Are you as old as you feel?
08 November 2018 12:09
In a classic exchange that went viral on YouTube, the American conservative writer and digital broadcaster, Ben Shapiro, challenged the idea that a person’s identity was defined by their feelings.
‘Why aren’t you 60?’ Shapiro asked a 22-year-old student who had criticised his position on transgender rights. ‘Why can’t you identify as 60? What is the problem with you identifying as 60?’
‘It’s not the same as gender,’ she replied.
‘You’re right,’ Shapiro continued. ‘Age is significantly less important than gender. You can’t magically change your gender. You can’t magically change your sex. You can’t magically change your age.’
Or can you? Emile Ratelband, a 69-year-old Dutchman, argues that if trans people are permitted to change their gender, he should be allowed to change his legal date of birth from 11 March, 1949 to 11 March, 1969. His case has gone to a court in the city of Arnhem in the province of Gelderland.
‘When I’m 69, I am limited,’ says Ratelband. ‘If I’m 49, then I can buy a new house, drive a different car. I can take up more work. When I’m on Tinder and it says I’m 69, I don’t get an answer. When I’m 49, with the face I have, I will be in a luxurious position.’
The judge was not unsympathetic, but argued cogently that to recognise Ratelband’s change of age would mean deleting 20 years of his life.
‘For whom did your parents care in those years? Who was that little boy back then?’ the judge asked. Good question.
There is immediate resonance between this case and the controversy surrounding Anthony Lennon, a white British theatre director, who was awarded a job intended to increase the representation of black and minority ethnic individuals in the British drama.
Lennon argues that, in spite of his white ancestry, ‘I think like a black man’. This is the crux of the matter. Just as Ratelband demands to be seen as the 49-year-old he feels he deserves to be, so Lennon expects the rest of the world to acknowledge his self-identification as a black man.
As identity politics has grown in influence – see our interview with Francis Fukuyama on the subject – so the nature of identity has become a matter of pressing social concern. Are we defined by facts or feelings?
This question lies at the heart of the Government’s proposed overhaul of the 2004 Gender Reform Act. If transgenderism is fully ‘demedicalised’ and people are able to transition by simple ‘self-declaration’, feelings will have won the day.
If a biological man believes that he is a woman, the law will recognise and enforce his – or, legally, her – right to do so. The biological nature of womanhood will have been supplanted by an entirely psychological and emotional definition: and, not surprisingly, many people believe that this is a step too far.
But those who say so are instantly labelled ‘transphobic’ or ‘TERFs’ (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists), and accused of denying the very existence of trans people. Few arguments are as fraught and furious, especially on social media.
This is a debate in its foothills. Who are we? Are we what we say we are? And – if so – should others be legally obliged to act accordingly, in deference to feelings that may change capriciously? Today, I am a white 50-year-old man. But who knows what I might believe myself to be tomorrow?