California is on fire yet again. But one of the massive wildfires currently ravaging the area wasn’t the result of a faulty electrical line, lightning strike, or even a campfire. More than 14,000 acres in California have burned in the El Dorado Fire in the days since it started. This time, a gender reveal party is to blame.
The popularization of gender reveal parties can be traced back to 2008 when Jenna Karvunidis used cutting a cake to reveal the “gender” of her soon to be child based on the pink (girl) or blue (boy) coloring inside the cake and blogged about it. A child who over a decade later, as Karvunidis mentioned last summer, “is a girl who wears suits” and may not align with such a stagnant and binary concept of gender.
This isn’t the first wildfire a gender reveal gone wrong has started, and I worry it won’t be the last. But the scorched earth isn’t the only damage these parties leave behind.
Gender isn’t binary. Gender is expansive. Gender, we say, is something internal. It’s how someone sees themselves, and their own perception of who they are. Which…you can’t tell before someone is born. Period. Not by ultrasound, and certainly not by an explosive device which releases pink or blue smoke into the air.
These “gender” reveal parties conflate the concept of gender with one that’s drastically different: sex assigned at birth. Sex assigned at birth is a label given based on medical characteristics, often solely considering someone’s genitals at birth, but can also include someone’s hormones and chromosomes. From here, male, female, or intersex is put on a birth certificate. But we know that not all people with penises are boys, and not all people with vaginas are girls, so someone’s sex assigned at birth realistically may not even be reflective of their gender, nor does it need to be.
There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to the harm this causes. Nearly 2% of the population is born intersex (about as common as people born with red hair!). However, many intersex people may have their sex assigned at birth decided as male or female (on paper and often through surgical procedures) by doctors and/or families without regards for who they actually are. Some intersex individuals report experiences ranging from being assigned the wrong sex to medical complications to the social/emotional harm this can cause.
A conflation of sex assigned at birth with gender also erases the existence of trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) people, whose identities are not rooted in something said of them at birth but rather what they know about themselves. It erases the power and the importance of someone discovering and understanding who they are. Statistically, we know LGBTQ youth report higher rates of harassment and bullying than their cisgender and/or straight peers. Transgender youth specifically experience suicidality and depression much more frequently than cisgender youth do. In 2017 for the first time, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) collected data specific to transgender youth in the U.S., and found that one in three trans students reported attempting suicide in the past year, as compared to only 7% of their cisgender peers. Being trans is not the cause of this, but the ways in which we support (or fail to support) our trans youth certainly can be. Gender reveal parties are one of the many ways we put gender expectations on someone from a young age, which can and do impact people throughout their lifetime.
Gender reveal parties also, and notably, don’t actually “reveal” the child’s gender, they merely force one on them. Increasingly so, today’s youth are identifying outside of the gender binary. They are queer, trans, non-conforming, and far beyond a blue/pink dichotomy. What would it look like to redirect our time, energy, money, and creativity towards making the space and providing the support for young people to reveal their gender to us when they’re ready?
What could a “gender reveal party” for a trans student who wants to come out to their class look like? Even without a party, how can youth spaces uplift and celebrate a range of gender identities? Schools historically have been sites where queer, trans, and gender non-conforming students face bullying and harassment because of their identities. What will look like for these students to be appreciated for them? What if we moved past feeding the fire of gender reveal parties and actually worked to start upending the rigid gender norms that spawned them?
Them.us recently published an article, written by Wren Sanders, titled, “Stop Joking About Gender Reveal Wildfires and Start Actually Dismantling the Binary,” where they explain everyday things we can all do, or all do better, to create meaningful change. And it’s true, recognizing the dangers of gender reveal parties is only the first step. So what else can we do? Let’s break down two main areas of work Sanders suggests, that can be especially relevant for youth-serving adults – though please read the entire article if you haven’t already.
Pronouns, pronouns, pronouns.
Sanders writes that to dismantle the binary, we must normalize sharing our own pronouns as part of how we introduce ourselves, but also work to actively and vocally support the pronouns of other people, especially the TGNC people in our lives. They add that “if someone goes by multiple pronouns (she/her and they/them, for example), don’t just use one set.” Language matters, and is one of the many ways we can normalize the significance of sharing pronouns and affirm the genders and identities of the people – including young people – around us.
Are asking for and sharing pronouns commonplace in your workspace? Are students supported to share their pronouns, and when they do so are their pronouns respected too?
It’s time to re-evaluate how gender plays into our lives.
Here, Sanders asks us to recognize that the gender binary feels so fixed and embedded in every part of our lives because we make it that way. They suggest that we “untether gendered assumptions from things that need not be gendered,” such as clothing and toys, and, well, fetuses. But this one also goes deeper, suggesting that we take a closer look at the ways gender dynamics factor into our friend groups and our romantic lives too.
Taking this a step further, it can mean examining this amongst the young people we work with. What are their friend groups like? What are the gender dynamics like of their social circles? Sanders suggests asking yourself “why that may be,” as well as to “consider the ways in which you allow gender to structure your life and the activities in which you participate.” How do schools, or other youth spaces uphold this? In what ways can we, as youth serving professionals, support gender diversity and acceptance in the ways our youth socialize and interact with one another?
What if, instead of accidental wildfires by explosive gender-reveal devices, we intentionally burn to the ground our rigid notions of the gender binary itself? After all, gender reveal parties, and the gender binary of today, are both relatively recent concepts to our world. And scorched earth always leaves room for new growth…
California is on fire yet again. I worry for the land, for the environment, for the impacted communities, and for the young people we continue to harm through this archaic process. The future of our world depends on it, we must do better.
If you or someone you know is in crisis or is feeling suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you’re a young LGBTQ+ person and need a safe and judgment-free place to talk, call the TrevorLifeline 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386 or visit TheTrevorProject.org to text or chat with an advocate. If you’re trans or questioning, you can call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860. The Trans Lifeline’s hotline is a peer support service run by and for trans people.