Washington DC's Office of Human Rights has recently unveiled a series of ads promoting respect for transgender individuals (which, it's kind of sad that such things are even necessary, but I digress). The spot is set to feature several transgender members of the DC community with statements like "Some think I should dress more like a man," and pleas to show respect for transgender community members.
This campaign is an enormous step in the right direction in promoting awareness for transgender issues. The 'T' in LGBT is sometimes forgotten, and very often misunderstood. When a person says they're gay, most have a pretty good idea what that means. The same cannot be said for individuals who come out as transgender.
Part of the problem is the nature of the term 'transgender.' It's an umbrella term, which means that it has come to represent several different types of gender identity. (Most of them, you'll notice, reject what is called the gender-binary, a black/white, male/female interpretation in favor of a gender spectrum):
Gender Queer - Not following gender norms (which I find to be a bit odd as norms are constantly changing). There is a growing number of individuals who identify this way. For many it has become a badge of honor, pride in something they were once ridiculed for, like tomboyishness for girls and femininity for boys.
Gender Fluid - Identifying as either gender at any given time, or identifying somewhere between genders. This ties in pretty closely with androgyny, though there are some individuals who dress explicitly as male or female depending on the day.
Genderless - Not identifying with either gender.
Androgynous - Not physically manifesting as one gender or the other, or combining characteristics from both genders.
The most well known (and most assumed) meaning of 'transgender' is individuals who feel they've been born into the wrong gender body. (And early research involving brain scans suggests that they're right.) Typically these are divided into 'female to male' and 'male to female' individuals for descriptive purposes, though other distinctions can and do exist.
I obviously can't speak to everyone's experiences, but I can talk a little bit about those with which I am personally familiar (and perhaps Adam can elaborate or correct me later). Transitioning is a long and involved process, usually beginning with dressing to your correct gender (many transgender individuals do this before they take any official steps towards reassignment/affirmation surgery), progressing to counseling (necessary to be issued gender-modifying hormones), continued counseling, living as your correct gender for a certain amount of time (typically a year, also necessary before surgery), and eventually gender reassignment/affirmation surgery.
How do you 'deal with' someone who is transgender?
I get this question and others like it a lot, and though it may sound offensive, it really isn't. Asking questions is simply the best way to get answers. And everyone has a different definition of themselves (perhaps the transgender community is more varied than most), a different word they identify with, so if you aren't sure...ask.
Now recognize that this comes with a line. Asking someone what pronouns (he/she, etc.) and what name they prefer is generally okay and most transgender individuals welcome the desire to get them right. They've probably been mis-gendered so often that mistakes and assumptions have become very irritating. It's better to ask than to guess wrong. And if you do slip up, don't dwell on it. Like transitioning itself, seeing someone for who they really are when you've seen them as something else for so long is a process. It takes time. If you misuse a pronoun, correct yourself and move on, and get it right the next time.
About that line... People are naturally curious, and when presented with something they don't know much about, I think the tendency is to go a bit too far with questions. To many transgender individuals, their identity is something that has been a major source of contention for a long time, whether it's simply being in the wrong body, or being treated poorly by others because of their identity. If you ask something along the lines of "so are you a man or a woman down there?' you're jabbing at that sore spot with a stick, not to mention the fact that you're casually asking someone about their genitals. When is that ever okay?
It comes back to the core value of the campaign; respect. Show transgender individuals the same respect you would show any other individual. Yes, they are different...but so are the rest of us.