Disclaimer: many people—including myself—have mixed feelings about using the asterisk, and are torn on the issue of it being created by a cisgender man (Sam Kellerman, who also created the Gender Bread Man, a semi-simplified graphic to help explain how gender is a spectrum). In this piece, I will not be discussing these aspects, nor whether it should or should not be used, or whether or not, or how, it is problematic. I will merely be explaining what it means, how it is used. The debate about use itself is important enough to merit its own article–or two. (I’d love some input as to what you all would like to see discussed in asterisk-related articles and discussions.)
You’ve probably seen transgender abbreviated in two ways: as trans, or as trans*. There’re a lot of people asking “what’s with the asterisk?” Just like the + at the end of ‘LGBTQIA+’ indicates there is more to this alphabet of identities, the asterisk at the end of trans* indicates there is more there. Asterisks are implemented at the end of a word, sentence, or paragraph to show that the word, sentence, or paragraph did not cover all the author had to say, and there will be a footnote that tells the reader more.
Transgender is a catch-all term for a person whose gender identity does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth. That could mean an AMAB (assigned male at birth) woman, an AFAB (assigned female at birth) man, or an AMAB/AFAB individual who identifies with one or more of many, many, genders that fall outside of the men-and-women-only binary. A few of these identities, referred to by their own umbrella term ‘GenderQueer,’ include agender, neutrois, bigender, pangender, and gender fluid.
The asterisk in trans*, then, tells a person that there is more to trans*-ness than just the well-known stuff. For example, when non-Queer folks think of the word ‘transgender,’ people transitioning from one binary gender to another—Male to Female and Female to Male—probably come to mind. In the case of abbreviating ‘transgender’ in reference to binary trans individuals, the appropriate or more acceptable way to do so is to not use the asterisk. For example, when talking about a trans man, one would not phrase it ‘trans* man,’ because ‘man’ is the gender indicator. There is no need for the asterisk in the case of a gender indicator already being in place because the asterisk points to other, lesser known (and/or lesser accepted) genders that also fall under the main umbrella term.
What it really boils down to is a personal preference of use. Not all non-binary individuals apply the term trans to themselves, despite it being considered an umbrella term; likewise, using the asterisk when discussing that umbrella term is a choice. That certainly goes for when deciding whether to use ‘trans’ or ‘trans*’ in reference to yourself. There remains a good amount of debate surrounding usage, whether it is problematic as a whole for Queer communities, etc., and there probably will be for quite some time. Those aside I personally think it’s a great way to begin to integrate the existence of lesser-known genders, and subsequently raise up their existence and the voices of those who embody it.
As depicted in the graphic above, trans* can include transgender, transsexual, transvestite, genderqueer, genderfluid, non-binary, genderf*ck, agender, non-gendered, third gender, two-spirit, bigender, and more.