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Chelsea Hill, Queens University.
Picture this: a man takes a watermelon in one hand and grabs the snout of his pet alligator with the other. Lifting the alligator’s head towards the sky, he drops the melon into the animal’s gaping maw. The fruit breaks open and reveals blue jelly. The onlooking crowd cheers. I roll my eyes.
This is just one example of the relatively new phenomenon of gender reveal parties: an event where soon-to-be parents ask the age-old question: Boy or girl? Baseballs or bows? Tutus or touchdowns?
Gender reveal parties found their way into the spotlight again in early September 2020, when a couple’s gender reveal party resulted in a wildfire that spread across thousands of acres in Los Angeles, resulting in a considerable amount of damage and even a firefighter’s death. Memes popped up across the internet, ridiculing the need to create an obscene spectacle just to announce the genitalia of an unborn child. This isn’t the first time a gender reveal has caused this much damage. An earlier instance in Arizona also ended in a wildfire . Another reveal in Iowa resulted in one woman’s death, when a couple attempted to use explosive material to reveal their child’s sex.
So, what’s the point? Why has an event that began as an intimate affair turned into what seems to be a worldwide gender reveal competition? According to Carly Gieseler, the rise in extravagant gender reveals has coincided with the rise of social media. People are dying to create a spectacle simply to gain social media clout. It seems as though gender reveals have become more about showing off then about the impending birth of a child.
The problems with gender reveals go beyond their physical and environmental damage. Gender reveal parties are a product of a cis-normative culture. They expose new parents’ tendency to reinforce cis-normative ideas by assuming that their children are cisgender and neglecting to recognize that their child’s genitals do not signify their gender identity. In turn, they impose their gendered expectations onto their children before they are even born, robbing them of the ability to form an identity of their own from birth. The tendency to impose gender stereotypes is limiting for everyone, regardless of age or gender identity. These stereotypes force children into one of two distinct boxes which, as Helen, the mother of a transgender child says, “prevent girls from studying traditionally masculine subjects like maths and science and instill in boys the belief that it is “feeble” to express emotions.”
These parties reinforce the narrative that being cisgender is the default, that a cisgender identity is the “natural” or “normal” one. This invalidates transgender people and suggests that people are only transgender when development goes “wrong.” This assumption is by definition cissexist, defined by Julia Serano as “the belief or assumption that cis people’s gender identities, expressions and embodiments are more natural and legitimate than those of trans people.” These reveals effectively erase the gender diversity of the human race by ignoring those who do not identify with their sex assigned at birth. Even the woman credited with gender reveals has since stated that she has come to regret it now that her child does not subscribe to traditional gender norms.
Sadly, the characterization of diverse gender identities as invalid or even perverse and pathological is nothing new. In 2018, the Trump administration tried to redefine gender as a “binary condition determined at birth, based on genitalia.” In response, a collective of over 2,600 scientists signed a letter to the administration claiming that this idea was not based in scientific knowledge and that it was also inconsistent with “ethical practices, human rights, and basic dignity.” This definition would have been damaging to the transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming communities alike.
In particular, the sheer effort that goes into some gender reveal parties is a significant part of the problem. These ostentatious events are turning cissexism into a performance without considering the potential ramifications for the child. If a couple is willing to invest significant amounts of money and time into an event meant to define their child’s gender, it suggests that the baby’s gender is set in stone before they’ve even taken their first breath. However, ultimately the only person who can decide someone’s gender is that person, regardless of the alligators or wildfires involved.
So, gender reveals are cissexist, but does that mean they’re transphobic? What’s the difference between the two? According to Healthline, “transphobia is often expressed as outward bias, disgust, or hatred against trans people. Cissexism is a much subtler, and perhaps more pervasive, form of discrimination against trans and nonbinary people.” Both cissexism and transphobia perpetuate a hierarchy in which cisgender people are on top and transgender, non-binary people are closer to the bottom. Gender reveal parties may not be outwardly transphobic, but that doesn’t mean they don’t reinforce the gender binary in a way that’s dismissive to the existence of transgender persons.
What this shows is that cis-normative ideals are so imbedded into our culture that we are subconsciously imposing these notions onto other generations. Certain behaviours, like gender reveals, can be damaging and dismissive of a marginalized group without being consciously hateful or intentionally oppressive.
However, with growing media awareness about the destructive nature of gender reveals, people are beginning to think more critically about these events. While the primary criticism is centred on the environmental damage and not the harm to LGBTQIA+ communities, more people are becoming open to hearing that side of the debate. For instance, trans ally Professor Sarah Parcak has brought humour to the discussion, suggesting “gender reveal parties, but instead of blowing up something to see blue/pink smoke, at the crucial moment, an anthropology professor emerges to give an hour long lecture on how gender is a social construct while everyone is served rainbow cake.”
While I am sure that most of those who throw gender reveal parties mean no harm, it does not mean that no harm is being caused. It is still that we question whether these practices should continue, given the rate of new information about the complexities of gender and sex. This discussion should not be struck down because it makes people uncomfortable to think about gender and sex in a non-binary way. It is a meaningful conversation to have, even if it takes some time to reach those resistant to hearing it.
Blunt, Rosie. “The dangers – physical and psychological – of gender reveal parties.” BBC News 30 October 2019.
Healthline. “What Does It Mean To Be Cissexist? .” Healthline 23 January 2019.
Maurice, Emma Powys. “Academic and trans ally has ingenious suggestion for replacing abhorrent gender reveal parties once and for all.” Pink News 9 September 2020.
Morales, Christina and Waller, Allyson. “A Gender-Reveal Celebration Is Blamed for a Wildfire. It Isn’t the First Time.” New York Times 7 September 2020.
not-binary. “Transgender, intersex, and gender non-conforming people #WontBeErased by pseudoscience.” 30 September 2018. not-binary.org. 9 October 2020.
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