Asterisk Not Obelisk

2001 obelisk at sunrise
I’d like to share an interesting example of trans social histories and the subjective nature of “stories” that I participated in a few days ago, after posting something on Facebook.

I came out as trans nearly 5 years ago now, and I joined a big online trans forum (which I ended up as a mod on for a while, until the forum infighting made me run for cover – but that’s another story).

There was a nasty phenomenon going on all of the time that I was there, of (mainly) trans women who’d had, or intended to have, surgery thinking of themselves as the “TrueTrans™” people, and making a distinction between being transsexual (which they thought of as “really trans”) and transgender (which they treated as “the lower classes”).

In response to that hierarchical nonsense, the label trans* (with an asterisk) started being used by people, who meant by it specifically “trans+whatever (-gender, -sexual, whatever, none) is simply trans and simply valid – nobody gets to police anyone else’s identity or labels anyway, but surgery is no yardstick of the validity of someone’s transness.” So having been a part of that movement, I associate trans* with equality as well as inclusivity.

Meanwhile, it turns out that in other trans circles and communities, trans* got coined too, but with several different and competing meanings and intents, all of which were different from the meaning/intent we were using. And now there’s been a strong backlash against using trans*, because for many people it has apparently come to represent the exact opposite of what it meant to us. To those people, it means “trans people are the TrueTrans™ people, and everyone else is merely trans*” – or/and it’s come to mean somehow that the voices of white, entitled transmasculine people are heard at the expense of everyone else (this is what I’m being told, anyway).

So I innocently used the phrase “supporting trans* young people” in a post the other day, and got strafed by someone for whom this is a slur. We sort of discussed the matter, I did some reading up (this, and this, and by way of balance this), and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m no longer going to use I still can’t decide whether I’m going to stop using the asterisk, since though it means something really positive to me and a load of people, there are another load of people out there who feel very disenfranchised by it.

Actually, I’d be very content for trans to become the default term, if it meant we moved on from transgender/transsexual (and that godsawful “transgendered” that people use sometimes) altogether (and all together). Shortening of terms is a good sign of cultural assimilation, according to sociolinguistics.

I’m also fascinated by how each group of us had no idea that trans* meant anything different to other people from what we were used to it meaning, and how easy it is to assume that “my/our story” must be the “true story”.

End of ramble.

Edited to add: An interesting thought just struck me: to those of us with a computing background, the asterisk very much symbolises inclusivity, as it means “anything at all can go here” – whereas for non-computery folk and/or academics, the asterisk perhaps implies “not important enough to include in the main text, but worthy of a footnote”. I’d never even considered the possible differences in asterisk-affect.

The discussion in that fb thread continues, and it’s clear that there are as many people who value the asterisk as there are those who cringe at it. Perhaps it’s time for trans[*] – or for a new word.


Transition through a different lens


I’ve been a bit quiet lately – a mixture of being ill and being reflective and running out of things to say! Anyway, I just spent a lovely weekend in Dublin with some lovely young trans folk, and it got me thinking about some things to do with the way we think about, and talk about, transition. Also in relation to my thinking on Buddhist teachings about the contingent nature of identity, and how easy it is to try to make solid that which is nebulous, and to make “digital” that which is “analogue” and alive and flowing.

[Note: this is mainly about people who identify as trans and are transitioning or thinking about transitioning – I’m aware that not all people who experience gender dysphoria identify as trans or intend to transition. We’ll get to that.]

The first thing that’s on my mind is that I was reminded by someone in Dublin that not everyone who is on hormones is so because they know for sure they want to transition. I realised it’s very easy to slip into trans clichés, and assume that for everyone who goes on hormones, it’s “a huge relief, amazing feeling, at last” etc. etc. No – for some people, going on hormones is an ongoing experiment, an attempt to find out whether the hormones help or not with gender dysphoria. I felt a little ashamed of forgetting (even a little) that people face uncertainty in transition, or about whether to transition, since I stopped being unsure myself.

Spending my weekend largely with trans folk in their 20’s, and having a lot of online interaction lately with teen and young adult trans folk, I was also struck by how different (in broad brushstroke terms) things are for younger and older people transitioning, or wondering whether to transition. For older people, they have a life and an identity pretty solidly formed, which they have to contemplate undoing and recreating anew. For younger people, many of them are still in the process of forming their sense of identity as an adult.

And then there’s the different (but depressingly similar) ways in which “concerned onlookers” can question people’s decision to explore gender transition. If you’re older, you often get the “but you’ve been fine with it up until now” argument. But for younger trans people, I’ve noticed the story coming up over and over that people assume (if you’re not treading the gender-normative line) that if you’re young, you don’t know yourself at all – or certainly not as well as they think they know you. Either way, if you step off the gender-normative path, people around you are falling over themselves to encourage you to doubt yourself, and I think that’s so much harder for young people to deal with.


I’ve also been thinking a lot about how people both outside and within the trans* community constantly talk about transition in terms of the from-one-gender-to-another paradigm that’s so prevalent, and so damned binary.

