What Does Trans* Mean, and Where Did It Come From?

First published on Slate, January 10, 2014. Read the original here.

It’s widely accepted that computer-mediated communication—emailing, texting, sexting, commenting, chatting, and so on—has changed the way we speak, even when we’re away from the keyboard. But a new label being embraced online by some transgender people may represent a linguistic first: borrowing from computer language itself.

The label in question is trans*, and the asterisk stems from common computing usage wherein it represents a wildcard—any number of other characters attached to the original prefix. Thus, a computer search for trans* might pull uptransmissiontransitory, or transsexual. But in this neologism, the * is used metaphorically to capture all the identities—from drag queen to genderqueer—that fall outside traditional gender norms. (The asterisk usually goes unpronounced in spoken English, though some users do say “trans star” or “trans asterisk” for clarity’s sake.)

“It was about 2009 or 2010 when I started using trans* to describe my own experiences,” says Nash Jones, who works as the Bridge 13 Community Education Program Coordinator at the Q Center, an LGBTQ center in Portland, Ore. Like many of those who embrace the term, Jones is under 30, college-educated, and actively seeks out “queer and trans* spaces.” Jones, who uses “they” as their gender pronoun, says that they use trans* both as a personal label and as “a more inclusive, broader umbrella term than transgender.”

For most of the last two decades, transgender has been the umbrella term of choice, much as trans* is being positioned today. Labels like transmasculine, or transvestite were considered to denote specific identities that fell within its scope. Before that, the most widely used term was usually transsexual, which fell out of favor in part because it focused attention narrowly on physical sex. Today, transsexual is usually used to refer to someone who wants to undergo gender reassignment surgeries (Confused? Here is a handy list of terms from the National Center for Transgender Equality.)

For some, the appeal of trans* might be similar. By removing -gender, which instinctively brings to mind images of men or women, trans* might help transcend the gender binary and provide more space for people who are in the middle, who move back and forth, or who don’t identify with the binary at all.

An historical use of the term gay*, from the 1979 March on Washington.

As transgender gained ascendancy in the 1990s, many lesbian and gay organizations, pressured to present at least a veneer of inclusivity, added it to their names or mission statements. It’s possible that a younger generation turned against the term in part because the spread of the word transgender was often accompanied by little in the way of significant change to include actual trans* people.

Jenny Lederer is a San Francisco State University lecturer in linguistics who studies the metaphors by which people understand gender transition. She likens this falling out of favor to the cognitive linguistic concept of salient exemplars, which are “complex but relatively well-shared societal prototypes attached to any given label.” She suggests that “this younger generation of trans-folks want to disassociate” from the few famous transgender people they’ve seen, because those celebrities don’t seem relevant or similar to their lives. Instead, they’re looking to the Internet to find—or create—words, communities, and celebrities with which they feel comfortable.

There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer to when and where trans* first came into usage. But it seems clear from its roots in computer language, anecdotal research, and the fact that no one agrees on how to say it aloud, that trans* first—and recently—appeared online.

But trans historian Cristan Williams cautions against leaping to any conclusions. “In talking with older trans community members, they tell me that they had used t* as a short code for all things trans back in the early 1980s message boards.” She believes the word may well be gaining popularity as a way of sidestepping an ongoing debate in part of the trans* community about the origins and uses of the terms transsexual and transgender (a longer history of which can be found on Williams’ website).

It may well be that the asterisk has been appearing and disappearing from gayspeak for decades. But why is it suddenly so popular? Jones has a theory: “When communities are no longer limited by physical proximity,” people are more likely to look for words that invoke broad inclusion, out of sheer necessity. As our (virtual) worlds get bigger, so must our language and our salient exemplars. Before the Internet, an isolated trans* person might have used a term that didn’t really fit because it was the only one they’d encountered. Now, a new label is just a click away.

We Can End AIDS Without a Cure

First published in Slate, November 29, 2013. Read the original here.

