by PIDGEON PAGONIS
Originally published on Everyday Feminism and re-published here with their permission.
The day has come. The mini chalkboards urging guests to vote whether you’re having a boy or girl is up. The display listing old wives’ tales is prepared. And the pink and blue cookies, balloons, and candy all marked with white question marks are in their rightful places.
Guests begin to arrive and butterflies flutter. Or—wait—was that a kick from the little one baking in your oven? Ow! Definitely a kick.
A friend you’ve known since high school takes one look at you, now seven-and-a-half-months pregnant, clicks her teeth, and says definitively, “It’s a girl.” She walks over to the chalkboard to vote while you let out a sigh. You’ve been told it’s better to have a boy, because they’re just easier.
You begin to feel everyone’s curious minds and hungry eyes on you, and you realize it’s time. Everyone waits for you to bite into your cupcake. This time, the butterflies are real. Please let it be blue.
The frosting oozes out and your sister-in-law is the first to see its color. Giddy with excitement, she trips over her tongue and announces, “It’s a… purple?” You almost don’t hear the collective befuddled gasp made by everyone in the room.
Dang! It’s hard to imagine how confused an expectant parent in that situation might feel.
Since gender reveal parties only take into consideration the possibilities that a baby will be born either male or female, they completely leave people like myself – who were born intersex – and others out, all while reinforcing the binary gender roles that feminists love to hate.
I first heard about these parties from Hann Lindahl, an intersex youth activist, who recently included an anecdote about them in her PechaKucha presentation (which is totally worth watching, by the way).
These parties usually consist of inviting friends and relatives over to simultaneously bite into cupcakes revealing blue or pink frosting, which informs everyone – including the parent(s)-to-be – of the baby’s sex.
To accomplish this, the ultrasound results are covertly transferred from the sonographer to the baker. Other parent(s) may opt for a different method of revelation, such as opening a sealed box that releases pink or blue helium balloons.
The story in the introduction was based off of what could have been my mother’s experience, had she underwent prenatal genetic testing before I was born.
The frosting was purple to signify that I, like 1 in 2,000 babies born each and every day, was born with one of two dozen intersex variations. That is, my body’s biological sex traits – usually determined by markers such as genitals, internal reproductive organs, and chromosomes – do not completely fall within the “male” or “female” categories.
Gender reveal parties don’t have negative intentions. In fact, if you’re reading this feeling badly about the gender reveal party you just had this weekend, don’t! Shoot, if I was invited to one of these parties tomorrow, I would most likely RSVP yes because I love cupcakes. Gender is like an ocean we all swim in and it can’t be ignored away.
But while we’re swimming, we may as well be adventurous and critical-thinking sea horses – recognizing that most of the deeper waters still remain a mystery.
And that’s why, as you’re about to read, the amplified expectations that gender reveal parties cause may ultimately set parents and kids up for failure.
1. They Reinforce the Incorrect Idea That Gender Is Determined by Genitalia
For starters, these parties wrongly support the notion that gender is intrinsically synonymous with genitalia.
We’re told that people born with penises are boys and expected to grow into men who present masculine, and those with vaginas are girls who are expected to grow into women and present feminine.
In this binary way of thinking, genitals are allowed to trump our internal sense of self – also known as our gender identity.
Even though science has no conclusive answers, most folks will tell you that gender originates during exposure to hormones in the womb and is further influenced by messages received from families, communities, and media.
Gender roles, on the other hand, are a different story.
First termed by John Money in 1955 to draw a distinction between sex and gender, the gender role concept wasn’t popularized until the 1970s. Fed up with the unfair expectations and limitations, feminists set out to deconstruct these oppressive gender roles and highlight their arbitrariness.
Masculinity and femininity were, they argued, but two stars amid a milky way of gender identity and expression – and like stars, gender could fade and re-illuminate many times.
John Money unintentionally opened a Pandora’s box that helped begin the work of unshackling gender roles, identity, and expression from its former entrenchment to biological sex.
The myth that gender and biological sex are mutually exclusive is harmful because it punishes those of us who do not fit this definition – that is, all of us intersex, trans, and gender non-conforming folks.
