Flipping the Hamburger
When Logic is a Feeling
When I was a kid I needed the world to be logical, rational, orderly.
I’d been told all my life I was smart. I read books about science; about space. Every day in kindergarten, I read the same book about space, because I wanted to learn to read all the words in that book. What I really wanted to be, when I grew up, was the person who designs the exhibits in science museums.
I liked art, but I didn’t like art museums yet because nobody had told me the stories behind all the paintings. All I saw was stuffy old things and weird shapes. None of the art is any good, really, until somebody tells you the story, but the museums never bother to tell you.
Science museums are all about telling you the story.
I have always liked storytelling even when I did not care much for human beings which are, ironically, the heart of every good story: even the stories which do not contain any human beings.
Whenever I felt something was wrong, I would tell myself that it was common sense and rationality that was dictating that response.
I didn’t like being touched. This was a sensory issue. I convinced myself that it was because touch, sensory needs, emotions were unnecessary. That the entirety of social interaction: manners and so on, a system I had been told I did not understand, should be done away with.
And I didn’t understand how society worked, but people made me feel I didn’t understand long after I understood, but saw those systems as flawed.
I argued loudly that I should not be required to say “please,” and “thank you” because everyone already knows that those things are implied in a request, so it is a waste of time to use those “pre-programmed” phrases. In reality, there was just something that seemed viscerally wrong about saying those things. A feeling.
When I was in my twenties, a man followed me down the street berating me for not saying “thank you” after he said “bless you” when I sneezed, and now I say “thank you” for every little thing, perhaps excessively: not out of pure gratitude but terror that someone might feel insufficiently thanked and begin to hold a grudge.
I identified with those cold, unfeeling Star Trek types: Spock and Data and the Borg. Being assimilated by the Borg sounded good, actually: to be totally free of individual identity, to never be alone, to be incredibly strong. I listened to They Might Be Giants, and Cake, for the singer’s monotonous voice. I still only own about 8GB of music, total.
I feel defensive when someone asks me what music I like: like it is a test of my humanity. “Yes, I listen to normal human music, in sufficient amounts.”
I wanted to live in a world dictated by science and logic, free of emotion.
Simultaneously, I almost certainly made my mom cry over her making Kraft mac & cheese “wrong.”
Possibly, as a child, if my parents weren’t terrified of the medical system, I might have been diagnosed with autism. As an adult, it seems unlikely that I would, because the average psychologist would tell me that I cannot be autistic because all my best friends are people I met at sex parties.
And because I spent so much of my life, post-childhood, trying to figure out how people work, second-guessing myself at every turn, that I’ve started using what I’ve learned to explain it to other people.
It is probably for the best that I wasn’t diagnosed, because I would have had to deal all my life with people who do not know what autism is, and think it means “unreliable narrator.”
I am uncomfortable diagnosing myself, of course, because the consequence of being wrong is that I will have, myself, misled people about what autism is by writing and talking about it. Is my experience legitimate or is it appropriative? This is something that can be asked about essentially every aspect of my identity, and it is tiring.
Regardless — I absolutely had emotions.
I absolutely, despite hating being touched, needed to be touched. Am I trying to make up for that by having a lot of sex, now? Oh yes, very consciously and deliberately.
How did I learn to like being touched? At 19 I, completely frustrated with myself, decided to make out with someone at a party, and I suddenly felt like a dark cloud that had been smothering my body all my life had been lifted. I stayed in bed all the next day, feeling great, terrified that the cloud would return. It never did.
The key to this magic, of course, is that it was entirely my choice.
I became interested in other people, in interacting with other people, only after reading “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again).” It has been difficult for me to explain that my interest in Warhol has never had much to do with Warhol. It had not occurred to me until then that the everyday lives of real people could be a thing that might hold interest.
But back then, as a child, I was young and angry that everything I did was wrong when I felt that actually, everything I did should be considered the right way. Everyone else should just do things my way.
It absolutely veered into fascism. I had ideas about how the world should work. I did not actually know anything about how the world worked: about how important it is to consider the autonomy of people, about how that is something they are willing to die for.
This post by upside-down-burger on Reddit’s r/relationship_advice is, I think, the simplest apolitical example:
My girlfriend eats burgers upside down
My girlfriend eats burgers upside down and refuses to try eating it the right way up. No matter what i say no matter what i ask she will not even try to eat without flipping it over so its upside down. I’ve explained there is a reason toppings are in a certain order, the top bun is softer etc etc. Its driving me insane! How can i convince her to at least give it a try eating a burger the right way?
There is, in reality, no top and bottom to a hamburger.
The bun, when it is baked, can be said to have a top and bottom because one side is obviously flat from contact with the pan, and the other risen upward. It will sit on a flat surface without rolling if kept in this orientation. But to say that it must remain in that orientation while being eaten is an arbitrary decision.
