Is going bonkers on Facebook how one should accept a blessing from the Almighty?
Some ten years ago I was invited to what was billed as a “gender reveal.” It was a dinner at a local Italian restaurant, complete with dessert in the form of an iced cake, the pink or blue inside of which would reveal the sex of the host couple’s unborn baby. The dozen or so people assembled at the long dinner table enjoyed slices of pink birthday-like cake after our lasagna, eggplant parmigiana, and spaghetti and meatballs.
I am not sure I had ever heard of a “gender reveal” until that dinner party a decade ago, but since then I have noticed that the phenomenon has grown increasingly tacky, even to the point of criminality. Social media has made the whole thing infinitely worse. Scrolling through news, I often find stories of people who do rather obnoxious gender reveals using piñatas, balloons, nail polish, smoke bombs, fireworks, and even garishly-lit landmarks. In New Hampshire in 2021, one couple made the news when they detonated 80 pounds of a high explosive called Tannerite as a way to make known the sex of their unborn child. (I later discovered that Tannerite comes in a gender-reveal kit!) Police were called after neighbors reported cracked foundations and general panic caused by the mammoth blast. It’s a wonder nobody was killed.
Gender-revealing is getting entirely out of hand.
Things weren’t always so bad, though. A few years ago I was helping a family member sort through some old boxes. Inside one we found some short cigars in plastic wrapping with blue labels reading “It’s A Boy.” Judging from the label and the general condition of the tobacco leaf, the cigars must have been from the 1970s. Readers my age and older will probably remember that, before gender reveals were done with desserts, balloons, or ballistics, it was the custom for a father to pass out cigars to people in a hospital delivery room when his and his wife’s new baby had been born. Sometimes the cigars had a paper label indicating the child’s sex. It was a very modest and heartwarming way of sharing in the joy of the gift of life.
By contrast, contemporary gender reveals seem, to me at least, to be less about sharing joy and more about getting in people’s faces — God’s face, too. A gender reveal often feels like a fist-pump on a medal stand. “I snagged a baby boy!” “Woo hoo, a girl, I rock!”
But isn’t a baby something created, not accomplished? To put it rather crudely, didn’t the gender-revealers, in fact, do precisely nothing beyond some nocturnal calisthenics to obtain the prize of which they boast?
A gender reveal seems to fetishize a child, turning him or her into a kind of toy or vehicle one is determined to possess. The truth, though, is that parents-to-be only care for a child, who is a gift from God. Going bonkers on Facebook over something Heaven-sent is not quite how one accepts blessings from the Almighty. (When’s the last time you filmed yourself, for example, receiving Holy Communion?)
My curmudgeonly take is that the child in the womb is a kind of alien visitor, someone entirely new to this planet, this universe, who must be treated with reverence and awe. Spray-painting walls and scattering chalk dust — to say nothing of exploding dynamite and shaking homes off of their foundations — is hardly the way to welcome so dignified a guest.
At the birth of the Savior, Mary and Joseph quietly wrapped the Christ Child in swaddling clothes and laid Him gently on a bed of straw. The barnyard animals around the Holy Family knelt instinctively. The angels attending Jesus’ birth bowed low, folding their wings in trembling supplication. God did not light up the stars and galaxies in a gaudy blue to crow about the event. The firmament went silent. All of Creation was rapt, transfixed. Joy replaced the laws of physics for a moment as God’s work was tended to in a rickety shed.
The Nativity scene reminds us that children come to us as solemn trusts. It also reminds us that the word gender is wrong. What is revealed at birth, or now on ultrasound, is not gender but sex. Christ came into Mary’s immaculate womb a male. He was born a boy. He became a man. His chromosomes were set from the moment of conception. And this by His very own design. It is a mystery which the Church has always tried to honor by requiring priests, who act in persona Christi, to share His physical characteristics.