2. They Reinforce the Gender Binary
Some gender reveal parties feature welcome signs that say, “He or She? Come in and see!”
The gender binary is an artificial scale that places men at one end and women at the other. People at these ends are believed to contain “opposite” sets of biological sex, gender identity, expression, roles, and subsequent privileges and disadvantages.
Considered by most as “just the way things are,” it’s important to resist this mantra and remind ourselves that everything we take for granted that sustains the gender binary is actually subjective.
To illustrate this point, think of how we’ve been taught about the moment fertilization occurs in humans: The mighty sperm competitively races upstream – like a salmon in a rushing river – until the victor finds and penetrates the passive, unaware egg, who prior was probably just sitting there doing her nails or something.
Most are familiar with this idea of the one, strong, fast-swimming sperm who makes it to the egg first – when in reality, the egg yanks and clutches its chosen sperm. Which means that it isn’t the sperm, but the egg that exhibits the “strength” and “makes us who we are.”
Myths like these often lead to treacherous outcomes. For example, proponents of “traditional” gender roles often cite them to argue why “a woman’s place is x.” When challenged, they often state that they didn’t make up these roles – that instead, they’re embedded in the building blocks of life.
This past Christmas, I witnessed the manifestation of this harmful effect firsthand.
My two-year-old cousin, assigned male at birth, was reprimanded by my cousin, his aunt, for pushing a new baby stroller. She said it was one of “the girls’ toys.” Sensing his aunt’s discomfort, I stood up for him.
My little cousin, who still had his hands attached to the baby stroller, was looking up at me. I told his aunt, “If we don’t let our boys play with dolls, then we can’t act surprised when the men in our family don’t know how to express emotions in healthy ways or take care of their kids.”
My protest was quickly shut down – not by his aunt, like I had expected, but by another cousin, a six-year-old, who point blank told me, “Boys can’t play with girls’ toys!” As illuminated by this example, our kids’ desires and expressions are often molded by the fears of adults.
Gender reveal parties promote a socially constructed gender binary that eclipses the full range of sex and gender possibilities. They also set expectations that can lead to parents questioning what they did wrong to raise a child that didn’t grow up to be what they, and everyone else at the party, expected of them.
One way we can begin working to avoid situations like these is by figuring out ways of transforming the unfamiliar into the familiar, the untruths into truths, and by letting our kids play with whatever toys they desire. Gender reveal parties, as you’ll later read about, could be a perfect place to start this process.
3. They Throw Gender Roles Onto Kids Before They’re Even Born
Lastly, these parties make the mistake of placing gendered expectations on children before they even enter our world.
The colors and symbols used to reveal a child’s gender at one of these parties may inadvertently manipulate expectations we have for the child. This unnecessary pressure also affects how others view the child’s capabilities, which simultaneously can shape how your child will gauge themselves as well.
For instance, even though I was born intersex with XY chromosomes and underwent a surgery to remove my internal testes, I was assigned female at birth and raised as such. I have a stark memory of climbing a fence and being hollered at by mom to stop playing and come in to take a shower.
When I protested and begged for more playing time, she responded by saying, “You’re worse than your boy cousins!” Her words made me feel ashamed and today, I think of them almost every day while taking a shower. If she didn’t have gendered expectations for me, I wonder if her response to my plea would have been different.
Gender reveal parties on Pinterest demonstrate some of these harmful gendered expectations. Search results pulled up an idea for an entrance sign that read, “Almost time to see, which it will be? A bouncing little he, or a pretty little she?”
Stereotypes like these can affect how we interpret our children’s behavior posing serious implications down the line.
For example, it used to be assumed that girls were extremely less likely to have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). But in an article published by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2003, a researcher found that while ADHD doesn’t discriminate based on gender, doctors indeed did.
Since pretty girls are “socialized differently,” they “tend to express themselves in a different manner” than bouncy boys.
This meant that girls, expected to be calmer and quieter, often experienced the lesser-known depression and anxiety aspects of ADHD, rather than the hyperactivity aspects, and were being overlooked. Untreated ADHD in young girls, many contend, leads to a long list of negative – yet avoidable – issues later in life.
