I'm a straight, white dude. I am struggling with what to call my friends who don't seem to identify as the sex they were born. I don't want to offend anyone, so can you tell me what the difference is between transvestite, transsexual, shemale and transgender. It's confusing to me.
—Trying to Get It
Language can be daunting around gender. Here is the best way I can sum it up:
Transvestite connotes a fetish for dressing as the opposite sex. It tends to be related to sexual pleasure more than gender identity or sexuality.
Transsexual describes someone who is undergoing or has undergone gender affirming medical procedures. They are people who identify as a gender other than what was assigned to them at birth or that society associates with their genitalia.
Shemale is a pejorative, fetishistic term for transsexuals. Associated with pornography, it's terribly outdated. Don't use it.
Transgender people have a gender that differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. This term can include transsexuals, gender fluid, agender, bigender and genderqueer people. Whether someone opts for surgical changes to their body is their choice.
A great rule of thumb is to open up dialogue with your friends and find out who they are. You'll find that they will let you know how they see themselves, how you should view them, their pronoun preference and how to address them.