This Dec. 1, as we mark yet another World AIDS Day without a cure, a vaccine, or an intelligently interdependent global response to the crisis, I’d like to propose a thought experiment based on a radical—yet commonsense—proposition: We can end AIDS without a cure for AIDS.

After all, we have learned ways to prevent transmission between mother and child, discovered drugs that bring the viral load down to undetectable levels, and placed a critical understanding of sexual health in the hands of (some of) those who need it most. With proper funding and political will, these advantages can be replicated in every population, in every country, in every corner of the globe. Incurable is not unbeatable—as we already know from polio and smallpox.

So why haven’t we beaten AIDS? Clearly, it’s not because we don’t need to. In the United States alone, an estimated 1.2 million people are living with HIV. Globally, it’s around 35.3 million people. For one reason or another—because they are black or brown, gay or transgender, drug users or sex workers, and overwhelmingly because they are poor and disenfranchised—the life-or-death needs of these people do not dictate global policy or move world markets. Because AIDS has from its very beginning been a disease of the marginalized, we have allowed it to spread like a weed through the cracks in our society. Inaction, more than transmission, is at issue here. HIV causes AIDS, yes, but the AIDS crisis is caused by stigma, oppression, discrimination, and apathy. The virus is not our biggest enemy—we are.

And here, the thought experiment begins.

Currently, the popular understanding of HIV/AIDS is that it is a disease that affects certain “high-risk groups”: gay men, for instance, or black women. To be sure, rates of infection among these groups are disproportionately high, as any number of depressing statistics show. According to recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 30,000 men who have sex with men (MSMs) contracted HIV in 2010—up a significant 12 percent from 2008. While infection rates among black women seem to have fallen recently, they are still 20 times higher than those of white women. Such strong correlations between racial or sexual identities and infection rates suggest that this model is informative, that it is an accurate way to understand the AIDS crisis.

But these statistics conceal as much as they seem to reveal. In three distinct ways, the “risk group” approach to conceptualizing HIV actually impedes efforts to end the crisis. First, it pathologizes all people within a broad category, regardless of their actual sero-status or real likelihood of contracting HIV. Under this simplistic rubric, all gay men or black women or injection drug users are treated as likely sources of infection.

Second, this approach diminishes our ability to properly understand and target the real vectors for the disease by hiding them inside nearly useless categories. After all, there is nothing inherent to being a black woman that makes one more likely to contract HIV. It is the social position of black womanhood in our society that puts these women at risk, not their identities.

Third, by leading us to believe that these broad groupings have some causal relationship to HIV infection, this model limits our understanding of the crisis to our local context. Because we are actually dealing with correlation, not causation, these groupings do not have the same relationship to HIV in other places. Efforts to work globally—or even in different communities in America—will always be hampered by our own preconceived notions of who is and is not at risk.

But what if we flipped the lens? What if we focused more on marginalization (and its real-world effects) and less on identities? What if we understood AIDS not as a disease affecting certain types of people, but rather, as a disease that affects those living at the intersection of a constellation of conditions, such as poverty, lack of access to education, inadequate health care, stigmatized sexual practices, drug and alcohol abuse (legal or illegal), and political disenfranchisement?

This would not only reduce the stigmatization of identity groups with high rates of HIV infection, it would also allow us to tailor our health remedies to those who really are most at-risk. For example, in a further breakdown of that statistic regarding rates of infection among MSMs, the CDC notes that the numbers of new infections among white and black MSMs were almost identical—despite the fact that non-Latino whites represent 63 percent of the U.S. population and blacks only 12 percent. Additionally, the greatest number of infections was seen in the youngest age group. Again and again, it is those who sit at the intersection of marginalized identities—those with the least social capital and political agency—who are most at risk. We must discard generic categorical bromides in favor of health remedies targeted to their specific needs.

Further, this way of understanding the crisis would turn our attention away from prevention models based solely on behavioral change, which studies have shown are often difficult to enact in real life. Though it is tempting to isolate a single action or inaction that could stem the tide of infection, in truth, we are complex social animals whose behaviors arise from our specific circumstances and experiences. Thus, without broader contextual shifts, our actions tend to be change resistant.

