The Ethicist: Should I Go to a Gender-Reveal Party?

September 30, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Should I Go to a Gender-Reveal Party?”.

A close relation is pregnant with her first child and is having a gender-reveal party. She is overjoyed with the addition to our family, as am I. However, I am adamantly opposed to attending the gender-reveal party because it violates my moral code.

I have worked in activism for my entire professional life, and though I am cisgender, I have strong feelings about gender politics and equality. Gender-reveal parties — where parents and guests learn a baby’s gender together — violate my values because they reaffirm society’s gender binarism and inadvertently perpetuate the stigma against nonbinary genders.

I know I will never experience firsthand the challenges of being gender-nonconforming, but when I think about how I might feel, I would be very hurt knowing my parents had a gender-reveal party for me before I was born, with my incorrect gender. I know the nonbinary community faces much deeper, more urgent problems than this hypothetical situation, but even so I have a moral aversion to helping affirm society’s gender binarism. Should I attend the party? — Name Withheld, New York

My response: “What should I do?” … Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

I recommend a different perspective than asking what others think you should do. There are many choices you can make where you don’t know all the possible outcomes, who will like the results, who might get hurt, and so on. I think of it like looking down a ski slope that splits, the paths diverge so you can’t either past the first part, and you have to choose. Or choosing which wave to surf.

When you can never know all the information you wish you could but still have to choose or risk standing in the cold while others pass you by, in life or on the slopes, the best I can think to do is to know that whichever you choose, you’ll enjoy it or live it the best you can, and that you’ll take responsibility for making it work. Also not to judge your choice based on information or experience that came after you chose but couldn’t have known at the time.

The New York Times response:

First, let’s distinguish between two different issues. One is what you’re calling gender binarism — the idea that everyone is naturally either male or female. The other is the fact that trans people will identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned on the basis of their bodily appearance at birth. You could be trans in that sense and still believe in binarism: to say that you were assigned the wrong gender isn’t necessarily to reject the idea that there are two. But binarism doesn’t account for the great variety of intersex people, whose bodies have some elements that are typically male and some that are typically female; and it doesn’t account for the fact that not all people think of themselves as either male or female.

At the same time, a vast majority of people will have a gender identity that accords with their natal assignment. (Recent studies indicate the prevalence of transgender identity to be in the range of 0.5 to 1.3 percent; and an estimated 0.05 percent of infants are visibly intersex, rather than phenotypically male or female.) As a result, when ultrasound techs look at fetal genitals to determine the gender of a child, they have a very high chance of getting it right.

That leaves a small chance of getting it wrong — and so, in your hypothetical, the prospect of celebrating something that the child later wishes hadn’t been celebrated. Still, celebrating the discovery that a baby is a boy or a girl need not in itself stigmatize trans or intersex or nonbinary people. A parent celebrating the coming birth of a girl could be someone who’d be perfectly happy if the child turned out later to be a boy or neither a boy nor a girl. Indeed, as it becomes easier to identify intersex people prenatally, you could one day imagine having a party that revealed that the child was neither male nor female. And people who do have a hard time dealing with gender-nonconforming people aren’t likely to have their minds changed by the disappearance of gender-reveal parties.

If there’s a problem with these parties, it’s mainly that they encourage the idea that gender is fixed in the womb and by your body. Let’s call that biological determinism about gender. The science in this area is very much a work in progress. But we already know that gender identification isn’t fixed by your sexual organs and that the social meaning of gender is informed by culture. Many aspects of gender are not in that sense biological. You can’t necessarily read from people’s bodies what their gender means to them. That’s why biological determinism misrepresents the experiences of many more people than might first appear. Yes, it makes life harder for trans, nonbinary and intersex people, but not only for them.

In fact, your letter has left me wondering what the point of gender-reveal parties is supposed to be. Given that a child is very likely to have one gender or another, this simple fact isn’t terribly interesting news. And the party isn’t celebrating a particular outcome; the “reveal” comes only during the festivities. What’s being celebrated, I suppose, is that you now know (or think you know) one salient fact about your child. In a world free of biological determinism, this wouldn’t be much of a concern. But the actual practice of gender-reveal parties seems to involve the sort of stereotyping — pink for girls, blue for boys — that reinforces habits of mind you’re justly inclined to challenge.

Good-hearted people like you are trying to adjust our gender system to make it more comfortable for the full range of human responses to the sexual body. That’s an admirable thing. Along the way, we’re discovering how many of the things we do presuppose older, mistaken ideas about how sex and gender work. Gender-reveal parties may not be helping. But in the course of the historical reconfiguration of gender — which, in the past century, has already brought us widely accepted ideals of equality, if not yet their fulfillment — the color of cake frosting shouldn’t be close to a focus of concern. So go to the party, and join the prospective parents in celebrating the main thing they’re excited about, which is that they’re going to have a child. The mother, after all, is a close member of your family. And you’ll be around to help the child grow up with the right attitudes toward gender, however he or she (or they, a gender-neutral pronoun) turns out to identify.


I am the owner of a small company and needed to replace my steel security doors — a surprisingly expensive job. The best bid was from “Company P.” “Joe,” a P employee, said he could do the job on his own time for 25 percent less. I agreed and we signed a bid sheet with the Company P letterhead. “Joe” failed to show, and when I called Company P, they said he no longer worked for them. But because they are a national chain with a reputation to uphold, they agreed to honor the bid.

It turned out that extensive reframing of my building was necessary to accommodate the new doors, but again Company P agreed to honor the existing contract.

Am I guilty of taking financial advantage of a bad employee, or is the company responsible for failing to train an honest broker? Because it is a national chain, no one person will suffer for the loss of income. And yet I can’t seem to shake the idea that I am the one who is cheating. — Name Withheld

My response: There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

Whatever happened to lead to this state, everybody currently involved seems a consenting, sane, fully informed adult. Anyone who wants to decline can.

Besides the problem you describe, you say you feel guilty/anxious/angry/other emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

The New York Times response:

I’m afraid your sense of guilt is appropriate. You were, in the first instance, abetting an employee in letting down his company. That’s unethical, and it’s no excuse to say that his employers had failed to train him to be honest. Even if he didn’t understand that undercutting his employer was wrong, you did.

You were also assisting in a deception, because the quote he gave you on company letterhead was for work that he alone was going to be paid for. It speaks well of the folks at Company P that they’re honoring the agreement, but plainly they didn’t realize that the document was deceptive, and you haven’t set them straight. The fact that it’s a big company and will be able to carry the expense no more excuses the fraud than the fact that Costco has an allowance for “shrinkage” excuses the shoplifter.

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