Social Justice Advocates Handbook: A Guide to Gender Understanding

What does the asterisk in “trans*” stand for?

by Sam Killermann · 87 comments

in Edugraphics

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A few people have asked why I write “trans*” (with the asterisk) instead of just “trans” when referring to trans* folks on my site.  Well, I’m happy to answer that!

Trans* is an umbrella term that refers to all of the identities within the gender identity spectrum.  There’s a ton of diversity there, but we often group them all together (e.g., when we say “trans* issues).  Trans (without the asterisk) is best applied to trans men and trans women, while the asterisk makes special note in an effort to include all non-cisgender gender identities, including transgender, transsexual, transvestite, genderqueer, genderfluid, non-binary, genderfuck, genderless, agender, non-gendered, third gender, two-spirit, bigender, and trans man and trans woman.

The origin behind the asterisk, as I understand it, is a bit computer geeky.  When you add an asterisk to the end of a search term, you’re telling your computer to search for whatever you typed, plus any characters after (e.g., [search term*][extra letters], or trans*[-gender, -queer, -sexual, etc.]).  The idea was to include trans and other identities related to trans, in the most technically awesome way.  I <3 Geekdom.

I created the graphic below to help raise awareness of this so folks can be more inclusive in their writing when referring to trans* people.  Share the original post on Facebook if you pledge to write “trans*” from now on."Trans*" Poster

Written by Sam Killermann

Sam is a writer and performer who uses those skills as an ally to advance progress in the realms of LGBT equality and social justice. He tours the country speaking to college students about stereotypes, prejudice, and oppression, and writes for this site when he's at home in Austin, TX.

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  • Carina

    While I’m down with trans* as a more inclusive and rich expression, the explanation of the asterisk’s original meaning is a misunderstanding of how it applies in computing.  /* tech geek, sex ed geek */

    “The origin behind the asterisk, as I understand it, is a bit computer geeky.  When you add an asterisk to the end of a search term, you’re telling your computer to search for whatever you typed, plus any characters before and after (e.g., [extra letters][search term*][extra letters], or trans*[-gender, -queer, -sexual, etc.]). ”

    The asterisk is used in globbing, for wildcard expansion of zero or more of any characters; it is also used in regular expressions, to match zero or more specified characters.  In either case, it only does so at the asterisk’s specific location in the string of characters. The way you’re using it would be globbing.  In which case, “trans*” expands to “trans” by itself, as well as expanding to trans[any number of other characters which may or may not be letters]” but does not expand to [extra]trans (which would be *?trans) or [extra]trans[extra] (which would be *?trans?*)

    Fun, no?

    Geekery clarification aside, I’d like this ideas of trans*.  Even if it doesn’t literally cover all the gender identities we’d like it too, it makes sufficient intuitive sense and opens up conversation about the complexity and diversity of labels and connotations.  Which is exactly the conversation I do want to be stirring.

    • http://samuelkillermann.com/ Samuel Killermann

      Hahaha – I love it!  Thanks for setting me straight.  I made a [lazy] revision based on your correction.  Is it accurate now?

      • Carina

        Yep!

  • Carina

    By the way, as a programmer, the use of asterisks in the poster initially confused the heck out of me.  ”f*ck” is a censorship indicator rather than anything in tech, the asterisk before “bigender” appears to be a terminology separator rather than related to tech usage, and the rest are very funky use of globbing. “&agender”, for instance, would be a legit expansion of the glob but makes no sense and “non-transgender” would be legit even though that’s clearly not the intent.  So, within a tech geeky context, as an answer to “what is the asterisk for?” the poster is completely wrong.  How framing it instead as “What is trans*” “It’s [list of terms without any asterisks at all].”  Distanced from the distinctive meaning for programmers, that’d keep the substance of your message at the forefront.

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  • Sevan

    Hey Sam! I wanted to share something awesome! (that’s come as a result of this graphic!) Our local support/social group has always used the “trans*” and the people in the group either knew what it meant already, or just accepted it as the name. We meet at the local LGBT center and the broader community didn’t know about the importance of the *. People kept asking me, and while I’m happy to explain it…it does get old to go one person by one person. So this graphic went around our local community (and likely much broader than that!) people started to really “get it”. 