Transition is such a loaded term. It implies a journey from-one-side-to-the-other, and we’re stuck with this daft misnomer of gender transition (when in fact it’s our physical self that transitions, to become congruent with our unchanging gender). And the inescapable gender-binary language of our culture infuses the language of transition too – FTM, MTF… and the elitist position I keep running across that the “real” transition is the one that involves visible (usually surgical) change from one sex to another.

It’s occurred to me that the way most people (trans or not) seem to think about gender reassignment surgery is the way most people seem to think about penetrative sex – that everything else is “just foreplay”. Humph.

This is bothering me more and more – especially the more I meet people who are trans but not gender-binary (I am somewhat that way myself, but nowhere near the top of the non-binary scale). In response, I’m finding myself thinking about transition more in terms of being a transition from being gender dysphoric to not being so, and leaving out the gender-specific language altogether. This seems the only way to respect the transitions of everyone who identifies as transitioning.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m inclined to think of dysphoria as a symptom, not the condition – I like to describe my condition as Gender Incongruity, and I think of the dysphoria as being equivalent to pain from a broken leg. You should treat the pain, but the cure is to heal the break.

So transition, however that manifests, is about addressing gender incongruity, however that manifests. My point here is that transition shouldn’t demand gender-labelling and any obvious (and expected) traversing of assumed gender-boundaries. We confuse and exclude many trans people when we use that kind of prescriptive language.

And in fact, dysphoria doesn’t even demand “transition” in the narrower sense it’s usually talked about, it just demands doing whatever it takes to address someone’s gender incongruity, so that they no longer experience dysphoria.

But a big part of that is addressing (whether in one’s immediate surroundings, or more globally) the socially-induced incongruity between what a person simply already is, and what society expects them to appear to be, and the limited gender-binary, gender-normative options offered them for acceptability.

We’re partly dysphoric because society tells us we’re somehow wrong. And sadly, you can’t heal all of that on an individual basis.


I want to end this somewhat wordy diatribe by saying this: over the last few months, I’ve had the most amazing, delightful, encouraging, and inspiring interaction with a bunch of young trans and genderqueer people, who in spite of all the above are finding themselves, finding their gender identities among the social rubble. My heart is very warmed by this.


[I have no idea exactly why I chose these images – oh, okay, the top one is meant to express blurriness in gender-definitions, and the bottom one to express glowing/growing out of the dark – that’ll do]

Label babel fable

I’ve just found a cool new non-binary genderqueer forum to play in called Transyada. I’ve been enjoying further wrangles with terminology and identity, and I came up with a (for me) new label this morning, which I’m foisting on you: trandrogyne.

What’s the point of this? Good question. I know.

Well… there was some discussion about a couple of terms I hadn’t really come across before: transfeminine, transmasculine. The general consensus seems to be that these terms are used by trans people who don’t want to describe themselves as women/men, but also don’t want to describe themselves as trans women/trans men – but who identify in some way as more female/male respectively than not. As with any terms, google them and you’ll find (as I just did) a broad probability cloud of definitions, so I’m inevitably doing some people an injustice with this stab at a brief definition.

I’m not comfortable with these terms. Well, there’s no reason why I need to be, since it’s a matter of choice whether I use either of them myself. But there seems to me to be a built-in assumption that femininity/masculinity is inherent in femaleness/maleness. I encounter this often enough, even in the (mostly binary) trans world, to find myself more and more reluctant to want to just call myself a woman or trans woman – because there’s such a strong pull in people towards assuming that being a woman/trans woman means I want to present as feminine.

I quite like having trans in my personal label of choice, since I’m in mid-transition, and it’s a significant aspect of me. I like womandrogyne a great deal as a label, but when I came up with trandrogyne, it too has a very nice fit. The trouble is, I want a label that’s somewhere between the two (and yet still catchy as hell), because I don’t fully identify as either woman or androgyne.

Hmm, let’s see. Transwomandrogyne is pretty much the most accurate, and least catchy, label I could possibly come up with. So, no.

This is the trouble with labels. They’re small, don’t tell you enough about the product, and they either fall off too easily or are hard to get off when you want them to. I wouldn’t want the label transfeminine, because it would leave a sticky residue.

Skipping across metaphors… a label is basically a very short story. Being so short, it has to leave a lot to the imagination.

Once upon a time, there was a person who was born with a body at odds with their genderself. They didn’t fit neatly into the genderslots their world was offering as options, so nobody was sure what to call them, and they were unsure what to call themselves. They longed for a Name of Power that would reveal their true nature to all.

But the Power of Names becomes diluted, as more people hear them. This is the way of things.

Or something. So… The Trandrogyne Womandrogyne hath a ring to it, don’t you think? But its Power is mainly to make people go “huh?”

The point being, I both want and don’t want a distinct identity and a label to go with that. I want the convenience without the stultification. I want the security without the prescription/proscription. I want to know who I am, and say who I am – but I don’t want to fix who I am. I like this paradox, this dilemma, this tension-that-isn’t.

woman, androgyne?
trandrogyne, womandrogyne?
need/don’t need a line…


[the images are the twin states of “Tension Thing” by Judith Fegerl – ceramic sphere, human hair, cables, high voltage generator]

Friable, pliable?

