Happy Pride, everyone! It’s that joyous time that comes but once a year when corporations rainbow-wash everything in hopes of getting our money (at least since 2015 when marriage equality was legalized) and march in Pride while they continue to perpetuate gender stereotypes and treat their queer and trans employees like shit! Yes, it’s the month when bakeries and bakers who make gender-reveal cakes all year suddenly come out with rainbow baked goods and pronoun cookies as if they were real allies! And who could forget the time-honored tradition of Wilton featuring rainbow cakes on Insta while they and other straight, cisgender bakers do backflips to say that rainbow cakes make a great summer birthday cake, definitely not any other special occasions happening this month?! No homo! (sarcasm)
Which brings me to our topic today: Kim Severson’s article “It’s a Girl! It’s a Boy! And for the Gender-Reveal Cake, It May Be the End” for The New York Times. The New York Times’ coverage of LGBTQIA issues is consistently inconsistent and often embarrassing. After years of forgetting the B in LGBT (“gay and transgender” is a perennial favorite, even when they’re discussing biphobia) and a recent pearl-clutching article on the dangers of chest-binding (link goes to the rebuttals), I had high hopes when I clicked the link my friend sent me. My heart immediately sank when I saw the flavor text: “A decade on, this food phenomenon [gender reveal cakes] has spawned videos, bakeries — and some resistance, as gender issues grow more complicated.” NYT, back on their bullshit!
Look, just because cisgender folks willfully choose to ignore the transgender community and to systemically enforce their ideas about binary gender on us doesn’t make gender more complicated than it was in the past. There are no good ol’ days of binary gender. There have always been gender diverse people. What there hasn’t always been are “gender reveal” cakes.
The history section is well researched but interspersed with a large amount of hand wringing that “cake is asked to do so much” for social occasions: retirement parties, birthdays, holidays. I think what the author means is that, while cakes have been historically used for celebrations, themed, decorated cakes are now de riguer for contemporary special occasions. You don’t just get a cake for a birthday, you order a cake that has the recipients’ favorite movie, fandom, or designs on it. My own cake-decorating here on the blog is the same: most of my decorating tells a story or is a direct reference to an interest of the recipient. I reserve non-themed cakes for weeknight desserts and dinner parties. However, without the explanation about the ubiquitousness of themed cakes, this section reads like “Won’t anyone think of the cake?!”
Severson continues, “But here’s a reveal that will likely come as good news to cakes everywhere: they [the cakes] may no longer have to announce the sex of an impending baby.” This shift is due to both bakers getting sick of making them as well as increased public knowledge about gender diversity, specifically thanks to nonbinary and trans activists.
A note on language: these cakes are not really announcing the “sex.” While third-wave feminism relied (and continues to rely, for those who haven’t caught up) heavily on the idea that “sex is biological, gender is social,” the fourth-wave intersectional feminism idea of gender is that “gender is gender.” Biologically, your chromosomes provide a suggestion for your body structure, but they don’t determine your gender. “Revealing” what external genitalia your child may have only reveals the social norms you’re trying to push the child into—yes, even if you identify as feminist, even if you have transgender friends, even if you’re queer, and even if you’re critical of gender roles.
It’s easy for “progressive” folks to claim that “only bigots are transphobes.” Transphobia and ciscentrism in “progressive” communities and individuals is a real thing! For example, how many abortion-rights activists use language that excludes nonbinary and intersex individuals and trans men with uteruses? And how many of them do that on purpose?
Let’s take the reaction “allies” had when I used my personal social media to discuss my experiences as a nonbinary person, particularly about lack gender-neutral restroom access and the problem of gender-reveal cakes. If you’ve been following this blog and my work, you’re probably aware of my stance on gender-reveal cakes and parties: as a queer nonbinary person, I find gender reveal cakes to be transphobic, queerphobic, gender essentialist, and reductive. What you may not know is that I also used to use my personal social media posts as opportunities for outreach with cisgender/straight friends and acquaintances.
Some of my friends and acquaintances reacted positively and were glad to have more ideas on how to support their transgender peers. Some didn’t say much but were listening. However, starting around the summer of 2016 to the fall of 2018, I started getting harassed by a couple of straight cisgender former classmates and two bisexual cisgender women from a bi group I used to help lead. When I posted content on my personal social media about being genderqueer, the damage that the gender binary (including gender reveal cakes) does to people like me, and how to be supportive, their transphobia came out of the woodwork.*
“V,” the male former classmate who harassed me, made a transphobic comment on a picture of a gender neutral bathroom sign I posted, saying that the stylized gender-neutral person on the sign looked like a vagina. (I think he meant a uterus and ovaries but who knows.) When I told him that cisgender people don’t get to make jokes about trans issues, he then got upset by the term cisgender. This devolved into a conversation that started with me giving him some trans-inclusivity resources and finished with him claiming cis was etymologically related to “sissy” (it’s not and also that’s queerphobic and transmisogynistic) and that he was not a “cis-tern or the Cis-tine Chapel.” (Can’t make this stuff up!)
