This section will be written as a couple of short paragraphs, introducing the idea of transgender and/or transsexuality to those who are completely new to the concept. It is about as basic as I can make it. Read on!
Let's start off, simply, at birth. Please bear with me; I'm approaching the point a little slowly, to make sure that I'm being clear.
When a baby is born with a penis and testicles, as well as other characteristics traditionally deemed to be "male," people consider it to be a boy baby. When a baby is born with a vulva (and XX chromosomes, and a uterus, etc.) it is deemed to be a girl baby.
Usually, nobody gives this a second thought. We tend to consider it a pretty easy distinction to make. But it isn't so easy.
There are a couple of ways that this model can become inaccurate. The first one is pretty simple, and not too relevant to this website: I'll describe it only briefly. This type of variance, this variation in sex development, is called intersexuality. Intersex people's bodies are not medically assignable as either 100% male or 100% female. They just aren't. That's the way they've grown in utero.
On the other hand, many more people have bodies that are, according to the standards of the current medical establishment, definitively either male or female. When a baby has a male-assigned body, as he grows up, he is typically comfortable in a male identity: he considers himself a man and only a man, as "indicated" by the presence of a penis, and by the pubertal characteristics that he acquires as he grows older.
Sometimes, however, people don't follow that pattern of growth. It's not that they're intersex. It's their brains that are unusual, not the structure of their genitals (or the arrangement of their chromosomes, or the quantity of their hormones).
For the sake of simplicity, let's keep on talking about people with male-assigned bodies; however, imagine that I'm saying this about female-assigned people also, but reversing the gendered words. Make sense? I hope so.
So. Some people are said to be boys as babies. They were born with bodies that are almost always typical of men, down to the genitals and chromosomes. But they are never quite comfortable in a man's role. It's not just that they're "feminine men"; they do not consider themselves to be any kind of man, period.
There are — let's slim it down to a couple of options — there are two ways that this story could go.
Transgender is an umbrella word that is used to describe a very large and diverse group of people. "Transgender" can refer to transsexual people; to genderqueer and gender-variant people; to crossdressers; even to feminine men who still call themselves men, and masculine women who still call themselves women.
(Because "transgender" covers such an enormous amount of very different people, some people choose not to use that word. Some transsexuals, some genderqueer people, and some crossdressers would prefer not to be called transgender. Some people prefer to be called transgender and nothing else. If you don't know what word somebody uses, ask them — it's much less offensive to do that than to guess and be flamboyantly wrong.
Yes, I know that's terribly confusing. I didn't make it up!)
On this website, I'll be using the word trans as a shorthand to describe people who:
Okay. Now, here's my bottom line.
If someone says "I am a woman," or "I am a man," or "I am ____," please take that person seriously. Our cultural framework tends to tell us that their bodies may contradict their statements — that there's no way you could be a guy with XX chromosomes, or a genderless person with an obvious beard. But the trans person is the one who's right, and the simplistic framework is the model that's wrong. Gender is not dependent on physical appearances, or on the word of doctors, friends, family. The individuals are the ones who get to assert their own identity.
Transsexual women genuinely are women, regardless of their being born with bodies that people tend to consider "male." Transsexual men genuinely are men, no less so than any other man. And when people say that they are neither male nor female, that is an actual experience that they're undergoing: they truly do not feel comfortable when people think of them as one or the other.
It is disrespectful to call people by certain pronouns or names when they request otherwise. It is disrespectful to say things like "You're still my son" or "You'll always be a woman to me." Trans people are truly, unavoidably, fundamentally not members of the genders that they were assigned at birth.
An individual who has transitioned is not an "ex-boy" or an "ex-girl." A trans man, though born with a reproductive system that is most commonly found in females, is not (and never has been) a woman; though he was labeled as a girl when he was young, that label was incorrect. He is a "real man," despite the unusual condition of his body at birth.
I hope that's clear enough! You may wish to read this page over again, perhaps a little more slowly; you may want to print it out; maybe you have the gist of it by now, and would like to move on.