From time to time a set of pink balloons or a slice of cake with blue frosting would appear on my Facebook feed. I would both smile for the happy parents and shudder for the unborn baby whose genitals usually appeared, circled, in an ultrasound picture in the same album.
The formula for a gender reveal party is basic: you gather your friends and relatives for the celebration and then either slice a cake, or fire a gun into a box filled with appropriately-colored chalk dust, or shoot silly string at your partner in the color representative of your unborn baby's gender. Everyone cheers and then begins planning your kid’s life based on their anatomy.
These parties, while sometimes cute, have always grated at my feminist consciousness – why act as if a baby's genitalia has anything to do with who they're going to be? Why begin stereotyping and putting kids into a box before they even arrive and why, just oh my gosh why, would you bring guns to something about babies?
I first began to understand sex and gender as distinct concepts in college. As I moved through my undergraduate sociology courses I started to understand that the binary I'd always taken for granted was really more of a continuum. Through readings, research, and rich discussion, I began to understand the systems and institutions that breed misogyny and sexism and the ways in which my own girlhood experience fit into the larger picture.
Most women who grew up as girls have stories of adults and authority figures forcing femininity and gender compliance upon them in one way or another. When I was a girl I saw these experiences as unfair and the perpetrators as cruel. I didn’t understand that they were part of something bigger.
The middle school teacher who told me I was "asking to be raped" for letting my bra straps show through my shirt was trying desperately to maintain the status-quo surrounding responsibility in sexual violence. The softball coach who screamed at my team to be ladylike was trying to get us to understand that our worth, even in places where it shouldn’t matter, always came back to what sort of woman we were. And the man who called my parents landline to whisper dirty words about what I wore when I dared jog on my own street after school was trying to maintain power and control over my actions from a distance.
Back then, I put on a jacket and quit softball and stopped running, but in college, when I began to see how everything fit together, I vowed to make the world something different both professionally and in my personal life.
As a parent, I’ve kept my promise and work hard to raise my son in an environment in which he feels free to express himself exactly as he is. I don’t want him to ever feel either boxed in or entitled because of his gender. We do the basic, enlightened parent thing, by ensuring he has a range of toys and celebrating all his interests and we dress him in a manner that, while probably a little "boyish" is based most intently on his comfort and ability to move and play. And while the bigger things may seem to matter more, like letting him participate in whatever activities he wants, we remain particularly mindful of the subtler messages he's sent.
We monitor our language at home (there are no firemen or policemen or lunch ladies, only fire fighters, police officers and cafeteria workers) and work hard to make no assumptions about how he'll choose to identify or live his life in the future. I don't assume that he'll get married or that if he does he'll marry a woman. I leave the door open to all possibilities as he chats about his friends and his feelings. I've hushed more than one person who suggested he's a "lady killer" or a "flirt" and I don’t let him spend time with people who say things like, "boys will be boys."
Right now, in the state where I reside and where I grew up, these opinions and ways of raising a child are thought of as either reasonable and responsible, or completely ridiculous and dangerous. North Carolina is the current epicenter of the fight for trans rights and, most basically, recognition that the old way of thinking about sex and gender – as a binary wherein men and women naturally have different interests, talents, and desires – is erroneous and damaging.
My Facebook feed, a mix of my peers from high school, college, and grad school is split pretty evenly between those who are currently boycotting Target and those who express embarrassment at living in such a backwards state.
Though I attended a few rallies against HB2 and plan to advocate, campaign, and vote for politicians who will bring change, I haven’t been on the front lines of this fight. The battle over HB2 is largely in the hands of the courts and, as the legal system works, I will, like most people, watch from afar and vow to keep living my life and treating people in the way I think is right.
Just after HB2 was passed at the end of March 2016, I discovered I was pregnant. Getting pregnant was hard this time, and took longer than we'd hoped, so the joy of seeing the first heartbeat and hearing the familiar, fast-paced sloshing, brought extra sweetness.
When the doctor told us that technology had advanced since my son’s birth and that an early blood draw designed to test for chromosomal issues could also tell us the sex of our baby, we were thrilled. Though we would never agree to extra testing just to find out the sex of our baby, the prospect of knowing if I was carrying a son or daughter before I'd even finished my first trimester was thrilling.
When you're pregnant there is so little that you know about the person you're carrying. You don’t know if they'll be interested in art or science, or if they'll like sports and the outdoors or prefer to spend their time inside with a book or a musical instrument. More pressingly, you don't even know if they'll be easily soothed or spend their first four months crying.
So, when offered a chance at information, even information that's relatively insignificant to who they are (but certainly not insignificant to how the world will treat them) my husband and I decided to jump.
I found out that my first child was a boy sometime around 17 weeks when we had our routine anatomy scan. The anticipation built and built and, when the technician finally revealed the news, my husband and I both grinned and teared up. We’d be having a son. In the darkened room, holding hands with my high school sweetheart and first love, it was a truly special and beautiful moment.
This time, with early testing we would have the opportunity to know our babies sex just before 12 weeks gestation. The doctor would call with the results over the phone and, if my husband wasn’t around when she called, I’d find out by myself.
Faced with the prospect of finding out by phone, and on my own, whether my baby was a boy or girl, I suddenly began to understand the power and the pull of the gender reveal party. I understood the allure of the suspense and the joy of finding out, with all those you love around you, whether a son or daughter will be coming your way.
The part of the sex-reveal I felt most drawn to was the part where you find out at the very same time as those you love what sex you're baby is. To accomplish this, though, it seemed you needed to use colored symbolism or some other generic, socially understood "code" for either male or female.
Sure that there were others who wanted to hold a similar event without the sexist undertones, I spent hours looking everywhere I could think of online for a non-sexist idea. But when we’re asked to reduce a human sex to symbolism we are apparently, as a people, not very creative. Even after eschewing the most horrible themes (Touchdowns or Tutus, Camo or Pearls) each idea seemed reductionist and horribly stereotyping.
I considered following Jezebel's (parody) advice of baking a vanilla cake stuffed with quotes on thin slips of paper, but when I looked for quotes about masculinity and femininity they, too, seemed rather reductionist. (Also it would be weird to eat a cake with paper in it.)
As I puzzled over whether I would hold a sex reveal party my thoughts circled back, each time, to my son. It was him, and the desire to parent him right, that helped me decide there simply was no ethical way to hold a sex reveal party.
My son is already living in a world, and a state, that's determined to keep things binary. I won’t be another person who does the same. There was no way to both tell my son that everyone likes different things and that he's free to be whoever he wants, and then to reduce his little brother or sister to a slab of blue frosting or a gathering of pink balloons.
When the doctor called with my test results I found out that my baby is low-risk for any of the genetic issues we tested for. When she asked if I wanted to know the sex, I asked her to please write it down on a piece of paper and that I’d be by later in the day to pick it up.
Midday, my husband picked me up from work and we swung by the doctor’s office. As I ran back to the car with the envelope in my hand I grinned with anticipation. In the front seat, unbuckled and facing each other, I tore into the envelope. When I read the results, holding hands with my first love, we both teared up and grinned. It was a special and beautiful moment.