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John Oliver blasts some of the most harmful myths about transgender people

Last Week Tonight's John Oliver on Sunday walked through some of the basic misconceptions about transgender issues — and explained why it's so important to get these right.

Oliver pointed out that people still get many basic facts wrong about trans people — who identify as a gender different than the one assigned to them at birth — from what they should be called to how gender identity is related to sexual orientation. But getting these issues right is crucial: If people don't have the basics down, it's going to be impossible to tackle the bigger problems, including the enormous economic disparities and staggering suicide rates among trans communities.

"This is a civil rights issue," Oliver said. "If you are not willing to support transgender people for their sake, at least do it for your own. Because we've been through this before. We know how this thing ends. If you take the anti-civil-rights side, and deny people access to something they're entitled to, history is not going to be kind to you."

Gender identity and sexual orientation are different

Last Week Tonight/HBO

"Transgender people have a gender identity that's different from the one they were assigned at birth," Oliver said. "And that gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation. Gender identity is who you are. Sexual orientation is who you love."

Address transgender people how they want to be addressed

What pronoun do you use for a transgender person? Whatever they use for themselves. Javier Zarracina/Vox

"If you're still wondering, 'What do I call a transgender person? It's so confusing,'" Oliver quipped. "Actually, it's pretty simple: Call them whatever they want to be called. You can do it. We do it all the time."

He added, pointing to a picture of Puff Daddy, "Over the past 20 years, we've agreed to call this man Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, just Diddy, and now Puff Daddy again — and most people don't even like him."

"It's none of your fucking business" what people's genitalia look like

Last Week Tonight/HBO

Oliver pointed out how weird and gross it is that journalists often ask trans people about their genitalia, other private parts, and how they look — questions that no one would ever dream of asking non-trans people.

"Some transgender people do go undergo hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery as part of their hormone therapy. Some do not," Oliver said. "And, interestingly, their decision on this matter is, medically speaking, none of your fucking business."

It's important to get the basics right — or we'll never be able to tackle the bigger issues

"Here's the important thing: It's genuinely crucial that we get this right," Oliver said. "There are more transgender people in the US than you might realize. One study estimates that nearly 700,000 American adults are transgender. That's more than the population of Boston."

He added, "While a handful of transgender people have been winning awards or appearing on magazine covers, the community at large has been facing some staggering challenges."

Transgender people do face some enormous disparities. Here are just a few examples:

  • The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) found trans and gender nonconforming people are nearly four times as likely to live in extreme poverty as the general population.
  • NTDS found 57 percent of trans and gender nonconforming people report family rejection. This rejection had precipitous effects: trans and gender nonconforming people who are rejected by their families are nearly three times as likely to experience homelessness, 73 percent more likely to be incarcerated, and 59 percent more likely to attempt suicide, according to NTDS.
  • A 2013 report by the New York City Anti-Violence Project found trans people, particularly trans women of color, face some of the highest rates of hate violence and murder in the country.
  • A 2014 study by the Williams Institute and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that 46 percent of trans men and 42 percent of trans women have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, compared with 4.6 percent of the general population.

"That is terrible," Oliver said, citing some of the many concerning statistics about transgender people. "Those statistics are so depressing it's enough to make you angry at the very concept of numbers."

Watch: Life as a transgender woman