We understand transphobia better by imagining if it did not exist. In that ideal world not Magnus Hirschfeld but Aristotle would have described trans people, those who are not of their birth gender, the rest of the world would have said, OK then, and by now we would be generally understood and accepted.
Some people don’t conform to their birth gender. Trans women are women, trans men are men, and nonbinary identities are valid. Transition is only a choice in that one can choose to express ones true self or hide in a fearful pretense. But people deny this: we face incomprehension, distaste, and suspicion, which together are transphobia.
Incomprehension by itself is not enough. I have no idea why I would claim to be a woman, or be happier expressing myself as a woman. I passionately desire to understand, to know the causes and purposes of things, how and why they come to be, and draw a blank here. It just is. But there is a great deal of mutual incomprehension around. Different people love particular kinds of music, loathe others, and cannot understand why anyone would want to listen to them. You might object to lyrics, or music with particular associations, but otherwise you will never persuade someone they are wrong to like particular music, however loathsome you find it. You just accept it.
As well as incomprehension there has to be a lack of sympathy. Trans people are familiar enough now. Most people will know the concept, even if it makes no sense to them. Discomfort with trans women in women’s sports or prisons means a generalised suspicion.
We face generalisations. Karen White is a rapist, and women should be protected from her. That does not mean they need protected from all of us. Treat us as individuals, as you would treat Jews or left-handed people as individuals. The thoughts They’re all like that or you can’t trust them are an infallible indication of prejudice.
Is there also competition for scarce resources? It is debatable. Trans women are 0.1% of women, but if we were 1% we wouldn’t significantly reduce cis women’s access to women’s spaces. Even where there is far greater need than provision, such as in domestic violence shelters where a trans woman getting a place may mean a cis woman being denied the place she needs, the problem is the lack of provision and not that trans women share it, and excluding trans women would make little difference to cis women.
Among some feminists there is great sympathy for this notional excluded cis woman, greater than for the trans women who might need the service: we should go elsewhere, even if there is no elsewhere for us to go. They go to huge lengths to justify this or enforce it: yes, sex is real, but I am a woman.
I answer them saying we are a tiny number that does not justify this attention and that we subvert gender stereotypes, so advance feminist concerns. They say they are in favour of transsexual rights, interpreting that to mean something other than what our rights are now.
In a world without transphobia we would be accepted. We would not have to prove ourselves, or face questioning on whether we had had operations. There would be no need to face discernment about gender at the Yearly Meeting of Quakers in Britain, or hostile motions in constituency Labour parties.
That distaste and suspicion is prejudice. The wilful refusal to accept reality, manifested as incomprehension of our humanity and desires, is prejudice. In a world without transphobia we would not be sex workers. We would not be killing ourselves. We would have incomes showing our worth.