and race-based way that excluded many trans women (in the broad sense). and while they used a range of terms about themselves (“transvestite”, “drag queen”, “gay”, and others) through many years of shifting terminology, when STAR was refounded in the 00s sylvia rivera used the umbrella term that had emerged: “Transgender”. i doubt anyone asked her whether she had considered “T*” – she’d probably have been cranky to be asked. and the term had come and gone by then, doing some useful work along the way.

and STAR already had the star in it, anyway.

and now soup and sleep for me.

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