It's always cupcakes. Blue or pink. Dressing the cats and dogs up in outfits. More glitter. More bows. Parenting websites with articles like "Top Ten Gender Reveal Ideas!" or Pinterest pages full of party suggestions for putting your children in designated groups with designated rules before they are born. Tractors or Barbie cars, boots or ballet, bucks or does -- constant reveal oneupsmanship, all in the name of putting children in sweet little pastel boxes.
In this post-Bruce Jenner world where two men or two women can get married in any state (where Kim Davis is not present) there are still people out there who seem to be clueless when it comes to how to talk about gender. I remember the first time I was told the difference between sex and gender -- I was around ten and talking, as I did constantly at that age, about horses. I asked a friend about the gender of her new horse and I was politely, yet without much explanation, corrected by the adult in the room. You should be asking about the sex, not the gender. I had no idea why, so I probably continued to mix it up simply because I didn't want to have to use the word sex in conversation as a ten-year-old. It felt embarrassing. I thought gender was the safer word, maybe even the smarter word. Fast forward to a sociology class in college where I must have made the mistake again in a paper but this time I was not simply corrected, I was informed.
Sex is biology. Gender, society. Gender can be thought of as biological only in the sense that you are born feeling like a certain gender, but that doesn't always match up with your biological makeup, which means the distinction between sex and gender is extremely important. Sex is the parts you were born with, and gender is how you identify in the world in accordance with or despite what those parts imply. Sex is whether you are male or female. Gender is whether you are masculine or feminine. Males can be feminine, and females can be masculine. You can predict before birth what the sex of a child will be, but you can't necessarily predict the child's gender. Gender roles have been constructed by society and can change depending on which society you are talking about. This is why sex and gender are different beasts and should not be confused.
But confused is what a lot of people seem to be -- if my Facebook feed is any indication. Facebook is something that I have stuck with despite many urges to give it up. I stick with it because of its potential to teach me about the world I live in. Some folks only follow friends from their hometown and don't get many other perspectives or important facts, which feeds their idea that the bubble they live in isn't a bubble at all, but reality. I like to use Facebook to share ideas and articles that I find worthy, important, eye-opening, etc. Sure, sometimes I like to stir the pot. After all, should we really be using this popular platform purely for cat videos and selfies and vaguebooking? People are so attached to Facebook that they can't even use the bathroom without it anymore, so we should capitalize on that. We should use it to end the idea that gender and sex are one in the same, and that sex is too scary of a word to use around even your unborn child.
Right now many of my Facebook friends are having babies, and I've noticed a trend in which people post increasingly clever "gender reveals" -- each one trying to out-reveal the other. One friend simply announced that it would be six weeks until he and his girlfriend found out the gender of their baby, who was still a wrinkly little ball on a sonogram. I of course had to break into their moment with a comment that politely explained the difference, and congratulated them all the same. Rude? Probably. But this was a person I used to date and have remained friendly with, so I felt he wouldn't be offended or surprised by my attempt to correct his language. He did end up editing his original post to say sex instead of gender. My hope is that someday all expecting parents will choose this word without having to be corrected by their rude ex-girlfriends.
Another couple posted some pictures from their "guns or glitter" party. Either they would be shooting guns into a cornfield or tossing glitter into the sky, depending on the gender. I didn't touch this one, or any subsequent post I've seen, and there have been many. I simply grew increasingly perturbed that people didn't seem to understand what was going wrong here.
Recently I came across a video labeled the "greatest gender reveal yet" and so of course I had to see just how high the ante had been upped. The couple, replete with cowboy boots, hats and plaid, were about to yank open a rodeo-style gate to reveal some kind of animal, which I guessed would have a dress on, or maybe a pair of overalls. Sure enough when they pulled the rope and swung the gate open, there was a shell-shocked little pony decorated with dozens of pink bows. "They're having a baby girl!" one woman shouted with joy. Yes, they are having a female baby. And sure, this is a joyous occasion. I don't have a problem with joy. But this is the baby's sex, which does not guarantee the baby's gender, neither of which guarantees the baby's preference for pink frosting.
We have to stop misusing language in a way that promotes the idea that gender is inextricably linked to our sex organs. We have to stop enacting hard and fast rules for children's behaviors, attitudes, preferences, and desires based on their biology. We have to allow children to grow up in a world that allows them to learn who they are for themselves -- that they can be who they want to be without judgment or bigotry or fear. They shouldn't be made to feel ashamed to like a certain color, toy, sport, or person who doesn't fit the mold. Because while we may feel that we are being cute when we announce whether the child will be wearing a pink dress, or a blue tie, aren't we telling the world who we think that child should be? Has to be? What if the girl doesn't want to wear pink? What if she wants to date women? What if the boy wants the Easy-Bake Oven? There is no room for that in this model. Gender reveals say, Welcome to the world. There are clear boundaries here. You will be girly, because you are a girl. You will be a little heartbreaker.
I recently read that Target has removed, or will be removing, gender labels from the children's sections of their stores, which I think is a great idea. Maybe other corporations will follow suit. If these companies are willing to change their language, why can't we? After all, this is a language problem. These are not gender reveals, these are sex reveals. That shouldn't be so hard to say. I know folks think it's a scary word, but we're not ten anymore. We shouldn't be so afraid of sex, or saying the word sex, that we create a Duggar culture of shame and ignorance that can lead to the destruction of lives. Maybe it isn't always about sex-shaming and being afraid. Maybe it's just ignorance that can be easily fixed with an informative conversation. Petfinder for example can't really be afraid to say the word sex can they? So why does their website have a filter for finding pets to adopt based on the animal's gender? I love Petfinder, and spend way too much time scrolling through pictures of sad puppies that I can't adopt because I live in a sad apartment with a sad no-pet policy. But mistakes like these are common and need to be addressed.
I understand that language evolves. I understand that my calling for an end to the use of the word gender where we should be using the word sex, is prescriptive, which is not exactly what I want to be. But this is not an issue that can be easily chalked up to the evolution of language, because it creates larger problems in how we understand gender identity. If we can easily exchange one word for the other then what we are saying is that gender is static. You can see it right there at birth with your own eyes. This idea would delegitimize people who were born in a body that doesn't match who they know themselves to be. This would make it harder for transgender people to be heard, or even believed. Allowing language to evolve in this way would not be evolution at all. It would be just the opposite.
It's okay to reveal the sex of your child to the world, if that's how you want to use social media. It's okay to be excited. But you don't need to do it by having your party guests vote on whether the child will be playing with guns or glitter. Of course there is another rant in me about guns, and if we're talking about dirty words that shouldn't be associated with children, isn't gun the one we should be worried about? I'm sure there is also a rant in me somewhere about glitter. But that's for another day.
Sex is not a word we should be afraid of. If we should be afraid of anything, it is the sex-shamey, gender roley, tragic way we are teaching our children that they must live -- that the organs they were born with define their gender and their place in society. Let's all make an effort to use our words according to their definitions. And leave the pink and blue cupcakes out of it.