    Our group was honored to receive this year’s “Group Rainbow Award” recently and on the certificate they made sure to add the asterisk! When people were congratulating us on facebook they made sure to add the asterisk. It made me so happy! As a non-binary person it just touched me so much that everyone was sure to add that into our name rather than leaving it off. :)

    • http://samuelkillermann.com/ Samuel Killermann

      :)  Thanks for sharing that story, Sevan.  It seems like this graphic came at an ideal time for a few people, and I’m happy to hear that and happy that I made it.  It’s one of those wonderful coincidences.  It’ll likely be here for a month or two before it gains wide popularity, so it’s good to know that it was helpful in the first few days for a small group as well.

  • Whitexalbum

    The asterisk is entirely pointless, it’s like having a separate definition for Star Trek fans.

    • http://www.facebook.com/elsie.broek Elsie Broek

      Just call us Trekkers, not Trekkies ;)

    • AJ Klein

      It’s not really up to you to determine if something is pointless or not. Either you’re only one member of a huge number of people, or you’re not a member at all. Either way, it’s really arrogant to say something that holds meaning for a lot of people is pointless.

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  • conejo

    thank you! I have been wondering for months!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/monkeyangst Brad Hawkins

    Oh for Pete’s sake! I have been a computer user for over thirty years and should have at least had some inkling that that’s what it might have been. As it is, I have on so many occasions scrolled down to the bottom of blog posts to see what footnote the author is referencing with that fucking asterisk. When there were none, I chalked it up as an error on the editor’s part… then, after it happened a few times, chalked it up to one of those affectations of the social-justice blogosphere that I wasn’t privy to.

    Which I still think it is, but I at least slapped my forehead when I read your explanation. Thirty years of using wildcards daily. Duh.

    • http://samuelkillermann.com/ Samuel Killermann

      Hahaha it’s okay, Brad. I wouldn’t have felt compelled to make the thing if people were getting it already.

      And I can’t hear wildcard without thinking of It’s Always Sunny, which would have made for a much different graphic.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/remyisawesome Remy Yolo Swagington III

    Hi Sam– just wondering, is this a distinction you came up with? (if you did, it’s very astute) If not, what is the source for it? I am doing a research project surrounding trans* identities and am looking for something to site about literally the exact thing you just wrote about.

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  • Nova

    This answers a LOT of questions for me as to the little asterisk, which I’ve seen some of my friends use, but never knew what it stood for. Thanks.

  • donkeyfly69

    There’s nothing more offensive or divisive than that damn asterisk. It promotes the idea that all of those things you listed below don’t fit into the “trans” or “transgender” umbrella. Just because more people need to or choose to transition, doesn’t mean they get a monopoly over the word.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Elliott-Collins/6717591 Elliott Collins

      I think it may be hyperbolic to call the * “the most offensive thing”, but I’m curious for you to elaborate. In any context with as much complexity and ambiguity as gender, it seems natural for definitions to diverge, even among like-minded people. For lack of prior consensus on what the maximally ambiguous umbrella term is, ” Trans* ” strikes me as pretty good. After all, that’s what the asterisk has been for since the dawn of the Unix epoch.

      • donkeyfly69

        It completely discounts the experience of trans people who don’t transition as if we’re an afterthought. We’re already here. We’ve been here. We’re going to continue to be here.

        • http://www.alterpride.org/ Randall Krause

          I agree, I think it is paramount that we take mutual ownership over the existing umbrella instead of coining a new label as a stopgap for our internalized biases. Not all transgender people fit within a nice dichotomy of gender normativity (to suggest otherwise, is almost the antithesis of transgenderism itself!)

          • Timothy David Cruise

            A lot of trans men and trans women are in favour of gender normativity. There is a common argument by transphobic individuals that “it’s okay to be a trans woman, but you’re not a woman”; this is deeply uncomfortable. The idea of not having a gender, being between genders or being third gender can be dysphoric for those who are not agender, genderqueer or third gender but are in fact male or female.

            This is not universal, but a lot of transgender individuals do not want to smash the gender binary, they want to move to the opposite side.

