Rainbow Rant: Forest fires are just one damaging aspect of gender reveal parties

Joy Ellison
The CZU August Lightning Complex Fire continues to burn Tuesday near Bonny Doon, Calif.

The state of California is burning and you can blame the gender binary. 

No, really. According to the California department of Forestry and Fire Protection, a “smoke-generating pyrotechnic device” used at a gender reveal party sparked the El Dorado fire. 

It really is a tragedy, it's sad. They were hoping to remember the day in a different way,” said investigator Capt. Bennet Milloy. I’m sure that’s true. But this isn’t the first time a gender reveal party has caused a forest fire. In 2017, another party in Arizona started a fire that consumed nearly 47,000 acres and caused $8 million in damages.

Right now, the only thing spreading faster than the El Dorado Fire are jokes about gender reveal parties. I could use a laugh, so I tried to find one in the absurdity of a kitschy family gathering turned environmental disaster, but I can’t. 

I don’t find gender reveal parties funny. I see them as connected to a gender system that causes profound pain to transgender, non-binary, and intersex people that can’t be measure in acres burned or financial damages. I want the parties and the system to stop. 

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If I’m being honest, I find it telling that gender reveal parties are finally being criticized when they start forest fires. The damage they cause to transgender and intersex people, however, warranted nary a meme. It is almost as though culture wars are prompting the mockery of gender reveal parties, rather than a concern for our lives. 

It’s long been curious to me that gender reveal parties became trendy around the same time that the movement for the liberation transgender and intersex people began to gain traction. This week I finally learned how gender reveal parties began because the person who threw the first one is denouncing them. 

Jenna Karvunidis accidentally created a monster in 2008 when she threw a party during which she announced the assigned gender of her child by cutting into a cake filled with pink icing. She posted about the event on her blog and the rest was history. 

Twelve years later, Karvunidis wrote about her invention with the tone of regret Einstein used to describe his role in creating the atomic bomb. If her words are any indication, Karvunidis is a loving mom. She displays a keen and personal understanding of the stakes of failing to accept a child’s personality. She passionately supports her daughter’s desire to wear suits. Forgiving her for unleashing gender reveal parties on the world is easy. Nonetheless, her critique of her creation does not go far enough.

The problem [with gender reveal parties] is they overemphasize one aspect of a person,” Karvunidis wrote. With respect, that is only a tiny part of the problem. The real issue is that these events reflect and advance the belief that gender can be determined or even accurately predicted by an outsider. The reason I reject gender reveal parties, as well as the larger gender system they reflect, is that I believe the only person who can determine my gender is me.

If my social media feeds are any indication, parents are floundering right now, searching for a more progressive way to announce their child’s assigned gender. That was certainly true for TV show “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which tried to have its gender reveal cake and eat it, too. On an episode with a gender reveal party plot line, character Jake Peralta frames the party as a “biological sex reveal,” cracking jokes about learning the baby’s “downstairs situation.” The episode met with a tidal wave of praise, but I withheld mine. 

The writers of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and many progressive parents aren’t advocating for a child’s right to choose their own gender, or for ending gender socialization. They are simply looking for a more palatable way to assign a gender to their child.

A “sex reveal party” with a cake that read “It’s a dick!” or cupcakes topped with fondant vulvas isn’t my vision of gender liberation.

I can’t laugh at gender reveal parties because they fill me with a smoldering anger. I’m not the only transgender person who feels this way. In her seminal piece “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix,” Susan Stryker described the unbidden rage she felt when her partner gave birth and she heard the words, “It’s a girl.” She explained that her anger was ignited by the “non-consensuality of the baby’s gendering.” “This was the act that recalled all the anguish of my own struggles with gender,” she wrote. I feel the same pain.

My rage makes me uncomfortable, so I search for distractions. I asked a friend what he thinks the gender binary will destroy next. “I’m honestly trying to think of things the gender binary hasn’t already come for. It even has ice skating,” he wrote in reply.

He’s right; the devastation feels total.No part of our lives is unshaped by the gender binary that is celebrated and reinforced at gender reveal parties. 

The gender binary is why my sister, a non-binary transgender woman, was assaulted in a gas station parking lot by two men who yelled, “We thought you were a bitch.” 

The gender binary is responsible for a comment I received on my blog while I wrote this essay: “You freaks will never pass. Stop forcing your degeneracy on the rest of us and do the honourable thing and neck yourselves.” Transphobes have told me to kill myself before, but this time this comment was made on a post promotingmy children’s picture book about Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. There’s something especially gristly about hatred directed at me for writing a kid’s book. 

The gender binary is responsible for the El Dorado fire, but it bears some responsibility for the other West Coast fires, as well. The violent imposition of the gender binary was an important tactic in the Spanish settlement of California. In addition to forcing indigenous people to conform to settler gender norms,the colonial authorities outlawed traditional burning practices that allowed the forest to thrive and reduced the risk of uncontrollable fires, like the ones raging now. 

I am well aware that many people think it’s frivolous to spill this much ink over gender reveal parties. Such criticism dogs the transgender movement as a whole. Our concerns are constantly framed as petty or unreasonable, but I’ll give the critics this one. I have no desire to talk about gender reveal parties, and I would gladly move on to bigger issues, like ending non-consensual genital surgeries on intersex infants and stopping the murders of transgender women. But transgender people know that the gender system is created and reinforced by small actions that have big consequences. 

If you really care about transgender people, then support the big changes gender liberation requires, as well as the small. The end of gender reveal parties is just icing on the cake.