Explaining the Star by Storm Moon Press
One of the more frequent questions we've heard at Storm Moon Press recently is "Why does Trans* have a star after it?" Well, it's not a typo. Trans* persons self-identify in a number of different ways, and the term "trans*" with the star is meant to be a generic term that encompasses all of them.
Why a star? In computer science, the asterisk or star is frequently used in matching or searching programs as a "wildcard". That is, the symbol represents a match on anything. Trans*, therefore, means "trans followed by anything". In this way, it is a catch-all for words like transgender, transsexual, and transvestite. (It also would match transportation and transcontinental, but context matters, of course. *g*)
So what's the difference? According to ">Wikipedia, transgender is "a general term applied to a variety of individuals, behaviors, and groups involving tendencies to vary from culturally conventional gender roles". However, among trans* persons, activists, and allies, this is not universally agreed upon, which leads to distinctions and confusion and miscommunication. The truth is, the definitions of all the words in this family are fairly recent neologisms, and so the definitions are still in flux. One distinction that is often made is that while transgender persons feel incompatible with their assigned gender, transsexual persons actively seek hormonal or medical means to transition. In this sense, transgenderism refers to a mental and social identity, while transsexualism refers to a physical one. Even this, though, is not a fixed definition.
Adding to the confusion even more are the many others terms often applied to and by persons who lie outside the traditionally-accepted gender binary. Words like "genderqueer", "bigender", "agender", "pangender", and "gender fluid" have overlapping and often conflicting definitions depending on whom you talk to. Using "trans*" is ultimately a shorthand to encompass any "non-cis" gender identity, where "cissexual" has come to refer to persons whose assigned gender, gender identity, and gender expression are all the same and all fall inside the traditional gender-binary. The term recognizes the right of each individual to self-identify as they choose without enforcing a label on them.
What does trans* not refer to? The term trans* refers to matters of gender expression and identity. It does not, however, translate in any way to sexual orientation. Trans* persons can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, pansexual, or any other orientation, and is relative to the trans* person's stated gender identity. Thus, a transman (also called female-to-male transsexual or FtM) who desires women is heterosexual. A transwoman (also called male-to-female transsexual or MtF) who desires women is homosexual.
In that sense, it has been argued that trans* persons do not fit strictly alongside gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, since those terms all refer to sexual orientation and not to gender identity, and this disparity has caused no small amount of tension between trans* persons and the rest of the GLBT community. The more-inclusive acronym QUILTBAG has recently been introduced, which adds queer, intersex, and asexuality to the list and is intended to more accurately represent all persons whose sex, gender, orientation, or identity fall outside traditionally-accepted mainstream values.
The rich diversity among persons who fall outside the "norm" tends to make any set of labels inadequate as time goes on. Terms like "trans*" are an attempt to acknowledge that diversity and respect self-expression while still providing a common language to discuss relevant issues. So, in the spirit of that wildcard symbol, maybe it's time to stop confining ourselves to the rainbow and instead embrace the stars.