Malachi O'Doherty: Whether it is in gender identity or politics, there is no point telling someone they're not who they are
But self-identification can also depend on how you are seen by others in that community, writes Malachi O'Doherty
I was taking part in a panel discussion in east Belfast last week with two other men. A woman in the audience complained that there were no women on the panel. I was a little bemused by this, because, though I am absolutely opposed to gender discrimination (some of my best friends are women, actually), I don't think a small group of three is a sample large enough to imply that any discrimination was involved. You could easily get a three-to-none ratio by tossing a coin, so no conscious bias was inferable.
In a moment of mischief I said, I'll tell you what; I'll identify as a woman for the rest of the night and re-identify back as a man at the end.
Campaigners for a change in the law regarding gender assignment argue that gender is not a matter of physical appearance, but of self-determination. If I say I am a woman, I'm a woman.
Now, my joke might seem fatuous, given that there are people who do have serious difficulty being accepted as being of the gender that they feel themselves to be, but a few people laughed, presumably thinking it was absurd that I should claim to be a woman. Obviously, I don't look like a woman. But what does a woman look like?
Someone might be medically diagnosed with gender dysphoria and still retain the physical characteristics generally thought to apply mostly to people of the gender that person was originally mistaken to be.
Self-identification is a little less complex when it comes to culture and politics. I could choose to identify as an Orangeman. I presume that I could join a lodge if I subscribed to the Orange principles, the Reformed Faith, the Union and reverence for the monarchy.
I could also join Sinn Fein, if I wished. Maybe they would have me in a colour party, let me wear a black beret and hold a flag at ceremonies.
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I would feel horribly uneasy in both situations, but if I asserted with conviction that I was sincere in my identification with their core ideals, what grounds would they have for rejecting me?
Their only available argument would be that they know me better, perhaps better than I know myself.
They could say, you never showed any signs before of being Orange, or Provisional, but I could say I had had an epiphany, that the scales had fallen from my eyes and I now realised that William of Orange - or Padraic Pearse - was put on Earth to do God's work.
We thought you didn't believe in God. I could say, well I do now.
One of the great cult novels of my youth was Luke Rheinhart's Diceman, about a character who selected his beliefs and character traits day by day on the toss of dice. He would always give himself a negative option, so that the dice might determine that he was a horribly undesirable person for a day.
The novel played with the idea that we are plastic, don't need to be fixed in our thinking, according to conditioning, but can be anything. Not just anything we want, because if we go with desire then the conditioning just kicks in.
American woman Rachel Dolalzel came under huge criticism for identifying as black. She had represented herself as African American, been accepted as such, as much as to be made president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Huge offence was taken by black people, who said that she was presuming to speak for an experience which she could not have had. How could she empathise with how others were shaped by slavery in their ancestry and by the routine of being regarded as inferior which has remains as a legacy of that?
Her answer was that she had grown up with black children and felt more like them. But there was no process whereby a white person could transition to being black, nor did anyone step forward to say that there should be.
I could convert to Islam, or Presbyterianism, but could I really absorb the experience of those around me who had been Muslim, or Presbyterian, since childhood?
While I don't consciously identify as Catholic now, I have the conditioning and experience of having lived a Catholic childhood. I can no more divest myself of that than I could adopt the experience of having been the little boy who held the banner ribbon at numerous Orange parades until they let me twirl the baton.
I have been going to the Tenx9 storytelling sessions and getting hoots of laughter from audiences for my stories about being in the Legion of Mary. I'm doing one tomorrow night, about being punched by the bishop at my Confirmation. An ex-Protestant comedian couldn't do that.
Something remains of an identity I have actually chosen to discard. In the Brexit debate, which has to come into this somewhere, it is often said that a hard border would violate the Good Friday Agreement.
It is probably more true to say that it would violate the sense of Irish identity among many people in the north, including people who had previously thought it hardly mattered to them.
Now, we begin to see a new facet of sectarianism hardly noticed before, an assumption that unionists identify as British out of deep feelings of loyalty, while nationalists will be content to identify as Northern Irish simply because they'll be better off. Unionists, it seems, have finer feelings than the rest of us.
I am familiar with one case of a person of one colour and ethnicity identifying as being of a wholly other ethnicity and not only getting away with it, but being fully accepted for it.
That's Margaret Noble. Born in Dungannon in 1867, she went to India as the disciple of a swami, took an Indian name, Nivedita, and campaigned for Indian nationalism, identifying herself in her writings and speeches as Hindu and Indian.
Today, there is a bridge across the Ganges named after her and her former home in Kolkata is now a museum in her honour. Indians speak of her as God's gift to the country. Some worship her.
What this suggests is that whether you can identify as a woman, an Orangeman, a Provo, a black person, or an Indian depends largely on whether others who have always been at home in that designation will accept you as one of their own.
But there is little point in telling people they are not what they know themselves to be.