The Georgia sun beat down on my uncle Dennis’s front yard the day he cut my hair.
It was 2003, my Dad had been deployed to Iraq for half a year, and my mom had driven into town to pick up some groceries. Uncle Dennis grabbed me by the collar and drawled, “Your hair’s getting too long, you look like a girl.”
Before I could say anything, he’d put me down in a chair and buzzed away half of my hair. I cried.
I’m 28 now. I’ve lived as an out trans lesbian for more than five years. And I’ve never been able to get the taste of my sweat and tears from that hot August afternoon out of my mouth.
Why did my uncle feel within his rights to cut my hair? And why were other people willing to hurt me to “make me a man” over the years?
Where do we learn this cruelty toward gender-variant children? I don’t know. But if the news lately is any indication, we are more than willing to set the world on fire to enforce gender roles — literally.
One of the multiple wildfires raging across the West was started by a “smoke-generating pyrotechnic device” at a gender reveal party. These Instagram-friendly parties typically use bright colors to announce the visible genitalia of an unborn baby to a family’s community — pink for fetuses that seem to have vaginas, blue for fetuses that seem to have penises.
This isn’t the first time that gender reveal parties have sparked catastrophe. In Iowa in 2019, a gender reveal device malfunctioned, exploded, and killed a woman with shrapnel. In 2018, a party in Australia ended when a car burst into flames. In 2017, a party in Arizona sparked a wildfire that caused more than $8 million in damages.
It’s easy to focus on the silly extravagance of crop-dusting with dyed water and colorful smoke bombs — and there’s good reason to warn against the public safety hazard these parties have become. But there’s a more insidious dynamic at play which also merits condemnation.
There is simply no way to accurately predict what a baby’s gender will be. Yet “gender-reveal” parties assume that a baby’s gender can be accurately predicted from nothing but its visible genitalia.
In this way they are a repugnant refusal to acknowledge the existence of trans people. They prepare an entire community to welcome the baby as a particular gender, and affirm that genitalia are appropriate criteria for enforcing a male or female gender onto the baby.
When I think of gender-reveal parties, I think back to my Uncle Dennis’s porch. I think back to the casual assurance he had that I was definitely a boy, that boys look a certain way, and that he was doing right by me to forcibly cut my hair. I think back to all the times I was told to temper my natural lisp, to speak from my belly, to stop crying, to be a man.
When theorists insist that gender is a social construct, this is what they mean. We create gender, we enforce it on one another in social situations, we teach it to children. We reveal it to our community.
Gender reveal parties teach families and communities to expect that children will be cisgender. They also cause deadly accidents.
They’re even despised by their creator, Jenna Karvunidis, a blogger whose own child turned out to be gender noncomforming. She now begs people to stop throwing the parties. “We don’t need to get our joy by giving others pain,” Karvunidis says.
It’s past time we let them burn, and let our children discover themselves on their own terms.
OtherWords commentaries are free to re-publish in print and online — all it takes is a simple attribution to OtherWords.org. To get a roundup of our work each Wednesday, sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.