Like a lot of 18-month-olds, my daughter is epicene; even if she’s out on the town in, say, pink leggings and a floral raincoat, sometimes I’ll still get a “He’s so cute—how old is he?” from a friendly stranger. (I just did, in fact, on Mother’s Day. In the stranger’s defense, we were exploring cannons at a military park. Masculine!) I rarely bother to correct people, but if they realize their mistake, they are often profusely apologetic, as if they’d given grave offense over something far more consequential than gender.
And if this scene unfolds when I’ve dressed her in neutral clothing, the offense at times turns subtly outward. “Why do you dress her like a boy?” demanded a man in the jewelry section of H&M while my kid—in a red sweatshirt, jeans, and gray-and-purple sneakers—rummaged through a pile of tassled earrings. The man was trying to be polite, but he also seemed affronted by his own confusion—and affronted by me, I suppose, for causing his confusion. “She looks like a boy!” he insisted, repeatedly. The only response I could think of was the shrugging one I gave: “She looks like herself.”
I offer this anecdote partly as a disclosure that I’m not the intended audience for gender-reveal announcements. This is a genre of prenatal celebration that reached a spectacular apotheosis last week when a Florida couple went viral for firing a rifle at a target packed with explosives and colored chalk, sending up a plume of powder intended to reveal the baby’s sex—blue for boy, in this case. The phenomenon more typically takes form as a gender-reveal party, where the festive theme might be Guns or Glitter? or Rifles or Ruffles? or, because big sticks can take many forms, Baseball or Bows?
The centerpiece of a gender-reveal party is, of course, a gender-reveal cake, which involves slipping a piece of paper to a trusted baker who will then drop the right food coloring in the batter; at the appointed moment, celebrants cut the cake to find out if it’s blue or pink, i.e., Pistols or Pearls? Gender-reveal cakes can be cute, imaginative, even beautiful, as this PopSugar slideshow attests. Another parenting site, the Stir, has a slideshow of “15 Outrageously Inappropriate Gender-Reveal Cakes,” although if you spend enough time in the gender-reveal universe, these creations might strike you not as outrageous so much as just aggressively direct about the zero-sum nature of the gender binary. Stick or No Stick is the exemplum of the bunch, making barely submerged subtext into carrot-shaped text: A boy has a something, and a girl has a nothing. A boy has a gun, and a girl has a hole. A boy does, and a girl is done to. A boy is an active actor with useful equipment, and a girl is a void with embellishments. It would sound so tiresomely gender studies 101 if these weren’t actual people having actual children right here on my Pinterest boards in 2016.
A gender-reveal party might at least take on a sheen of medical accuracy if it were called a “sex-reveal party,” with the added bonus that it would also sound more like a fun orgy. But I doubt it’s a total accident that “gender-reveal” collapses the discrete concepts of sex and gender into one big face-mash of tasty cake. In fact, the gender-reveal phenomenon pulls off a rousing counter-progressive two-for-one: weapons-grade reinforcement of oppressive gender norms (sorry, feminists!) and blunt-force refusal of the idea that sex assigned at birth does not necessarily equate with gender identity (sorry, trans-rights movement!).
Likewise, it can’t be sheer coincidence that the internet went nuts over an Army Special Forces member and his fiancée blowing up a box of Tannerite and chalk to celebrate their fetus’ blood-test results during the same week that North Carolina sued the U.S. Department of Justice over whether trans people in that state can use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identities. The DOJ, as North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory told Fox News, “is trying to define gender identity, and there is no clear identification or definition of gender identity.” When a cherished social norm is starting to fragment, perhaps the best way to save it is to aim a rifle at it and pull the trigger.
Or perhaps McCrory and gender-reveal enthusiasts alike could take a gentler approach and look to babies and toddlers for clues. It’s accepted among progressives at this point that gender is a kind of performance within constraints—something we actively create from the limited cultural materials we encounter. As such, it matters enormously for older children and adults as a way of making sense of themselves in (and for) the world. But it’s also a type of performance that babies and toddlers lack the neural connections to deliver—they are genderless, and thus destabilizing, and so we steady ourselves by, for instance, affixing hair bows on people who might not even have much hair.
A gender reveal will tell a future baby’s loved ones precisely nothing about what is actually important about her first months and years on Earth: her temperament, her response to food, the ease with which she sleeps and self-soothes and explores her expanding world. Babies and toddlers are mysterious; you really have no idea who they are, but you get the sense that they know you inside-out. A fetus is even more mysterious; you don’t even know what she looks like, and yet there she is, closer to you than any person could ever be. It’s understandable, I suppose, why some parents want to grab onto an either-or marker of certainty in the fundamentally uncertain situation that is pre- and early parenthood. But gender isn’t really there for the grabbing.
When I was pregnant, if a stranger on the subway or street called to me, “Boy or girl?” I would reply, “None of your business.” This was rude, admittedly, and also somewhat disingenuous—I didn’t actually mind telling people; instead I think I was pushing back against the idea that being visibly pregnant, or visibly anything, turned me into a piece of public property available for comment and interrogation. Women deal with different versions of this challenge of achieving privacy in public for their entire lives—to leave your apartment is to be asked for a smile or a blow job or your due date or to lose weight—and many trans women and gender-nonconforming women have it so much harder than most cisgender and/or femme women can ever imagine. Those realities reach dystopian nightmare proportions in the gender police state that McCrory prophesies, where bathroom-using citizens would be honor-bound to apply the if-you-see-something-say-something principle to gender presentation. It will always be time for cake in the restrooms of North Carolina.
Boy or girl? This is the question many people want answered before you use the bathroom. They started asking when you were still in utero. They might have baked a dessert or fired a gun to get the answer. And I’m beginning to think that you can draw a line from that question to our current state of transphobic bathroom panic. Maybe all we can do is start refusing to answer the question, or answer with a question of our own. If the question is Why does that girl look like a boy?, maybe the answer is What does it mean for a girl not to look like herself?