To say that it is inefficient to flip the burger (because I was, as a child, obsessed with utterly pointless efficiency) misses the point of eating the hamburger: for the pleasure of the experience of eating. Even if you’re trying to put Calories in your body as fast as possible: Outside of an eating contest, there’s no way the flip loses you significant time.
Some users pointed out that they prefer to eat hamburgers “upside-down,” because the sesame seeds are on the top of the bun, and this provides immediate contact with the tongue. Or because they find the burger easier to hold or eat in this position.
Regardless, the main point is that it is nobody’s business how anybody else wants to eat their hamburger. And that since top-bun-up is the way everyone sees burgers being eaten, the upside-down-burger-eater has consciously decided to eat her burger upside-down. Even if she cannot articulate her reason for doing so, she clearly prefers doing it that way.
But twenty or so years ago I didn’t know this. I did not assume other people had the agency to make those sorts of choices. I had, after all, gotten a perfect score on an online IQ test. I would have likely been angry at the thought of someone eating a hamburger the wrong way. I would have assumed they’re doing it that way because they’re just not smart enough to do it right.
If I had been a straight cis man, or possibly woman, I might have been recruited into the alt-right from there, but I turned out to be a queer trans man.
I thought the same kinds of things about trans people before I realized I was one of them. My image of a transgender person was something monstrous, therefore something I could not be: I literally thought that being transgender was a delusion until months before I identified as trans myself. I had never read anything written by a trans person. I had never been exposed to the concept of gender identity, and saw being a girl as a sort of biological obligation.
Ask a child to invent gender-critical (a.k.a. trans-exclusionary) feminism and you’ve got more or less what I thought about trans people. I thought trans women were men with a fetish; trans men were women with internalized misogyny. That’s not advanced feminist theory, it’s what you absorb from watching sitcoms and trashy daytime talk shows.
But I also thought: a girl is someone who has to swim across an ocean, climb a mountain, or something, to prove she can do a thing as well as a boy. A girl must bear the weight of thousands of years of misogyny, must give herself to the fight against it: a sacrificial offering. A girl is a being who must not acknowledge pain.
These simplistic definitions were how I rationalized my need to identify as my assigned gender, not how I came to the conclusion that I was a boy. I knew that a girl could do anything that a boy could do: anything except be a boy. That would be treason.
I thought that your chromosomes, your genitals, dictated your gender because that sounded like hard science.
Cold, hard science: comforting, like the cool bathroom tile against your face when you wake in a pool of sweat after being defeated by a few rounds of hot diarrhea.
In high school, my physics teacher taught us the definition of entropy.
I never went into physics, so I forget what he said. But I remember, more or less, what he said about the definition:
“The definition I’m about to teach you is wrong. If you study physics later, they’ll teach you something completely different that contradicts what I’m telling you now. But this definition works, for the lessons I’m teaching at this level.”
An understanding of science depends upon the ability to understand not just facts but half-truths, interpretations, abstractions, possibilities.
The same holds true for gender. You are taught, as a child, a simple definition of how gender works. You are told that it is science. But it is a half-truth.
The truth is much more complex. Too complex to go into here.
I could describe a number of intersex conditions, examples of the variations in physical sex and how pathologizing them is an arbitrary decision based on the idea that sex must be binary. But intersex people are not a prop for me to use for my own arguments, so feel free to research this on your own time.
I could talk about how cultures around the world have had, for thousands of years, more than two genders. And as a white person with no experience in any of those cultures I would not be qualified, really, to talk about any of those genders: they are not props for me, either.
I could talk about research into the brains of trans people showing that we have brains similar to cis people of the gender we identify as. I am, honestly, a bit uncomfortable with this: we have no idea what is actually being measured. We do not know what gender is.
What if in some distant future they find a way to scan my brain and they think it shows I’m not really trans?
“Gender is a social construct” is a phrase that is said so much that, I think, it has lost meaning. The issue is that the general public isn’t entirely sure what a social construct is, either. They tend to think it means “a thing that isn’t real and doesn’t matter.” So I’ll say it like this: gender is a cultural idea. Culture is real, and it matters, but it is not hard science. Gender is a combination of what is physically observable and the cultural ideas we have built around it; the meaning we have ascribed to those things.
Body parts are the territory and gender is the map: a thing we created to make sense of a natural phenomenon.
The map of gender we are taught as children: binary gender, man and woman, penis and vagina, is not a very detailed map.
Gender is like eating a hamburger:
We see that the sesame seeds are on one side, and call that side the top. But it is only the top because we call it the top. In reality, it is simply the side with the sesame seeds.
And if you don’t like them, you can pick them off.
But only if it’s your burger, of course.
When I was a kid, I wanted the world to be rational.
What I wanted was not logic, it was a world simplified until it made sense to the mind of a child.