The Transgender Hierarchy of Needs
Abraham Harold Maslow introduced a framework for understanding human motivation in the late 1960's. His model, famously known as "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs", describes broad classes of human needs which may be satisfied or unsatisfied. The brilliance of his model lies in its hierarchical nature. It postulates that a person does not become concerned about a given class of needs until all those needs beneath it in the hierarchy have been satisfied.
Maslow's model is not absolute nor does it explain everything. It is difficult, for example, to fit thrill-seeking behavior such as sky-diving or skate-boarding into his model, as they so plainly defy a very basic need for personal safety. Nevertheless the model can be helpful in trying to understand why our motivations change with time and circumstance.
I got to thinking that the special needs of transgendered people may fit a hierarchical model similar to Maslow's. In fact it seems that may fit Maslow's model quite closely. The Transgender Hierarchy of Needs may even be the Grand Unified Transgender Theory, explaining the relationship between many of the seemingly different branches of our transgendered family tree. So if you would indulge me, may I present the Transgender Hierarchy of Needs. As in life, we will start at the bottom, and work our way up.
Level 1 : Physiological
At the base of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (MHON) lie the physiological needs. These are the things the human body requires to for life and comfort, like food, shelter, sex, etc. At this level it is easy to understand the hierarchical nature of the model--if you are starving, you don't worry about anything else except getting something to eat.
The bottom level of the Transgender Hierarchy of Needs (THON) also includes the physiological needs, for the same reason. But it includes more. Before a transgender person begins trying to satisfy his/her gender identity needs, s/he typically tries to build a "normal" or "straight" life--a life like that of any other person not afflicted with Gender Dysphoria. In this straight life, they satisfy physiological needs and others, such as security, love, and perhaps esteem. So the base level of the THON covers the first 2 to 4 levels of MHON. This will become clearer as we talk about those levels.
Level 2 : Security
According to MHON, once a person's physiological needs have been met, then they begin worrying about security. Will I be able to keep meeting my physiological needs in the future? How do I make sure nobody can take that away from me? Are there any other dangers in the environment that I need to protect myself from?
In the THON, security is also the second level of needs. As transgendered people begin to explore and express their gender identities, they are very concerned about jeopardizing the good things they possess in their regular lives. These include not only the physiological things, but also the security they have created, and usually the love and even the esteem they receive. This is why the THON base level covers several levels of MHON--transgender people are concerned about securing the things they own on all those levels. A young transgendered person may only have a few friends and possessions they are concerned with protecting, while and older person may have much more, such as a family and career.
How is the THON need for security satisfied? Initially, it is almost always satisfied by confining one's transgender behaviors to the "closet", i.e., keeping them very private secrets, not to be shared with anyone, and therefore not threatening anything in their "straight" life. Many transgendered people never leave the closet, and thus are never able to begin to try to satisfy the higher level needs. Others discover that they can expand their security sphere without losing the things that are precious to them in their "straight" lives, and their transgendered selves grow.
Level 3 : Love
Once you are well fed and feel safe, Maslow says you next need to overcome feelings of loneliness and alienation. You need love. This can be love of a significant other, but also it means having friends and being accepted in groups. At this level, man becomes the social animal that we know her to be.
The same thing happens to transgendered people. No matter how much love they may have in their "straight" lives, they are overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness and alienation when they are in the closet. Once they feel that they can express their gender identities safely, they long to have their new selves be accepted by others. Ideally they would find this acceptance from the same people and groups who love them in their "straight" lives, but often this is impractical. Often, especially at first, it is impossible to even explore, because it would threaten the transgendered person's security. Fortunately, love and acceptance can be found in other places, such as in support groups, with other transgendered friends, or in the club scene. Joyfully, transgendered individuals sometimes receive love from "straight" (and gay!) friends and acquaintances.