The three women who harassed me were all mothers and seemed to think that my posting about what would have helped me as a nonbinary child and young adult (again, on my own social media, not commenting on theirs) were direct attacks on their parenting style. They all acted like their experiences as cisgender mothers overrode my knowledge of my own gender. One, my former classmate “K,” got upset when I posted an article about doulas and midwives who were changing their practices to be more inclusive of nonbinary parents, including using the correct pronouns for their nonbinary and trans masculine gestational parents as well as partners of gestational parents. She wrote that she was a biologist and that having uteruses and giving birth were something only women can do. Biology is actually a lot more complicated than that.
The other, “J” (backed up by her friend “M”) said that no one did gender reveal cakes. When I pointed her to the wealth of evidence on social media (#genderreveal has over a million posts on Instagram), she changed tack and said that gender reveals and looking for genitals in ultrasounds were fun, not problematic. According to her, “the sex” was “the only thing you could know” about the baby before it was born. When I responded that you couldn’t know a child’s gender until the child told you and that gender also doesn’t really tell you anything about a person’s personality or interests, she said she had had to have a chromosomal test for genetic diseases, so she “definitely” knew the “sex” of her child. I responded that fourth-wave feminism had moved on from “sex vs gender” and that trans-inclusive feminism, as I’ve stated above, was “gender is gender.” J and M demanded examples of gender neutral kids and said it wasn’t possible to raise a child like Baby Storm. My entire point was that if we change individually and also institute systemic change, nonbinary and gender diverse kids can just be free to be who they are or become. Instead of learning and thinking about how to be more inclusive, they both told me about how they were such good allies to transgender people and were already doing as much as they could, which was ironic since I had observed both of them being transphobic not just to me but to other nonbinary folks and transgender women in our bi group.
One thing I’ve noticed about TERFs and garden-variety transphobia is that people seem to think that by coming out as a different gender than we were assigned, we’re negating cisgender people’s genders. According to lesbian TERFs, nonbinary AFAB folks (such as myself) and trans men are somehow “limiting the lesbian dating pool” (as if they’d date us anyway). I get the sense that my rejecting gender/genital essentialism about my body makes cisgender men have gay panic and cisgender women feel like I’m rejecting “my biology,” whatever the fuck that means. Whatever their specific brand of transphobia, these people harassed me for roughly two years total between the four of them. Some interactions lasted days; others, like J’s, lasted over a year. It was exhausting, demoralizing, and infuriating. The gender police were not all misogynist men like V; they were also cisgender women who hid their bigotry under pink pussy hats.”**
Reading this NYT article reminded me of all those interactions with that specific flavor of nonbinary-phobic trans-exclusionary “feminists.” I’m not going to mince words: “But is it really that bad? Is it even real?” is the same ignorant hot take every cookie-demanding cisgender fake ally has. The conclusion of Severson’s article is essentially “Bakers are sick of gender reveals, and binary and nonbinary transgender people are saying they are actively harmed by this practice, but if the non-oppressed majority thinks it’s fun, it must be okay!”
Severson did reach out to some trans folks, and the parts of the article worth reading are the (too) short interviews with activists who explain why gender reveals are such a problem. Molly Woodstock (they/them), the host of the podcast Gender Reveal, is one of the people interviewed:
Gender-reveal cakes, Mx. Woodstock said, are losing popularity because they fetishize babies’ genitals and underscore outdated social constructs of gender roles. “It’s not so much the noting of what sexual organs a baby has, but the rather aggressive nature of assuming what those genitals mean,” they said.
When people who post their videos and photos of gender-reveal parties on Instagram accidentally tag the Gender Reveal podcast, Mx. Woodstock sometimes uses it as an opportunity to provide a little education. “I might say, ‘This is a convenient time to remind you that the genitals of your baby don’t determine the baby’s gender.’”
The poster usually removes the tag and blocks the podcast’s account.
Edit: I was catching up on Gender Reveal and had not listened to Episode 49 when I wrote this. In that episode, Woodstock talks about their negative experiences with NYT and Severson, including being misgendered multiple times and being told they couldn’t (and then could) use “Mx.” as their title in the original draft of the article. Fucking yikes.
At this point, I’d hoped that Severson would wrap up the article and talk about the state of transgender rights in the U.S. Instead, she asked some cisgender people what they thought:
Besides, it’s kind of fun, said David Feder, a registered dietitian in Chicago and an executive editor of Prepared Foods magazine. He and his wife, the comedian Kat Herskovic, went to a Whole Foods Market with a sealed envelope containing their lab results, and asked for a gender-reveal cake. They opened the box to discover together, without a party, that they would be having a son.