          • http://www.alterpride.org/ Randall Krause

            Yes, but I’ve noticed a common thread amongst certain transwomen that if you’re not transitioning then you aren’t really transgender — usually with regards to AMAB genderqueer identified individuals like myself who are assumed to be nothing more than cismale poseurs attempting to co-opt or otherwise exploit the experiences of transwomen. That type of errant misgendering and wanton invalidation is deeply insulting, not to mention tranpshobic. And it certainly bespeaks the cissexist ideology that one might expect from a TERF (e.g. what it means to be a “real woman” and not a man) that transwomen themselves should be opposed to,

          • donkeyfly69

            Just because one wants to stay within the binary, it doesn’t mean one gets to throw others outside of the binary under the bus.

    • Riley J. Knight

      EXACTLY. As a binary identified female to male transsexual, I take offense at this “monopolizing” or that being binary identified OR transsexual is somehow “perjorative” in the “umbrella” aspect of “we must accept and recognize everything as a big lump” – as if everyone under that “umbrella” experiences the same struggles and issues. Uhhh…NO.

  • James

    I have never heard of the terms, “genderqueer”, “genderfluid”, “agender”, “nongendered”, “third gender”, “two-spirit”, or “bigender”…can someone explain?

    • DragonPie

      gender queer is not conforming to the gender binary. Gender fluid is somebody whose gender changes. Agender is somebody without a gender. Third gender is somebody who has a gender other than masculine or feminine, two spirit is a term for native people who don’t fit the gender binary of their nation or tribe but also don’t operate within a context of the colonial gender system of the US. Bigender is somebody who is two genders.

      • Tobias

        Thank you for this explanation.
        I would just like to comment that perhaps a hyphen could be added to Bigender as when I saw it my mind saw Big ender which made no sense and I had a genuine lightbulb moment when I read this post!

        • L

          I’ll inform the steering committee and we’ll get right on that.

      • DragonPie

        Rereading what I typed before, it occurs to me that I oversimplified “two spirit”. Because not all cultures have a gender binary nor do genders in other cultures necessarily mirror gender expectations in western cultures.

      • Magalie Germain

        because some people are so self-centered/obsessed that they feel the need to invent specifics words to talk about how they feel about their own little self

        • someone you pissed off

          bitchy

        • femme

          maybe there should only be one culture(we all come from the same country) one type of physical challenge (rather then looking at newer ones as medical science learn more about the body) etc. My point, what is wrong with recognizing people for how they identify. Not everyone is white/male and heterosexual so why shouldn’t others be allowed to have it recognized?

          • Sometimes I swear

            Because that would mean having to adopt new language and these privileged fucks just want everyone to identify like they do.

          • L.A. Barrett

            Please clarify what you mean by “privileged”; what type of privilege are you referring to? Also, we adopt new language everyday. Language is pretty fluid and is always changing, otherwise Linguists would get pretty bored. Even if these terms didn’t exist, we would still be adopting new language in other areas and topics so I don’t see how that is a valid argument against using these terms. I’m also confused as to why you say “[they]…just want everyone to identify like they do”. What evidence of this do you have? I have never experienced a trans* person forcing me to assume any self-identification that is similar to their own. I have never known anyone to be told that they have to identify as trans* (more often people who identify differently from the gender binary are told that they must assume either male or female). If you have experienced this, that’s not okay and whoever did that was wrong to do so. However, if you have no basis for that statement, please read more about this topic because you seem misinformed.

          • L.A. Barrett

            Oh no! Disregard my comment, I realized that you were not referring to adopting trans terms D: I’m a dumbass and totally misread that, whoops

          • Kevin Jackson

            Well, are white, male heterosexuals forcing people to identify like them?

          • Kevin Jackson

            Do you think that it is pragmatic or useful in any meaningful way to trip over ourselves to call every individual by a new-age term that is constantly evolving for the sake of wanting to feel special?

      • Ian Henry

        To my understanding, Two-Spirit peoples generally have a pretty well excepted roll within their cultures gender system, that being the two-spirit gender.

        Edit:

        Just saw that you had already corrected yourself on this.

  • SexEduAdvocateNH

    I am a blooming Comprehensive Sexuality Education teacher in New Hampshire and I find this Trans* (with the asterik) is going to be very effective when it comes to teaching gender identity and gender expression to adolescents and teens. I think what you are doing here is AWESOME and I support your mission 100% Keep up the good work and the good laughs!