Other Pinterest results pulled up chalk board ideas – meant to give invitees a fun way to guess the baby’s gender – that substituted the words boy or girl in the boards question with alternative gendered descriptors such as “ties or tutus,” “guns or glitter,” and “rifles or ruffles.”
Heavily gendered expectations like these are harmful because they create ample room for “failures” – failure for your kid to fit the expectation, adhere to the plan, and make you feel like you were a good enough parent.
Gendering everything in absolute and binary ways can unknowingly gender the expectations we have for our children.
Instead of placing these expectations on the little people we love most, let’s take Dr. Elaine Heffner’s advice and “enjoy your child for who [they are], not for who you imagined [they] would be!”
Alternatives to Gender Reveal Parties
1. Prepare For All Possibilities
Instead of a gender reveal party, use the time to start envisioning and preparing for all possibilities – including intersex, trans, or non-binary kids.
One route towards accomplishing this goal was taken by smart friends of mine who created legal documents to protect their child in case they were born intersex. They stated, “The Parties agree that if the child(ren) is are born with an intersex condition, no surgical procedures will be done with the exception of those that are deemed a medical necessity.”
This not only mentally prepares a family, but also grants children bodily autonomy – something many intersex, trans, and non-binary children are usually robbed of.
2. Have a ‘Surprise, My Baby Doesn’t Have a Gender Yet’ Party
Go ahead and have that gender reveal party, but do it with a twist.
Instead of biting into a cupcake and finding pink or blue frosting, have guests bite into rainbow cake! Or, instead of opening a box to reveal pink or blue balloons, open one with balloons of every color under the rainbow.
Then, use that rare time with your friends and family to discuss what it was like growing up in a culture that unevenly attributes gender expectations with sex anatomy.
This may seem awkward at first, but it’s not impossible. One way to get the conversation started is by asking everyone, “How many people didn’t get to play with certain toys because they were for boys or vice versa?”
Ask guests to bring gender-neutral gifts that display a wide range of ways to be in the world and honor your child’s gender autonomy. The goal, being to “expose kids to a wide range of gender-types and give them the freedom to explore without judgment.”
This a great foundation to build – and it simultaneously prepares you should your kid tell you one day they don’t agree with the gender on their birth certificate. It also helps foster more open-minded kids who will one day become open-minded adults – and who doesn’t want that?
3. Host a ‘Justice 4 MC’ Party Fundraiser
MC, an intersex child, was adopted by Mark and Pam Crawford about ten years ago. In first grade, he bravely stood before his classroom and declared that he was no longer a girl, but a boy. Bravery doesn’t begin to explain it.
In 2013, InterACT Legal (formerly Advocates for Informed Choice) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a first of its kind legal complaint on behalf of MC’s parents, claiming the state and its medical staff failed to keep MC’s best interests at hand.
Our strict socially constructed sex and gender binary lead to MC’s situation. And this is why you should throw a #Justice4MC fundraiser party! Educate your guests about the case and screen an award winning intersex documentary or watch this short Buzzfeed video.
Alternatively, start a book club during your pregnancy and read things like Contesting Intersex: A Dubious Diagnosis, Fixing Sex, or Middlesex. Contact AIC beforehand and request some brochures, or print them out at home to share with guests. Don’t miss out on the incredibly rich “What We Wish Our ______ Knew” series created by intersex youth.
Gender myths are sexist and create an unnecessary hierarchy that lays the groundwork for many of the unequal discrepancies experienced by people in our society.
Sex and gender aren’t rigid qualities represented only by pink or blue. Instead, I like to think of them like chocolate and vanilla: Some people like one, neither, or both, and this can change over time – no biggie.
With the breathtaking array of sex and gender expression that exist in the world, do gender reveal parties even make sense anymore?
In this video – capturing a young boy’s meltdown upon seeing pink frosting – there is a really beautiful part pre-meltdown after his father asks his kids what they believe their unborn baby sibling’s gender will be.
His son guesses a boy, his eldest daughter guesses a girl, and the youngest daughter – whose response drew laughter, but was the wisest of all – answered, “a baby.”
Pidgeon Pagonis is an intersex activist based in Chicago. They’re working to help create a world in which every intersex baby that’s born has the right to bodily autonomy.