Written by Courtney Miller, Peak Associate
As we age, our Facebook feeds fill with news of our friends getting engaged, married, and pregnant — though not necessarily in that order. The “it” thing to do these days is to share with the world the expected gender of an expected kid, in whatever fun, creative, or exciting fashion one can think up.
By all means, let’s celebrate having new people around to teach and learn from, but that’s already covered in a baby shower — also problematic, but that’s a topic for another time. Having an extra celebration because expecting parents found out their kid will end up having a penis or a vagina, leading them to conclude whether they are having a girl or a boy, is limiting, unnecessary, and, ultimately, misguided. To better understand why gender reveal parties are so problematic, let’s partake in a brief biology and culture refresher.
First of all, sex and gender are not the same thing, as we are becoming increasingly aware of in this day and age. For example, “transgender” has only been in use since 1974 as the term for people who do not conform to the socially constructed gender binary. Yet intersex people and those who don’t conform to the gender binary have been around for centuries, like the hijras of India and Indigenous two-spirit people.
Biological sex refers to the presence or absence of certain sex organs or chromosomes, not whether that person is a guy, gal, or non-binary pal. If the birth occurs in a hospital, the medical professionals assisting with the birth have to check a box on the birth certificate to officially recognize which sex the baby is. If there is any question or doubt about which sex the baby is, these professionals can also effectually decide what sex the baby is.
What medical professionals don’t tell new parents, usually, is that approximately one baby in 1,500 will have genitalia that is not easily sorted between “has a penis” and “has a vagina.” That ratio increases if one also includes genitalia that don’t look cosmetically acceptable, such as overly large clitorises or unusual urethra locations. So medical professionals suggest to the new parents a “normalizing” procedure to force the sex one way or another. The parents, generally uneducated on biological sexual development topics, let professionals decide which sex the kid should have. Then all of a sudden, someone who didn’t conform to the outdated and conflated gender and sex concept was forced into it.
But what does all this have to do with the parents having a party halfway through the pregnancy to celebrate gender? Theoretically, nothing’s wrong with the party. What’s wrong is what it celebrates, which is the premature classification of the kid into either a boy or a girl. This kind of expectation is one that the child’s support system will have from the very beginning, creating arbitrary standards concerning how the child should behave and live their life. Expectations can be incredibly difficult to change, even when a person actively tries to do so. It’s like giving the kid an extra bunch of hurdles at the very beginning of their life-long marathons.
Say a set of parents want to have a boy and are told by an ultrasound technician that their fetus has a penis. What if the technician is mistaken and the penis is actually a large clitoris? What happens if a doctor then offers to decisively enforce that it is, indeed, a penis? Won’t the parents jump at the chance?
Even though the kid may not identify as a boy, they’ll be forced into portraying one; it doesn’t matter if they feel more like a girl or more like someone in between. Take the famous John/Joan sexology case from psychologist John Money. John/Joan, actually named David Reimer, accidentally had his penis damaged during a circumcision around eight months of age, to about the same degree as the sexual procedure fixes at births. Money told Reimer’s family simply to raise him as a little girl and no one would be the wiser. However, despite Money’s forged scientific reports that stated everything was going swimmingly with Reimer, Reimer experienced an ongoing identity crisis because everyone told him that he was a girl, even though he didn’t feel that way and actively felt like a boy instead. Due to this crisis, Reimer experienced severe depression, eventually committing suicide to end things.
It’s been scientifically shown that transgender people have more symptoms of depression and more history of attempted suicide than cisgender (people whose gender identity matches their biological sex) people. I’m not saying that gender reveal parties are going to make a kid transgender or suffer depression, I’m saying that the expectations that come hand-in-hand with prematurely putting a person in a labeled box and closing the top can be severely damaging.
Gender reveal parties are unnecessary to begin with, because if someone just really wants everyone to know that their kid is supposed to be born a girl, a mass text or Facebook post would get the job done. The expense and effort of a whole party seems disproportionate given the actual weight of the news. Congratulations, the kid should theoretically be a boy, even though they aren’t born yet and we don’t even know if they’ll be healthy upon birth! Let’s celebrate a theory!
There are, of course, other reasons not to have, attend, or encourage gender reveal parties: they’re just another excuse for parents to ask for gifts or donations, they reinforce social gender roles, they’re ridiculously themed, etc. But honestly, all of that’s been talked about before. So let’s kill the gender reveal party phenomenon just like we millennials killed the diamond, napkin, and fabric softener industries, and maybe help a whole lot of people be okay about other people being themselves in the process.