“What is wrong with these people?” Mr. Feder said of the cakes’ critics, whom he likened to people who give out granola bars instead of candy on Halloween. “It’s just pure joy,” he said. “Why wouldn’t anyone want the maximum amount of joy?”
Because it’s not joy. It’s the introduction to a life already laid out for you, and if you cannot conform to the compulsory cisheterosexuality (or cisgender identity if your parent/s are queer but still believe in binary gender) your parents have brought you into, what then? Is actively contributing to the oppression of gender diverse people joy? Is that “joy” worth our lives?
I’ll return to this idea momentarily, but first, for the “final word,” Severson asked another cisgender person, Rose Levy Beranbaum, a respected baker and cake cookbook author, what she thought of the trend. Levy Beranbaum admits she didn’t even know what a gender-reveal cake was until a reporter asked. The question sets up her up to give an ignorant “cake expert” answer that will bolster the cis agenda:
“I think you should have some respect for cake,” she said.
Still, she takes a softer stand on gender-reveal cakes — even though she had never heard of a gender-reveal cake until a reporter inquired.
“I’m really a classicist,” she said. “I’m about things that are here to last and that are delicious. So if there’s a way to do it so it would be good to eat, why not? It’s yet another way to present a cake.”
Asking cisgender people if they think gender reveals are a good idea completely misses the point. There are cisgender people who are queer or gender non-conforming (whether in regard to gender expression, appearance, profession or hobby) or just good allies, who are troubled by gender reveals, of course. But for a cisgender reporter, even a lesbian one, to ask cisgender people what they think about something that they don’t perceive as having as huge impact on them as it does on transgender people? That’s sloppy. It’s the same “I’m not being oppressed by it, so I don’t see the problem!” argument all over again.
The New York Times, who only recently started using the gender-neutral title Mx. and singular they pronouns for their subjects and interviewees, doesn’t actually care about trans rights or trans liberation. Along with a number of other publications, including The Stranger, they often publish transphobic, badly researched think pieces by authors who are not qualified to write about them. You want to know the real impact of gender reveal cakes, binders, or binary bathrooms? Hire a transgender writer! Take our lived experiences seriously! Reframe the article and put the cisgender fragility in the middle–as the problem–and the trans folks at the end as the experts addressing the problem. It’s doubly insulting that a lesbian writer would write this without any sense of queer solidarity with her trans peers. It’s not that cake is asked to do so much, it’s that cisgender folks are so obsessed with the gender binary that no medium is safe, not even food.
For many cisgender individuals, the connection between gender-reveal cakes and serious social issues like the ten Black trans women who have been murdered in 2019 seems like a huge leap. Gender reveal cakes for fetuses and infants—for anyone other than transgender adults coming out—enforce the idea that gender is based on genitals and that gender assigned at birth is immutable. Seeing the vitriol spewed by cisgender individuals, including queer ones and supposed allies, over “taking away their fun,” as I did on my social media, is just the beginning. Those rigid ideas about gender fuel TERFs launching hate campaigns, crashing Pride with anti-trans messages, misgendering, harassing, and doxxing trans women. Those ideas allow our government to ban transgender individuals from serving in the armed forces and to allow doctors to refuse to treat transgender patients because of “religious reasons.” Those ideas are responsible for an uptick in hate crimes. Those ideas prevent me from having legal documents showing my correct gender and, were I to get my gender markers updated, may result in violence or refusal of care or service when I show my ID, leaving me in a double bind. Gender reveals are not directly responsible for transgender deaths in the sense that someone died at a gender-reveal party (yet). However, gender reveals represent a child’s the initiation into a world that has already decided for them that they must be heterosexual and cisgender—and wants to prevent gender diversity from existing by any means necessary. And as young men report increasing hostility to LGBTQ people, now is the time to break the binary and end gender-reveals once and for all.
Fake allyship isn’t allyship at all. This isn’t an issue with multiple “sides.” Over and over in this article, Severson writes of the need to respect cake and its limits. But when will The New York Times and bakeries start respecting transgender lives?
*The following examples are condensed version of these interactions and are not inclusive of every single time I have encountered transphobia, bi/queerphobia or sexism, including street harassment, photos taken of me without my consent, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, purposeful misgendering, gaslighting, and workplace harassment. These examples are specifically about gaslighting under the guise of feminist allyship.
**After all of this, I decided that I didn’t want to be a teachable moment anymore. Blocking K and V instead of continuing to try to teach them through my personal life was easy, although the interactions left me deeply hurt. What wasn’t easy quitting the supposedly trans-inclusive bi group I had been a part of for four years after being gaslit by the leadership, who refused to deal with J in a timely or transparent way. Despite my repeated complaints, D had continued to invite J to events and refused to speak with her about her transphobia, likely due to de-facto leader D’s own transphobia. When I announced why I was quitting the group D deleted my post, misgendered me, and claimed it was a personal argument between J and me.