Yaaaaay! You're here! Thank you so much for choosing this adventure to learn a little bit more about what being trans means. (We're playing a game of Choose Your Own Undies Adventure... Head here for the skinny.)
Disclaimer: I am not trans, and I'm definitely not as smart as a lot of people. But I have a couple of trans friends and even more trans acquaintances and I've done a fair amount of reading on the subject, attended a support group for trans folks and allies, and done some advocacy work too. And my goal here is just to share reliable resources that are more informed than me, rather than to be an expert.
Someone might identify as transgender if their gender identity is different from the one they were thought to be born with (which is usually based on sex characteristics like genitalia). Basically all it means is that someone can have a penis and still be a woman, or have a vagina and still be a man. Or have any kind of genitalia and not identify with the label "man" or "woman." Turns out the binary system of gender we've been socialized to our entire lives (the one that relies completely on conflating gender with anatomical sex characteristics) is not nearly dynamic enough. It's way more exciting than just pale pink and blue, girls and boys. And while most trans people still identify with the gender binary (being either a man or a woman), not all do.
Here's a short video explaining even better from the National Center for Transgender Equality. They introduce lots of vocabulary and trans folks (they're just normal people too!). But heads up: there is brief discussion of trans people and suicide and violence towards trans folks.
If you have 20 minutes, there's another really great video from The Center in New York here. It breaks down sex, gender, sexual orientation, and shows how gender isn't and can't just be a binary system. Plus, Laverne Cox from Orange is the New Black is in it... :)
I think this point is super important: we've been so socialized into this gender binary, that people sometimes automatically assume that a trans person will transition using hormones and maybe surgery (surgeries) with the eventual goal of "passing." ("Passing" is the idea that you can't tell someone is trans because they so look/act like society's expectations of their gender identity.) That might be some people's paths, which is great, but to expect that everyone should want to "pass" is another sticky misogynistic wicket. For more on that check out this article from The Transadvocate.
Some trans people might not want to "pass." Others might not be privileged enough (whether it's because of money or genetics or any number of reasons) to ever pass. And some people might not be female-to-male or male-to-female trans, living completely outside the gender binary. And all of those things are ok.
Don't ask them about their genitalia or other sex organs. Just don't. When was the last time someone who wasn't your doctor or who you weren't in an intimate relationship with asked you about yours? Exactly. It's none of your business.
Do think about how you can be respectful, and know that trans people aren't there to quench your curiosity or necessarily educate you (that can be a lot of pressure when life is already hard enough as part of a marginalized population). There are tons of amazing resources (lots listed here in this article) if you have questions. It's always a good idea to try to educate yourself and other trans allies!
A good rule of thumb is, "In this setting, would I be comfortable if someone asked me this question?" If not, steer clear. And while the Golden Rule can be your guide in some ways, in other ways, our cis (not trans) privilege might make a seemingly innocuous question less comfortable for a trans person. "What was your childhood like?" and ,"Do you have family nearby, or are you close to your family?" seem not loaded but could be very complicated and full of woe for some trans folks. Just a heads up.
Transgender people may not be "out" to everyone in their life. It is their right to choose when/who to out themselves to.
Avoid making compliments that are centered around stereotypical gender norms (like how "real" men and women are supposed to be and act): "You look so great! I would have never known you are transgender." "I'd date him even though he's trans." "You'd look more like a guy if you X, Y, Z." "You'd look more like a girl if you X, Y, Z."
The National Center for Transgender Equality has a lot of other great suggestions here.
If you see someone you suspect is trans in a public bathroom, let them pee in peace, like you would anyone else in the bathroom. That's all they want to do. Trust me, their lives are likely regularly in far more danger than yours. Here's just one story. What struck me is, there's a stat in the article (though without a source) that the average life expectancy for a trans woman of color in the United States is 35. 35. Here's another story digging deeper into that stat..
[Update: with the help of an amazing reader, here's the link to the report where that speculative stat is supposed to have originated. The reader says, "For the record, I find that life-expectancy number speculative and unhelpful (as did the TWOC writer Trav Pittman on the Huff Post). What's clear from the study is that almost 50 percent of the recorded murder victims were TWOC, while they are estimated to make up only 2 percent of the population. And regardless of race, gay men and trans women made up most of the victims. I appreciated Pittman's questions about male insecurity and machismo that follow from this info."]
And here's a fact sheet from the Anti-Violence Project about how rates of homicide, police brutality, and domestic violence are all higher for transgender folks than for the rest of the population.
Here's a great guide from the National Center for Transgender Equality specifically about the bathroom issue.
Look for cues about how the transgender person refers to themself. If they mention pronouns, use those ones. Feel free to ask, but also offer up your pronouns (making assumptions, or expecting people to make the correct assumptions about your pronouns is another sticky wicket...). “Hi, I’m Kori and I use she/her/hers as my pronouns. How about you?”
It's safest to ask, apologize if you get it wrong, and move on quickly so you don't draw more attention to the gaffe. As you can imagine, it's disrespectful to misgender someone, and in some cases, it could even put the person you're referring to in danger.
And if you're a "grammar stickler" it's time to get over it. Even the Washington Post uses "they" as a singular (the NY Times isn't there. Yet.). Here's evidence of historical precedence of "they" as a singular.
And here are some pronouns you may never have even heard of.
Trans people experience unique difficulties because we've set up a system that has a lot of assumptions about gender being binary.
Here's a short, in no way comprehensive, list of ways that trans lives are harder than yours:
Even in the LGBT community, trans folks may face discrimination. Because sexual orientation (LG & B) differs from gender identity (T) (which you now understand!), there can be "red-headed step-child syndrome" with apologies to all actual red-headed step-children. Transgender causes receive lower levels of foundation giving in the nonprofit community (source), and I've heard stories that transgender causes may even be used as bargaining chips in negotiations. "We'll go to the table asking for rights for everyone, and when we get push back, we'll concede rights for transgender folks."
For a comprehensive report of all the kinds of discrimination trans folks encounter, check out Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (executive summary here), put out by the National LGBTQ TaskForce.
So what can you do, apart from being respectful and supportive in any day-to-day interactions you might have with trans folks?
I'm so glad you asked!