Gender Isn’t Ternary Either

Remember “trans*”?

As I remember it, a 2015 article from Trans Student Educational Resources is what killed it once and for all:

The asterisk originated from search Boolean, where trans* would search for any words starting with trans (transgender, transsexual, etc). The asterisk is useless as a way of attempting to be more inclusive because trans already included all trans people.

The article goes on to summarize how subtly transmisogynistic queers on Tumblr incorporated “trans*” into their subtle transmisogyny. It concludes:

The call-out culture prevalent online is something that does solidly contribute to the oppression of some of the most marginalized members of our community by privileging access to the most up-to-date theoretical work around what it means to be trans over actual trans experiences.

In the end, we decided to stop our use of the asterisk because of how unnecessary and inaccessible it is and its common application as a tool of binarism and silencing trans women. We encourage you to do the same.

The most useful part of this piece is the point that privileging new terminology introduced by “the most up-to-date theoretical work around what it means to be trans”, tends to obfuscate white middle class liberals’ underlying oppressive beliefs (which don’t change as quickly as the language), while also giving them cultural leverage to talk down to the very people they’re supposedly trying to include.

Unfortunately, TSER’s position as a high-profile nonprofit has made it virtually inevitable that their proclamations around discourse get coopted in the same way. They attempt to mitigate this in the article by reverting to the previously more widely used term instead of introducing more new discourse. However, the history (or more accurately, lack of history) presented in this and other mainstream discussions of what “trans” means, implicitly solidify a different kind of exclusion.

Etymology of Trans(gender)

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that the primary reason for the asterisk was originally to encompass both “transgender” and “transsexual”. The TSER article presents “trans*” as having been an attempt to explicitly include nonbinary trans people, which is partly true. But this obscures the the important history around who else was included in “transgender” but not “transsexual”. “Transgender” had been in use as an umbrella term throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and even into the 2000s. Wikipedia summarizes:

By 1984, the concept of a “transgender community” had developed, in which transgender was used as an umbrella term.[25] In 1985, Richard Elkins established the “Trans-Gender Archive” at the University of Ulster.[22] By 1992, the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy defined transgender as an expansive umbrella term including “transsexuals, transgenderists, cross dressers”, and anyone transitioning.[26]Leslie Feinberg‘s pamphlet, “Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time has Come”, circulated in 1992, identified transgender as a term to unify all forms of gender nonconformity; in this way transgender has become synonymous with queer.[27]

When “transsexual” was an up-to-date part of the lexicon, it referred to binary trans men and women who had undergone or wanted to undergo medical transitions, especially surgery but including hormone therapy. “Transgender” was touted as a more general term that also included identities that we now call “nonbinary”, and then some. Jack Halberstam summarized in 1998:

But there is possibly another group in this standoff who maintain the utility of queer definition without privileging either side of the gay/lesbian versus transsexual divide. This group may be identified as transgender or gender-queer. […. T]ransgender variability produces an almost fractal model of cross-gender identifications that can never return to the binary models of before and after, or transsexual and nontranssexual, or butch and FTM

For most of the 50-year history of the word “transgender”, it was contrasted with “transsexual” and “non-transsexual”. In contrast, the word “cisgender” was first seen in 1994, as a derivative of “cissexual” which was first used in 1991. It did not come into widespread use until this past decade.

Update: Since writing this, I’ve discovered Julia Serano’s writings on this topic. Serano is a trans woman and one of the people who gets credit for popularizing “cis discourse”. In a 2014 reflection, she confirms,

Transgender was a broadly defined umbrella term intended to be inclusive of all people who defy societal gender norms. This includes many of us who nowadays identify as “trans” for one reason or another, but it was also meant to potentially include other people who are unconventionally gendered in some way.[1] This open-ended definition allowed a panoply of individuals to claim a spot under the transgender umbrella if they chose to do so.

Closing the Transgender Umbrella

We’ve since collapsed what used to be called “transsexual” into “transgender”, largely as a result of the work of queer theorists. But somewhere along the way, another collapsing of definitions seems to have occurred. Returning to the TSER piece on “trans*”:

The history of the asterisk is not well known. […] Another historical misattribution present online is the asterisk being created to include cisgender drag queens and other gender nonconforming cisgender people. This is incorrect and no version of “trans” should include cisgender people, with or without the asterisk.