For example, behavioral models routinely admonish young women with little education, no access to health care, and a cultural lack of sexual agency to make difficult decisions in highly sexual situations. In an (oversimplified) metaphor, it’s like telling someone to use a condom every time they have sex—without considering where they will get the condom, who their partners are, how they will negotiate safer sex acts, what the word sex means to them, and so on. A more successful (and, to be blunt, fair) approach would be to ensure that these women are empowered to enter these situations with adequate support, knowledge, and decision-making agency—things marginalized groups often lack. This requires HIV prevention efforts that also work to create political power for marginalized groups; address issues of poverty and social justice; help individuals find or prepare for meaningful employment, housing, and health care; address mental health issues—efforts, in effect, that address a client’s life circumstances as a whole. Many, many on-the-ground service providers already work in this kind of model. But this is a long and slow process, which requires support from an informed populace and a government that sees the vital connection between civil rights, community empowerment, and HIV/AIDS.

By focusing on marginalization, not identity or behavior, we could begin to address the root causes of inequality that leave certain members of our society more at risk for experiencing any negative life or health outcome, AIDS included.

If we can stop AIDS and have chosen not to, the hard truth is that it is because certain lives don’t seem worth saving: They would cost too much, or have brought it upon themselves, or aren’t our concern, or don’t even exist in our worldview. And this is what needs to change. Until we see every life as equal, we will never end AIDS.

The Quest to Build a National LGBT Museum

First published in Slate, October 18, 2013. Read the original here.

Someday, somewhere in Washington, D.C.—perhaps on the National Mall, kitty-corner across Maryland Avenue from the sinuous, sandy-colored Museum of the American Indian, or tucked behind the sprawling complex of the Natural History Museum—there may sit a National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Museum. That might sound surprising, considering that sodomy was illegal in the District until 1993, but Tim Gold, CEO of the Velvet Foundation, is convinced the time is right.


“I’m hoping to see this in the next five years,” he says confidently. That might seem like an ambitious  timeline for an institution with an initial funding goal of $50 mllion to $100 million, but he and his husband, high-end furniture magnate Mitchell Gold, have been quietly working on the museum project since 2007. That’s when they first conceived of the Velvet Foundation as a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to “creating the National LGBT Museum in Washington DC.”

Before 2007, Gold spent most of his professional life working in the Smithsonian at the National Postal Museum, and he credits that experience—in a roundabout way—with generating the idea for the LGBT Museum.

“I thought we could do a great exhibition on James Smithson, who is the benefactor of the Smithsonian Institution,” he recalls. But when he suggested the idea, it didn’t go over well, “because he was British, and he was potentially gay, and that doesn’t really fit into what they wanted to project.”

Yes, you read that right: The founder of the institution that conservatives threatened to defund and destroy over the display of work by queer artist David Wojnarowiczwas quite possibly gay himself, according to Gold’s own research. (Even more intriguingly, a recent Smithson biography, The Stranger and the Statesman, suggests that Smithson’s nephew, who was originally slated to inherit the fortune that funded the Smithsonian, was also gay.) This is a perfect example of the kind of story that Gold hopes the museum will one day tell, stories “of the LGBT communities as a part of—not apart from—the American experience, where the intersections of diverse cultures, shared by diverse people, define us as individuals and as a nation.” And what could be more American than reveling in the fact that the founder of a great American institution was possibly gay and definitely British?

In many ways, the idea of a national LGBT museum is sharply divergent from the general trend of LGBT history organizations. “From the ‘70s to now-ish, it’s been about collecting, preserving, and investing,” says Anna Conlan, a Ph.D. student and adjunct professor of art history at Hunter College, whose master’s thesis at Columbia focused broadly on queer museology. Private individuals and grass-roots organizations such as New York’s Lesbian Herstory Archives, which was founded in 1974, preserved the legacies of LGBT people and communities long before it was possible to even consider an institution on the scale of what the Velvet Foundation is proposing. Over time, these groups “start having museological functions,” Conlan says—curating displays from their collections, hosting speakers, etc. Some even develop into museums of their own, or create museum offshoots, as is the case with New York’s Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, which started as a private collection by Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman, and the San Francisco GLBT History Museum, which was created from the collection of the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society.

