My friend’s 30-something nephew told us about the seven weddings he attended around the country over the past several months. He’d also been to his share of couples’ showers. “I guess the gender reveal parties are up next,” he groaned. Ugh, I thought. I first learned about these new pre-birth parties a few years ago and thought it was a joke. The recent season of the Grace and Frankie web TV series featured a gender reveal party. And now the term was apparently rolling off the tongues of 30-somethings.
I did a Google search when I got home and sure enough—gender reveal parties have gone mainstream. The first image was of Party City’s “Girl or Boy Gender Reveal Party Kit for 16.” Another showed an Etsy shop’s custom pink or blue-filled baseballs or golf ball “bombs” for the big “reveal.”
For the unfamiliar, expectant parents get their friends and family together for a party where the gender of their baby is “revealed.” Sometimes even the parents don’t know beforehand. So the ultrasound tech writes down the sex of the baby and seals it in an envelope. A bakery then makes either a pink or blue-centered cake for the party. (By the way, just for background, it wasn’t until the 1940s that the generally accepted rule of pink for boys and blue for girls was switched up. That’s when children’s clothing manufacturers and retailers arbitrarily decided to reverse gender-specific colors in their advertising.)
Sex vs. gender.
The reason these gender reveal parties annoy me so much is that all an ultrasound reveals is a baby’s physical anatomy. Yep, in front of family and friends, a baby’s gender is assigned based on their body parts. But it’s really the child’s sex that’s being assigned. From my point of view, the better name for gender reveal parties would be external genitalia reveal parties.
When I told my 27-year-old kid Harry about the gender reveal party trend, their response was a resounding, “Ewwww.” Harry identifies as nonbinary. That means Harry’s gender identity is neither male/female nor man/woman. Harry is simply a unique, individual human. What my pregnancy ultrasound revealed didn’t matter. Harry has never fit society’s limiting stereotyped traits, characteristics or behaviors for a kid assigned male at birth.
All on the same gender page.
A rich new vocabulary has developed in our shifting landscape of beliefs about gender. So I want to step back a bit and clarify a few terms. Even some of the more common ones can be confusing. I was clueless the first time I saw the words “gender identity” in print. So I wouldn’t have been able to explain the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation then either. To me, sex and gender were interchangeable, and just one of two boxes to check on a driver’s license application. Speaking of, amid an expanded understanding about gender, California now recognizes a third gender on state ID document.
I’m sure there will be more terms in the future, beyond the 60 or so gender identifiers Facebook offers. In fact college kids are probably coming up with new identifiers that no one else is aware of yet. But for now, here’s a quick primer of general terms.
The sex and gender basics.
Sex refers to one’s physical anatomy, specifically one’s genitalia. Secondarily, it also includes reproductive organs and genetics.
Sex Assigned at Birth is the assignment of people as male, female, or intersex based on their physical anatomy at birth.
Gender typically refers to socially constructed roles, behaviors and norms that a given society deems appropriate for men and women. Those same social constructs shape definitions of “masculine” or “feminine” too.
Gender Identity is one’s own personal, inner sense of being a man or a woman (or boy or girl), neither (like my kid Harry) or both. For transgender people, their internal gender identity and their sex assigned at birth are not the same.
Gender Expression/Presentation is the way someone expresses or presents their gender identity through clothing, hairstyle, makeup, or mannerisms.
Sexual Orientation refers to someone’s romantic, physical or emotional attraction to another person. It is completely separate from gender identity.
As for gender reveal parties, gender is not about body parts. A pregnancy ultrasound reveals a baby’s assigned sex. It’s not until babies start talking and experience their culture’s gender expectations that they’ll be able to tell you who they know themselves to be. For that, all we have to do is listen. In anticipation of future conversations — with kids or adults — check out the fabulous Gender Unicorn illustration below. In the meantime, just invite your friends over for a nice brunch. Cake optional.
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