Human beings come in two sexes. Those sexes are immutable. Our contemporary confusion comes not from sex, but from gender, a fluid and cultural concept, a performance and not a fact. Gender has all the connotations of choice, or consumerist empowerment. Gender-revealers might as well say, “We’re having a boy-like human, who may of course change his/her/their/xir mind later on.” Surely few parents think this way. But using the word gender opens the door to what is now called a “spectrum.” The pretty obvious fact of having either a male or a female set of bodily characteristics is a given for human beings. We don’t get to go back to the service counter and have our order revised. “Gender,” by contrast, implies gradations, an array of options to be retooled at will down the line.
Which brings us to perhaps the most obnoxious thing about gender reveals. Namely, that we human beings already had one, in the Garden of Eden. God made Adam. Then He made Eve. Just those two. He revealed gender, revealed sex, to them and the rest of us for all time.
In the current culture wars, conservatives often insist, rightly, that sex is a biological fact. Yes, that is true. Each of my cells cries out that I have X and Y chromosomes. I can wear wigs and makeup until the cross-dressing cows come home; I can have horrific, mutilating “surgeries” as often as I like. What I will end up with is precisely zero change to my sex. It’s “baked in.”
But sex is more than just biological fact. Biological fact is a halfway house that doesn’t do justice to the subject of sex. For, biological fact is ultimately created fact. God made that. God’s “gender reveal” is what matters most. DNA, chromosomes, proteins, hormones — all of it is an utter mystery. Human beings can know how the body works to some extent. We can conduct experiments and learn virtually endless things about our physical parts and chemical processes. But in the end all we will have is second-order facts. We can have enough data about human biology to fill all the servers on the planet, and we still will be no closer to understanding the original gender reveal than were Adam and Eve themselves. Biology is just a very detailed way of saying, “God made something completely wondrous and mysterious. And we don’t know how or why.”
Sex, and every other attribute of human beings, as well as the brute fact of humans’ existence — all of this is an unfathomable mystery. I am a man, a Homo sapiens, with a particular genetic sequence that supercomputers can crack open and analyze as so much code. Wonderful. But who am I? God only knows. Because God made me. I can never break the fourth wall and see what goes on beyond. All I can do is give thanks for His gender reveal, and know that He loved me into existence as a male.
A German-Korean philosopher named Byung-chul Han has written some beautiful books about perils of modern thought. One of the things troubling Han is transparency. Why must we obsessively make everything about ourselves readily known by everyone? Han asks. We post to social media everything that comes into our pretty little heads. (This is my characterization, not Han’s.)
And, what is pornography if not part of this mania for revealing? But pornography is sterile because it reveals nothing, zero, about pornography’s victims. It goes no deeper than the level of biology — more transparency that runs headlong into the opaque mystery of the human person.
Han attributes the incessant need to reveal, to make transparent, to neo-liberalism. As far as Han’s argument goes, he may have a point. He certainly makes it eloquently and eruditely enough to convince many skeptics.
But there is something deeper, I think. What drives us to reveal everything about ourselves is not a fleeting ideology but a flaw in our natures that we ought to call “original sin.” For it’s separation from God. It’s what got us kicked out of the Garden in the first place. Adam and Eve were innocent of lust until they fell. After than, man and woman “knew” one another. It was a kind of reveal, but one that can easily get bogged down in the level of mere flesh. That’s where sin comes in. That’s where revealing can stray over into pride, into ownership, into vainglory, into boasting about that which one has not brought about.
I know I will get angry letters for saying this, but is a modern “gender reveal,” with all the smoke and explosions and piñata whacking and airhorn blasting, really any different from the Fall? What are we saying when we blast a block of blue chalk to smithereens and film it for the entire human race to flip through, bored, on their cell phones? Are we saying, “Behold, God is great!” Or are we saying, “Check us out, we got ourselves a boy! And some TNT!”
The answer to that, to how we conceptualize the now-ubiquitous “gender reveal,” reveals a lot about how we see ourselves as human beings. We think we reveal gender, but gender reveals reveal us instead. Are we mysteries, marvelously and fearfully wrought by God? Or are we de facto biologists, entertained for a time by the novelty of a new specimen?
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