  • http://www.facebook.com/hyden.seek.7 Hyden Seek

    I know I’m a bit late on this, but the issue has been coming up on Reddit for me lately, and I forget what your Reddit name is; I hate the term trans* because I’m not a footnote. The term transgender is an umbrella term that already encompasses those things. There’s no need to have an asterisk. And besides, in computer terms, “Trans*” would only search words that start with trans, so it’s exclusive to genderqueer, bigender, etcetera people.

    • Ryokhael

      What about Transvestites? They do not identify as the gender they dress as. They simply like dressing that way.

      While I admire the spirit of your comment, I find that you are guilty of excluding all those you don’t find personally relevant. Quite a shame.

      • lordofthegays

        Crossdresser is another term. Many Crossdressers are not trans and they identify as cisgender.

  • Janey Butt

    Sam Killermann, waging a semantic war on behalf of self-obsessed people everywhere.

    • http://samuelkillermann.com/ Samuel Killermann

      Wage love not war.

      • Kevin Jackson

        Does obsessing over terms help trans* people gain any more love and acceptance than they otherwise might? Don’t they want to be looked upon and treated just like everybody else?

        • Queerdo

          I agree about labels. They’re shorthand for much longer and rich stories of a person or a people or peoples. They come with glitchy data, incomplete definitions, columns and tables of what to like or dislike about something or someone; tell us whether or not someone is a something or a someone. Labels in every arena obfuscate the larger purpose, intentions, and true forms of entire organisations of people. Republican, Democrat, Tea Party. Conservative, Libertarian, Liberal, Leftist, Communist, Marxist, Anarcho-Queer. I don’t enter a political discussion where people are using identifying labels without asking them to define what they mean.

          People don’t like not being able to label, Kevin. What are your labels? How do you roll? Have you ever tried to identify to someone without the use of labels? You have to explicitly state that you have no label, especially if you pass for a specific label set, such as white, hetero male. People don’t understand that you can not identify with a label. They barely understand that there are labels in the first place. I tried no labels for two years, and gave it up for the label “queer” which has been, ironically, easier for people to take than nothing at all (though it makes some people uncomfortable). “Queer” still doesn’t get me into all of the trans* communities (including white hetero male *gasp*). Neither did no label at all. Why should it have? I wasn’t standing with them. I wasn’t saying I was one of them. I wasn’t looking for a group to get my back, to support and love me (there’s no fault in finding community the best way you can).

          Have you ever tried to get laid without self-identifying? Are you aware of the ways in which you identify yourself to the world; the ways you signal to the people around you who you are and what you want?

          I identify as “queer” to have better conversations about who I am with other people. Labels are for other people. They’re for belonging. They’re for understanding yourself, and for creating understanding of yourself in others. Judgement and prejudice exist regardless of what you call yourself or who you know yourself to be. How do you perpetuate judgement and prejudice in your life?

          Who are you Kevin? Are you someone who doesn’t bother with labels of any kind? Are you enlightened and evolved beyond the petty sorting of people into categories and little boxes? Or, do you not think about them because you identify with the top of the food chain, and everyone else is beneath you (unconsciously or not), conforming to the cultural standards defined and enforced by you and your brethren? How much thought have you put into these concepts of self identity? Hours? Days? More?

          • lethalenoki

            Life is much too short to spend more than DAYS mulling over ones self identity. This is the definition of self-centered, being so self involved that everything takes a lower priority than figuring out what to call yourself.

            I truly do not label individuals. I do not label people in my head, or in spoken language. I do not understand why people are spending so much brain power on terms that will be extinct in less than a decade. I am generally an LGBTQ ally, but the people who get so obsessive about their specific label are a parody of themselves. The general public is never going to put any effort into learning 50 different labels for gender. Most Americans don’t even know how to name the 7 continents.

            This energy can be better spent elsewhere…

  • Lisa

    Hi Sam, thanks so much for this edugraphic! Now I finally understand :)

  • Utnapishtam

    Doesn’t this get tedious for anyone at some point?

    • Daria Johnson

      Yes, yes it does.