We may not know much about the origin of the asterisk per se. But where TSER’s rendition goes afoul of history, is in the assertion that “other gender nonconforming cisgender people” have always been excluded from the asterisk. That said, it’s certainly true that some subsets of the trans community have been making similar arguments about who “trans” should and should not include for a long time. One binary trans man, Henry Rubin, wrote in 1996,

Although it is often assumed that ‘transgender’ is an umbrella term that refers to cross-dressers, drag queens, butch dykes, gender blenders, and transsexuals, among others, there is a tension between transsexual and transgenders.

Just as “transgender” subsumed “transsexual”, “cisgender” is the word that caught on, not the slightly older “cissexual”. Applying this retroactively, however, is dubious. To Henry Rubin, at least in the 90s, people like Halberstam were precisely those gender nonconforming cis(sexual) people who should not be included under trans(sexual).

Who else gets left out in the rain when we close the transgender umbrella? To give just a few examples,

  • Leslie Feinberg‘s 1997 book Transgender Warriors looks at all kinds of “people who crossed the cultural boundaries of gender”, “from the Black and Latina drag queens who led the Stonewall Rebellion to transsexual parents today.”
  • Feinberg hirself identified as “an anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist”. Hir personal homepage, now by hir/her widow, refers to hir/her as she/ze throughout. In 2006 she/ze was quoted as saying “I am a butch lesbian, a transgender lesbian“.
  • Jack Halberstam, contrary to popular belief, is not a binary trans man. “I have debated switching out Jack for Jude to try to compress the name ambiguity into a more clear opposition between Judith and Jude. But then again–and contrary to my personality or my politics–when it comes to names and pronouns, I am a bit of a free floater. […] I prefer not to transition. I prefer not to clarify what must categorically remain murky. […] consider my gender improvised at best, uncertain and mispronounced more often than not, irresolvable and ever shifting.”

It is anachronistic at best to apply the label “cisgender” retroactively to people who were historically considered (or self-identified as) transgender. It is equally problematic to call them “transgender” but only at the expense of their other identities. When our present-day ternary is applied in full, and every queer in history branded neatly as either “cis” or “trans”, it becomes violent: When we erase the self-identities of historical gender deviants, we not only misgender them, but we deprive each other of access to complex histories that cisheteropatriarchy has already worked hard to erase.

From Binary to Ternary

Today, within the queer/trans community, we have no shortage of genders. But to the outside world, the frontier of trans inclusivity is all about pronouns. And as far as Facebook and the rest of the world are concerned, that means there are now three genders: she/her, he/him, and they/them.

In resolving Nonbinary-They-Them into a stable gender identity, the cishet world presents us with a ternary instead of a binary. Although the category of “trans” has expanded some from the old category of “transsexual” – it now includes people who change pronouns but don’t seek medical transition – “trans” has also become considerably more restrictive than the old category of “transgender”. In some sense, changing pronouns has replaced surgery as the defining experience of what it means to be trans.

Binary trans people who seek medical transitiontranssexualtransgender and transsexualtrans (binary)
Nonbinary trans people who seek medical transitiontranssexual and transgendertransgender and transsexualtrans (nonbinary)
Binary trans people who don’t seek medical transitiontransgendertransgender and cissexualtrans (binary)
Nonbinary people who don’t seek medical transition but do change pronounstransgendertransgender and cissexualtrans (nonbinary)
Nonbinary people who neither seek medical transition nor change pronounstransgendertransgender and cissexualcis
AFAB she/her butchestransgendertransgender and cissexualcis
AMAB he/him drag queenstransgendertransgender and cissexualcis
Feminine AFAB lesbian womennot transcisgender and cissexualcis
Masculine AMAB gay mennot transcisgender and cissexualcis

Just as changing pronouns has become the new barometer for trans-enough, so “cis” has come to play a similar discursive role as “non-transsexual” once did in discourse around gender dysphoria. Just as people seeking medical transition have distinct needs that are important to fight for collectively, so it is also important to collectively fight for those of us who undergo a transition of pronouns. But for better or for worse, we have definitively made “transgender” less inclusive, not more.

Between a Stone and a Hard Place

Jack Halberstam is most famous for his 1998 book “Female Masculinity”. (Note: there is good reason to think he is including trans women under female. Or at least that’s how I’m interpreting and intending it here). His argument “asks only that we recognize the nonmale and nonfemale genders already in circulation and presently under construction” – specifically, butch lesbian genders:

within certain brands of lesbian masculinity, the effects of gender dysphoria produce new and fully functional masculinities, masculinities, moreover, that thrive on the disjuncture between femaleness and masculinity.

