It is hard to understand these things even for me, and I’m trans. I will say that it is a matter of how we understand ourselves versus how the world sees us, at least to some extent. It is also a matter of biology. Although it was very ill defined for most of my life, I have always had an inherent sense of who I am and that who I am somehow differed from how others saw me. Most (not all) trans people suffer gender dysphoria. Wikipedia’s definition is as good or better than others: “Gender dysphoria (GD) is the distress a person experiences as a result of the sex and gender they were assigned at birth. In this case, the assigned sex and gender do not match the person’s gender identity, and the person is transgender.” In other words, that innate sense of self I had conflicted with how others treated be due to the gender assigned at birth.
In many cases, trans people know at an early age that they are not the gender they being raised as, but they are often ignored, gas lighted, and even abused when they speak out. My own experience is that I felt alienated, “out of phase,” as I’ve come to think of it. In my case, this sense that my assigned gender was wrong was always in the back of my mind, but the much louder voices of society did their best to drown it out. I wasn’t able to even recognize the voice until my teens and didn’t completely acknowledge it and realize I needed to transition until my forties. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel the pressures of society for my gender identity. I was often taken as an effeminate man and often picked on, assaulted, etc for it.
Many people in society, especially our family and friends, do little things to police our gender during our formative years. For instance, I remember my sisters, especially, teasing me if they thought I was doing something that would be considered the “feminine” thing to do.
That is why I mentioned in previous posts that misogyny is felt by trans people. And yes, in different ways than cisgender women may have experienced it. For me, the idea of having to conform to gender stereotypes, to act a certain way and being punished if I didn’t is an experience of misogyny. There is also harassment, although most people don’t think of it in the same way. Most teenage girls would be horrified if they had boys walking up and hitting them in the arm on a regular basis, but this is what happened to me in the halls of my junior high school several times a day for years. For cis guys, I suppose it reinforces that need to be “tough.” Not so much for me. Also as a teenager, on more than one occasion, men pinched my butt. Did they think about it as sexual harassment (or harassment at all)? Probably not. I didn’t think of it in an overt sexual way at the time, even though I felt all the same things people mention when being sexually assaulted: shame, fear, embarrassment.
Also, for someone whose gender identity was feminine, the little messages society sends us implying that women are “less than” hurts a lot. Does it hurt as much as it would hurt a cis woman? I have no idea and I imagine no one else would either, as no one can completely understand the pain of another. However, it does exist and it is down to this innate sense of gender identity (even when we didn’t realize that’s what it was). Basically growing up with dysphoria is like putting on an act in every part of your life. There is a line in the first episode of the TV show Trans Parent, where someone asks the main character if she wants to be a woman and she says something to the effect of, “No, all my life I have had to play the part of a man.”
Dysphoria can cause other complications for many of us, which can add to the confusion. I cannot tell you how many trans people I have known (myself included) who have suffered from depression, substance abuse, etc. I think I know more trans people who have been active in 12 step programs than non-trans people. In my case, I think I had to deal with the alcoholism and depression before I was able to admit to myself that I was trans.
And that makes me think of one more thing that a lot of people don’t always understand. I will try to be quick because I notice this is already very long. Many people will say that a trans woman “wants to be a woman,” or otherwise imply being trans is a choice. My experience and the experience of so many people I know is exactly the opposite: If I could wake up tomorrow as someone whose gender identity matches the gender I was assigned at birth — whatever that may be — I would take that deal in a heart beat. Not to discount my life or identity: I would not trade my journey now for anything, because it is mine.
Yes, there is a small but growing body of scientific evidence which supports the idea that biological sex goes beyond genitals (and that the xx/xy chromosome dichotomy is not so simple), but I thought my personal experiences might be more helpful. It is useful to know, though, that science is starting to be able to pinpoint some of these factors which I believe add up to that innate sense I was talking about.
One last thing. A disclaimer. Although I talk to other trans people regularly and the bulk of my friends are trans, I in no way speak for anyone but myself.
I hope this helps you understand, at least about my experience. I think it is a good thing you want to understand. If there was anything else you wanted to know or if I have misunderstood your question and have gone off on a tangent (I’ve been known to do that), please feel free to let me know. Sorry this is so long. I tend to be long-winded.