Level 4 : Esteem
Next in Maslow's scheme is the need for esteem--both self-esteem and to be esteemed or respected by others. With these, a person can hold his/her head high, feeling valuable and productive. Without them, a person feels inferior and depressed, no matter how much love may be bestowed on them. Haven't we all seen examples of parents who smother children with love but do not build their self-esteem? What wrecks those children turn out to be.
Transgendered people, having gathered about them a support system of friends and lovers, become concerned about esteem as well. This may be expressed in a variety of ways. Perhaps the person tries to become the very best drag performer. Or the queen with the biggest hair and bosom. Or the most outrageous gender f**k. Maybe the person takes a leadership position in their support group or community. Maybe he/she writes way too many articles for TG Forum! But most commonly, the need for esteem expresses itself as a concern for "passing"--for being able to present themselves in their true gender, without anyone suspecting that their anatomy might not match. The need for esteem is so strong that transgendered people put an incredible amount of energy, effort, and expense into passing; and feel badly hurt when they are "read" or "clocked", that is to say, identified as a transgendered person anyway. ("Clocking" in it's most blatant form: "Hey, that chick is a man!")
I think many of us try to fill our need for esteem by having lots of sex. This, In My Humble Opinion, tends not to work. Some of us get stuck in this trap for a long time. (This is not uncommon in natal women as well, especially as teenagers.)
Level 5 : Self-Actualization
At the very top of MHON is the fuzzy-sounding "Self-Actualization". This is usually a difficult concept to understand, because so few people operate at this level! But transgendered folks may be in the best position to understand it, because what it means is to be your True Self. Maslow says, "Painters must paint. Singers must sing." But Millie Brown says, "Women must be women! Men must be men!" The self-actualized person is at peace with him/herself, and with the universe. They not only have their lower needs satisfied, but they have life in perspective and see how unimportant those needs really are. Self-actualization may be most commonly found in older people, who have finished fighting with the world and with their own identity issues, and have found the true core of their beings.
In a way, the entire transgender journey is all about self-actualization. But in the THON, self-actualization takes on a special meaning. The self-actualized transgendered person knows his/her True Self, and has brought that Self into actuality both in presentation and in core belief. This person no longer has a "straight" life and a "transgendered" life, s/he has only one life and s/he lives it as his/her True Self. They no longer worry about passing--not because they pass so effectively, but because their esteem comes from within, not from what others think of them. Satisfying the need for self-actualization often involves transitioning to living full time in a new gender role, perhaps culminating in Genital Repurposing Surgery. But that is not to say that the transsexual who eschews GRS cannot be self-actualized. It is important to remember that the transgendered person's journey, ironically, is not primarily about gender. It is about discovering and expressing one's True Self. Yes, we have to deal with our Gender Dysphoria, but each of our True Selves consists of an entire person, not just gender. If that True Self happens to align with one of the stereotypes on the traditional gender binary, so be it. But if your True Self is something different, that is fine too. Be that! After all, nobody is "Man" and nobody is "Woman"; we are all unique.
According to one reference, "Maslow's hierarchy of needs was an alternative to the depressing determinism of Freud and Skinner. He felt that people are basically trustworthy, self-protecting, and self-governing. Humans tend toward growth and love." From my own transgendered journey, and observing those of friends and acquaintances, I believe transgendered people share those same qualities in respect to our "new selves", the selves we discover to be of a gender role opposite to that which we were brought up in. While we have a strong need to protect the "old self" and the loved ones who surround and depend on the "old self", we also have a very strong need for the "new self" to grow and to give and receive love. The Transsexual Hierarchy of Needs presents a model (a bit forced I admit) that may help us understand why certain needs dominate us at certain times, and why we respond with particular behaviors. A couple of lessons I take from it are these: Proceed with your transgender journey patiently and carefully--be sure your lower needs are being met before you rush on to the next level. And, those of us who are lucky enough in our dispositions and opportunities to transition and live in new gender roles should not look down on our brothers and sisters who are struggling to meet needs lower on the hierarchy. Finally, do not forget that whatever may be going on with you in the Transgender Hierarchy of Needs, you are also dealing with old Maslow in the rest of your life at the same time!