Friable, as with “In Emergency, Break Glass” means easily shattered. As a friend once put it, rigid things crack under pressure.

More on the labels palaver. So… I let go of the labels bigender, androgyne, gender-neutral, etc. etc. – but I’m still holding onto the labels Woman, Dyke.

I want to know who I am, I want others to know who I am, because it’s unsettling for me not to know, and others seem to find it threatening not to know (that’s the only explanation I can find for why someone not knowing whether I’m a man or a woman makes them angry, good grief…)

I’m in mid-transition, I’m in what Tibetan Buddhists like to call a Bardo, an in-between state where the possibility is there to do what Douglas Hofstadter calls JOOTSing – Jumping Out Of The System.

So I’m torn. On the one hand, I’m very attached to having an identity – it gives me security, makes me stand out less (which would be nice), makes me like most other people who don’t feel the need to question themselves. But on the other, not having a fixed sense of self feels very free. After a lifetime of trying really hard (and failing really hard) to pretend to be something I’m not, it would be a shame to set into new concrete when I could be more flexible, more pliable than that.

Part of the reason I suffer with my PTSD is that its defining characteristic is rigidity – something in my neurochemistry that tells me: in anything that resembles that situation, you will always feel this. I’m having this EMDR therapy to try to melt this mechanism. I want a less predictable life. Well, mainly of course, I want to stop being afraid – and being afraid in this way is just another facet of the rigidity, something I currently have no choice over.

This is it – I want to be able to choose. I’d much rather face the responsibility of choosing than remain a bolted-down victim. And of course, I’ve been this way for so long that it’s become a habit (which is shorthand for: it’s part of my identity) – so letting go of it feels on some level like a threat to my self. So be it.

If you can’t remember where you put the keys, a castle is no different from a prison.

Labels, libelulles

I’ve been doing a bit more thinking about labels, in the last couple of days.

Libellule is French for dragonfly, by the way – and seems appropriate here, since like labels, dragonflies flit about unpredictably, and are diaphanous in places (diaphanous is a lovely word) – plus I get to pun on my own earlier title, which makes me wriggle (that’s just sad).

Mainly, I’ve been puzzling over the definition of the label Bigender, and whether it applies to me or not.

Some while ago, feeling a bit isolated on a transgender forum because I couldn’t empathise with what most people on there were experiencing, I found my way to a bigender forum, where there seemed to be more people who were more like me. I introduced myself there, described how I experience myself – as being female but neither masculine nor feminine (or possibly a mixture of both), and folk there seemed to think bigender was an appropriate label for me.

But the more I read from bigender folk, the more it seems that (a) that term is being used to describe a very, very broad range of different identities and experiences (in the same way that bisexual is, to my mind), and (b) most people’s definition of bigender seems to involve an experience of being both male and female, or in non-binary terms, being more than one gender, or more than one person within themselves. So it doesn’t feel to me like that fits me.

Then there’s Androgyne. That ought to be a better fit, but somehow it isn’t. I guess because I experience myself as a woman, though without the classic feminine characteristics – which is how I came up with Womandrogyne as a label for myself.

This is all confusing. I mean, there’s gender, and then there’s gender identity, and then there’s gender presentation. What am I, exactly?

Now there’s a ridiculous question. Why do I feel the need for a me-specific label? Heh, a couple of things come to mind, and the first is that I’m going through a new adolescence, and teens love their labels (as long as it’s them choosing them) :). But then society is not satisfied with not knowing “what you are” either, so maybe I want a label in order to have a badge to show, when people demand to see my gender identity papers?

When it comes down to it, I think this is about me feeling isolated and looking for my “tribe”. And what keeps happening on trans forums, and more recently on this bigender forum (and another genderqueer forum I briefly joined) is that I describe my experience, someone replies with “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean…” and then goes on to relate their experience which is way different from mine. I shouldn’t be surprised – the main thing people have in common is the uniqueness of each of us.

In the end, I realise I’m wasting my time, because I’m trying to define myself using terms from a framework I don’t believe in in the first place. If we didn’t see things so much through the binoculars of Man-Woman, Masculine-Feminine in all its rigidity, most of this labelling would be so unnecessary. It almost seems as though the labels are there to show people what I am not – not male, not masculine, not feminine, not heterosexual.

At one end of the scale, terms like genderqueer are too broad for me – at the other, all the apparently specific terms are not really specific at all, since each of us means something different by them. So here I am, telling folk I’m womandrogyne, I’m a trans tomboy – and still having to explain what I mean when I say that. Which is as it should be, because all this is way too subtle and complex to be summed up in a label.

And when it comes down to it, I’m still emerging from my chrysalis, wings not dry yet, I don’t know what I am yet. All I can say with any certainty is that whatever species I turn out to be, whatever colour I turn out to be, it won’t be pink.