  • Joe Jones

    I still don’t really get it. Language is fluid, why can’t we just redefine trans to mean what trans* means? That literally solves both the problem of perceived exclusivity and the issue of people looking for non-existant footnotes

    • Timothy David Cruise

      Because “language is fluid” and “language can be redefined by a conscious decision” are mutually exclusive statements.

      Trans is often taken to mean trans man or trans woman. Trans* is not. That’s where we have to work from; we can’t just decide something else and then create it ex nihilo.

      • Joe Jones

        Language is fluid means language changes over time. Language can be redefined by a concious decision means we can actively redefine or create words – out of nothing. Those statements make perfect sense next to each other. The only way they would be mutually exclusive is if one said language was fluid and the other implied it wasn’t.

        Secondly, that’s exactly my point, trans very often means trans man or trans woman, so let’s just use it in context to mean everything that trans* means and the asterisk as a letter isn’t necessary

        • Timothy David Cruise

          No, we can’t redefine or actively create words, in the sense where words means things that are uptaken and widely used and become part of language. That’s what “language is fluid” means. For more, I invite you to investigate the practical effects of the french academy, any good text on prescriptive versus descriptive linguistics, or the foreword to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary; conscious and directed change always fails unless it accords with natural or existing usage, which this change does not (by definition), or unless the change is powered by overwhelming social force (as with the Norman introduction of French inflections) which can’t be mustered by the community of trans men and women, let alone the smaller communities who are within the trans* label but outside the gender binary.

          Note: I am studying linguistics at Oxford university. I wasn’t offering a vague opinion.

          Your point misses mine; you’re talking about changing a connotation, which you don’t have the capability or authority to do; even if we were talking about denotational issues, which I described above, you can’t change the way the term is interpreted without sweeping social change; this must precede or accompany the language change, since it must provide the social force, it cannot follow it.

          Trans* exists and means something. Trans exists and means something. This meaning is contained within the interpretations of the community; those interpretations can’t be easily changed, and both terms have currency in broader society giving them even more linguistic inertia. What you’re describing would be a fine way to do things, it’s just not at all possible or practical.

          Finally, there is some value to specific labels, since it’s already hard enough talking about both communities in this post without using these specific words. Firstly, it’s going to make certain conversations and even academic matters easier; secondly, there are some trans* people who are quite against the idea of being included with others. It can be upsetting for a trans woman, say, to be labelled the same as someone who has transitioned to be an agender individual; similarly, it can be quite uncomfortable for a third gender individual to be categorised, even implicitly, as part of the binary.

          I can probably find a few more reasons if I put my mind to it, but these should keep you going for now.

  • MsMave

    I’m genderqueer, and I feel a bit uncomfortable calling myself trans*. Maybe in print, where the star is visible, if it really catches on and people are truly clear on the meaning, but in conversation, not so much. I don’t think people would understand what I was saying. Also, I think it would be disrespectful to those who are truly struggling with deeper transgender issues to coopt that term. Or am I missing something?

    • Z

      Mave, there isn’t anything more deep or less deep about being transgender than being genderqueer. I am also genderqueer. All identities have specific struggles, and all struggles are different. I didn’t identify with the trans* label at first, because I was very disconnected from why I felt genderqueer, and what I wanted to do about it. I think that part of accepting being genderqueer is about recognizing that you DO fall under the trans* spectrum, and DO have things in common with transgendered people. I do agree that it is hard to identify as trans* if people do not know what it means, but that is 1) your right to use whatever language you want to describe yourself and 2) a great way opportunity for educating someone about the meaning. I usually identify as genderqueer and then I might mention that I am part of the trans* community!

    • http://www.alterpride.org/ Randall Krause

      Trans* appeared on the scene a few years ago as an unequivocal umbrella descriptor for the transgender community (which, until recently, commonly disregarded or dismissed genderqueer as an illegitimate transgender identity). It’s probably here to stay, as its usage is becoming more prevalent. How this will affect people’s perceptions of the “transgender” label, and its long and rich history, remains to be seen.

  • Tokum

    You really have no idea how that asterisk works, do you? Despite explaining how it works, you still went on to use it incorrectly.

