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You may know your baby's sex, but you won't know their gender for years

Writer, knitter of crooked hats and baker of ugly pies. Mid-age wife and mother, with three smart and sassy daughters. Trying to write my way out of a paper bag and enjoying the view.  You can visit my blogs here and here.

It's not important to know the sex of every new child

Through a network I follow, a blog post popped up from a pregnant woman about how she is going to celebrate the "gender reveal" of her unborn child with scratch-off announcements. Not birth announcements, but gender announcements. As far as crafts go, the whole scratch-off thing was kind of cool, but, is this a new thing since I was last pregnant 17 years ago? Gender announcements?

Something in this was tugging at me, so I wrote a post and ran a draft by my friend Ashley Horan, MDiv, whose expertise and understanding I hoped would help me not sound like an ignorant mean girl. And it helped. Because that first paragraph? It has a mistake in it. I'm just going to quote Ashley for a few paragraphs here, because it was really instructive for me and I hope it will be for you, too.

"One thing that I wish more people would pay attention to," she wrote back to me (actually dictated an email to me while she nursed her child — what a pro!), "is the difference between sex and gender. Sex is the physical characteristics with which we are born that lead to medical professionals assigning us female or male at birth. (We have usually been taught that these fall along a binary, too — male or female — but of course there are also a wide range of manifestations of genitalia which gives us intersex folks.)"

"Gender, on the other hand," she continued, "is about how we self-identify, and how we present ourself. Gender doesn't fit into a neat male/female binary, either. Some people think there may be as many gender identities as there are people, since we all feel and perform our genders so differently."

So, if someone wanted to send out an announcement about what their child's body will resemble, the appropriate term would be a "sex reveal announcement." Yeah. That doesn't work so well, does it? Gonna give Great-Grandma the vapors with that one.

Ashley also shared with me the following story from her life and gave me permission to share it here, and I am sharing it because I think it is greatly illustrative of the differences she notes above: "When I was pregnant, I had a wonderful doctor who is great about queer stuff. But, after my 20-week ultrasound, she came in and asked me, 'So, do we know the gender of the baby?' To which I replied, 'Well, we know the sex — but we are unlikely to know the definitive gender for at least several years.' She laughed, and now uses that story as a teaching tool with residents."

Perhaps the reason the idea of the "gender reveal" kept nudging at me, is that it comes on the heels of several things that challenged me to grapple with the gender binary. Here are a few of them:
  1. Someone I love gave a public talk about their identity as gender queer, and for once and again I understood that labels are what we put on people to make our own lives easier.
  2. Rev. Gretchen Haley, as a part of the #sexUUality series (see below*), posted an excellent piece on her own identity which reinforced the same message.
  3. And then The Welcome Project, posted on Facebook I Can't Just Pick, a brief first-person narrative by a bisexual young woman that helped me to understand bisexuality in a way that I never really have before. (I'm sure I have asked people, "Why can't you just pick one?" at some point in my life, too.)

Having viewed, read and listened to these three things in quick proximity to reading about the sex reveal announcement, I'm telling you that my head and my heart were all in a stirred-up quagmire. I don't want to be all finger-waggy at the blog poster (and I hope I'm not coming across that way) because I'm guessing she has no more awareness or understanding of the difference between sex and gender than I did. I also am pretty sure that most expectant parents aren't thinking about the possibility that their child's gender may not align with their sex. But it is that: a possibility.

I grew up and lived with the gender binary. In fact, I grew up so damn stuck in "men and women" that while I knew about homosexuality, I just didn't get it. I was that idiot who, when in college and I met the first person to come out publicly as gay, started the argument, "How can you know you are gay if you've never had sex?"

Yes. That was me. I'm not proud of being that person, but I am proud that all these many years later I can say I was an idiot and I know better now. So I act better now.

I still don't fully understand loving more than one person at a time. I am also deeply entrenched in monogamy because loving and living with another person is complex. It's not just about sharing intimacy of the body; it is about sharing intimacies of our fears, our dreams, our f***ing finances (oy! now we are talking dirty!). I can barely handle this with one person and can't imagine being this continuously enmeshed with more than one. And guess what? That's my choice — to live in a monogamous relationship. Yay freedom! I also understand that other people can and do successfully navigate those particular waters.

But when that "sex reveal" announcement came up in my feed yet again, I realized I couldn't just let it go — I wanted to make this wonderful craft post into a greater teachable moment about how we start talking about the tiny people who are coming into our hearts and our homes and under our protection.

Why is it important to know the sex of every new child? Why is this the first question we ask a pregnant mother? The potty-mouthed mama bear in me wants to say, "Why is it any of our goddamn business?"

But I wasn't always this way. I read once about a couple intentionally not sharing the gender of their child with the world even after the birth because they didn't want to saddle their child with the preconceptions and expectations of them based on their genitalia. I thought it was crazy then. Now, I see the wisdom of it.

Too many people I know are struggling with the binary I grew up with — the same one you probably grew up with. They don't fit neatly in any category and have internalized the expectations they can't meet. We old people have to come to a series of new understandings, the first of which is other people's gender is of no consequence to us.

We have known for millennia (see Mac Ploetz's talk, same link as above for more academic references) that people don't fit into the "this" or "that" category. I know. I didn't get it either because I couldn't shake that stupid binary we all are so invested in where there are boys and there are girls. Boys do boy things and girls do girl things or we torment them into pretending that they fit the mold.

I write all this knowing that I am an idiot who took far too long to look at gender as a continuum. And if you are stuck in the binary, asking questions like, "Why does she dress like that?" or, "Why do I have to call her 'them?'" or, "Why can't he just dress like a boy?", I'm more than happy to have the conversation with you or share resources because once you get it, you will never "un-get" it. Your brain, your heart and your world will just continue to creak open ever further. Trust me. It's OK here — it's a lot richer and a lot more kind.

I'm struggling with how to end this because I don't want to rain on this one particular blogger's and all expectant parents' parades. Sex and gender are and have always been a part of how we know each other. I don't want to make people feel uncomfortable about sharing such information about their children. I'm just hoping that this post will help all parents remain open to the children they end up with and not the ones they expected. It makes for much more beautiful and deep relationships with the people you will know the best and love the deepest. And I know that's what all parents want: to raise confident, authentic and happy adults who love and trust their parents to be their first and best ally. I know that's what I want.

*Unitarian Universalists have a long history of courage in tackling issues around human sexuality — from campaigning for human rights, to pioneering innovative work in the Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum... join #UUs this month for a discussion of sex — the challenging parts, the beautiful parts, the spiritual parts and even the downright goofy parts. UU or not, everyone is welcome to join in the conversation this month at #sexUUality.

More on parenthood and gender

See why a boy in a princess costume just isn't a big deal
Parents finally reveal gender of 5-year-old
Decorating a gender neutral nursery

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