Still, making that transition can be hard, as archives and museums serve different, though related functions. Archives tend to be more in-group oriented, with a primary audience that is congruent with their collections focus, while museums target a wider populace. Archival holdings usually involve more paper and fewer objects, and instead of telling stories about history, they allow visitors to discover these stories on their own.

In Conlan’s view, LGBT communities need both long-running, grass-roots organizations focused on historical preservationand newly formed organizations that follow a “more traditional model” of historical presentation. But Conlan’s enthusiasm comes with a caveat—one shared by almost everyone I spoke to: It has to be done right. Or as Gold himself puts it, “It’s like building a cathedral. Once it’s done, you can’t tear it down and say, let’s start over.”

To that end, the Velvet Foundation has embarked upon a long planning process, which included focus groups with a number of sub-communities within the larger LGBT community. Conlan herself participated in one for lesbian- and bisexual-identified women, and two main concerns were captured in the report from the meeting: First, that the primary organizers were all wealthy white men, and that other members of the LGBT community need to be deeply involved in the planning process, not tacked on at the end. And second, that the museum must embrace a broad vision of social justice.

These concerns were echoed by Amy Sueyoshi, the associate dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University and co-curator of the GLBT History Museum. In her view, history is an important part of the psychic armor that allows marginalized people to survive in a difficult and often hostile world. “The way I think about the history of people of color or of queers is to imagine situations that are much worse than the situation I’m living in, which gives me courage and inspires me to keep going,” she says.

She hopes that a national LGBT museum will embrace a wide spectrum of LGBT experiences and identities. “I want it to be very vigilant in its mission so it doesn’t just produce stories about gay white men,” she says, and so that all the stories they tell are layered and complex, not just “histories of heroism.”

As with most things in life, whether the museum is able to pull this off has to do, in part, with where the money comes from. In creating a national institution, Sueyoshi points out, “there’s this tension of ‘how much are we really going to be able to talk about things’ that might offend folks who have power in America. … I want the national museum to not always mount exhibits that will bring in the largest financial audience.”

When asked, Gold talks at length about attempts to ensure staff diversity, and particular stories that the museum hopes to tell that don’t feature gay white men—like the story of civil-rights organizer Bayard Rustin. He is resistant, however, to what he calls “check-box identity politics,” and only time will tell if the museum can adequately address the issues raised by the focus groups. But when it comes to the question of funding, and the strings it can put on an organization, he is of one mind with Conlan and Sueyoshi. “If we go the route of an old-school capital campaign, we would be in danger of leaving out the most marginalized people,” he says. Years of experience and feasibility studies have convinced the Velvet Foundation that raising funds from private individuals is both doomed to fail and likely to leave them unduly influenced by the whims of rich, gay white men.

Instead, the Velvet Foundation plans to utilize a new form of for-profit business called a “benefit LLC,” which is similar to a traditional real-estate company, except that it has a “social benefit” built into its mission. Whereas a traditional LLC is mandated to pursue the highest return for its investors, and its staff can be penalized for behaving otherwise, a benefit LLC has both shareholder return and its social benefit (in this case, securing a home for the National LGBT Museum) as its prime directives. Thus, the creation of Oliver-Grayson Holding Co., which the Velvet Foundation hopes will operate as a successful Class A real-estate company—while simultaneously finding a home for the museum.

In the end, Gold is adamant that this strategy will work—or perhaps it is more accurate to say he is philosophically opposed to pursuing any other strategy. “I would rather not see a museum,” he says, “than see a museum that left out the stories that need to be told the most.”