    • nocalangie

      Thanks to all of you but please do not include post-operative transsexuals as trans*. We are not trans*. We wear our gender each and every day in public, and hopefully can do so without fear. We are a done deal, and not part of the crowd of folks still groping around in the dark about who they are. Show some respect for those that have blazed your trail.

      • E

        don’t be so self-righteous. maybe you “blazed the trail” but you clearly don’t respect us since we are apparently “groping around in the dark”. I know who I am, and many people who fall under this transgender/trans*/whatever umbrella term we decided on as an amorphous mass also know who they are. show some respect for us and we will show some respect for you. then again, neither I nor you can speak on behalf of a whole community, so maybe there are transsexuals who are chill with this label.

      • Timothy David Cruise

        You understand that you just said “gender is all about genitalia and nothing else can possibly matter”?

        That’s… kind of fucked up for a trans person.

  • Victor Raymond

    I think this is a definitely worthwhile perspective on the vast range of meanings attached to “trans*”. But I have to say that something similar is needed for “bisexual” since people mis-define it as ONLY meaning “attracted to two genders” when bisexuals use the term to describe MANY different kinds of attractions, from “attracted to more than one gender” to “attracted to all genders” and also “gender isn’t a part of how I am attracted to people (which goes along with pansexual, but ever there, there are different shades of meaning). If we’re going to recognize diversity of definition in using “trans*” then maybe what we need to do is recognize a similar diversity in all the different forms of non-monosexuality.

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  • anonymous

    this shit is bizarre,
    i hate this world

    also, third gender…

    ahahahahahaha wtf

    • AJ Klein

      Just because it’s something that doesn’t make sense to you doesn’t mean it’s “bizarre”. Try out being sensitive to what other people are most comfortable with in regard to how their referred to for a week. Just a week. You might even survive the experience.

      And yes, third gender. There’s more to the world than you’ve been told your whole life. Don’t worry, you’ll be alright.

  • Dave

    Awesome! Now the world has a way to lump a multitude (over a dozen in your graphic) of different identities into a single, five character word. That will make it so much easier to to treat the non-cisgendered as a homogeneous group with identical concerns and experiences.

  • http://teenagehumanist.blogspot.com/ Michaela R. Brown

    Bam. Called it. :-)

    On a less obnoxious note, I really appreciate the fact that you’ve written this out. It should be very helpful while trying to explain this to someone else…

  • Emma

    This was very helpful! Thank you!

  • femme

    Personally I use greater trans communities rather then trans or trans* since many people, without an informational base knowledge don’t understand that one is speaking about many communities living under one umbrella, rather then typically just thinking of the women and men. Especially when one is speaking ie workshops/trainings.

  • gerton shref

    you also forgot to mention that the * includes transspecies and transethnic.

    • Shekel Jewberg

      Yeah, I was wondering about that.
      If I put on blackface make-up and say that I am trans-ethnic and that the white man is oppressing me, is it no longer racist?

  • Shekel Jewberg

    XX
    XY
    …degenerates

  • The MegaBitch

    Transgender is an umbrella term that refers to all of the identities within the gender identity spectrum… Stop the damn asterisks

  • greygoose

    I really appreciate the discussion. I’m trying to understand how trans* as an umbrella term is different than transgender. I thought that transgender was already an umbrella term. Perhaps it is becoming outdated? Sounds like some people that use the term genderqueer oppose being identified as transgender. Is this because transgender does not include the spectrum between male/female??

    Also, excuse me for my naivety, but would a female that is “butch” see herself as part of the trans* category because she identifies as more masculine than her assigned gender? Or do most butch lesbians still consider themselves female, but a more masculine type of female?

  • Nick

    I am a trans* male and I have been told that using the transgendered asterisk is actually offensive? This is all over tumblr, and people there have blatantly attacking cisgendered individuals (most of them who are innocent bloggers) for being cis. Now, I don’t know how to stop this, or educate people in saying that “HATE IN GENERAL IS WRONG. ADDING FUEL TO THE FLAME WILL NOT HELP. LOOK AT MLK JR FOR EXAMPLES.” Because all they do is attack me and call me a fake trans* person (which in itself is offensive and transphobic).

  • Donna Samar

    Transterisk!