[…] it is important to acknowledge that historically within what we have called lesbianism, masculinity has played an important role. Masculinity often defines the stereotypical version of lesbianism (“the mythic mannish lesbian,” to use Esther Newton’s term); the bull dyke, indeed, has made lesbianism visible and legible as some kind of confluence of gender disturbance and sexual orientation. Because masculinity has seemed to play an important and even a crucial role in some lesbian self-definition, we have a word for lesbian masculinity: butch. […]

The stone butch, as I will argue, is a dyke body placed somewhere on the boundary between female masculinity and trans gender subjectivity and seems to provoke unwarranted outrage not only from a gender-conformist society that cannot comprehend stone butch gender or stone butch desire but also from within the dyke subculture, where the stone butch tends to be read as frigid, dysphoric, misogynist, repressed, or simply pretranssexual. […] The stone butch occupied, and continues to occupy, a crucial position in lesbian culture, and despite numerous attempts by lesbian feminists and others to disavow her existence, indeed her persistence, the stone butch remains central to any and all attempts to theorize sexual identity and its relations to gender variation.


Language evolves – clearly. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s not all about which collection of syllables or letters we use. But discourse does matter – otherwise we wouldn’t care about pronouns. The stabilization of a Nonbinary-They-Them gender has been sufficient for a lot of butches. The revival of “femme” as a not-lesbian-specific broadly inclusive identity, in combination with Nonbinary-They-Them, has similarly provided many dykes with with a framework for naming their genders and experiences of oppression.

But the butch whose gender “thrive[s] on the disjuncture between femaleness and masculinity” (Halberstam), who declares that “referring to me as she/her is appropriate” in settings where different pronouns “would appear to resolve the social contradiction between my birth sex and gender expression and render my transgender expression invisible” (Feinberg), is specifically left out of this new taxonomy.

Now What?

The meaning of trans has changed and if AFAB she/her butches ever were included in it, we aren’t anymore. But we do not experience cis privilege in the sense that feminine cis women do, and we do not experience “masculine privilege” in the sense that men do. We experience misogyny – from the world at large as well as in our own chosen communities. If AFAB butch women are cis, and can’t call what we experience “transphobia”, we need some alternative way to name our unique oppressions.

Preliminary data from my highly unscientific Facebook polls currently favor “nonbinary and cis are mutually exclusive”, 9 to 3 overall and 4 to 1 among trans respondents. Responses to “does cis mean not-trans or does trans mean not-cis?” were a 50-50 split, both overall and among trans respondents, with several comments expressing confusion at what the difference was between the two answers.

Even if butch woman doesn’t fall under the capitalized Nonbinary-They-Them gender, butch is not and has never been a binary gender. We should be able to call ourselves nonbinary women. But in our current climate, with butch women increasingly entering into unholy alignments with TERFs, it does not make sense to try to say that AFAB butch women are trans. That ship has sailed. This means one of two discursive shifts need to occur:

  1. It needs to be possible to be both nonbinary and cis, or
  2. It needs to be possible to be neither cis nor trans

The first option doesn’t mean nonbinary ceases to be trans. It would mean some nonbinary people are trans and some are cis. This seems reasonably unobtrusive to me. If people complain that talking about “trans and nonbinary folks” is redundant, you’re welcome to cite me as an example of someone who’s nonbinary and not trans, who also doesn’t want to undermine the transness of nonbinary trans folks.

I prefer the second possibility, personally. For me, “trans*” accomplished that – I think there is a place for trans* to remain in use and trans to refer to a subset of trans*. Another option would be to start applying the asterisk to cis, in a similar throwback to a previous usage: maybe AFAB butches are cis* (because we would have been considered “cissexual”) but not cis. Or, we can promote and normalize either inclusion under “transgender” the umbrella (but not “trans” the more common shorthand), or push for broader usage of “trans and gender nonconforming” (TGNC), or “trans and nonbinary”. Like “women and femmes“, “trans and nonbinary” seems like a logical, historically grounded, and inclusive candidate for an umbrella term.

In any case, like Halberstam, I “refuse[] to invest in the notion of some fundamental antagonism between lesbian and FTM subjectivities”. Trans women are women, trans men are men, and trans enbies are enbies. Enbies who are lesbians are lesbians, enbies who are not lesbians, are not lesbians. There’s got to be enough room in LGBTQ+ for all of us.

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