They say a lot more about our culture than they do about the sex of our soon-to-be children.
I know you’ve been wondering what on earth has been causing the outbreak of wildfires in 2018, a year that has set records not just in California (which has experienced the largest blaze on record) but also in Scandinavia, where in July a fire broke out for the first time north of the Arctic Circle.
President Trump visited California in the wake of this deadly fire season and offered neither solace nor sympathy, let alone any awareness of the role climate change may have played. Instead, he allowed as how one of the issues was California’s failure to “rake the forest floor.” Online this observation has been mocked as #RakeNews.
But I am here to tell you that at least one of the fires — the Sawmill Fire in Arizona, which burned 45,000 acres last spring — is the result of a much more complex problem: gender reveal parties.
Back on April 23, 2017, a man named Dennis Dickey and his wife, Rita, gathered their friends in the desert south of Tucson to unveil the sex of their forthcoming baby. The festivities included detonating an explosive called Tannerite that puffs blue or pink smoke. You know, the way one does. Mr. Dickey shot the explosive with a high-power rifle, and in short order there was a column of blue smoke rising in the Arizona desert.
Unfortunately, also rising in the desert were flickering flames from the dry brush that the Tannerite had likewise ignited. Thanks to a video released by the Forest Service last month, You can watch the whole thing unfold on YouTube. The video ends with someone shouting, “Start packing up! Start packing up!” The resulting fire raged for over six days and took more than 800 firefighting personnel to contain.
Mr. Dickey, who works as a Border Patrol agent, has described the day as “probably the worst of his life” and has been put on probation for five years. He has agreed to pay the state back over $8 million in damages for the Sawmill fire, starting with an initial down payment of $100,000. Because the fire was clearly an accident, Mr. Dickey hasn’t been charged with arson or lost his job with the Border Patrol. This, even though you’d have to think that one of the main ways of protecting the border would not be setting it aflame.
Still, all of this trouble could have been avoided if there was no such thing as a gender reveal party.
If, like me, you’ve been out of the loop, gender reveal parties are a thing, and by a thing, I mean a robustly advancing sector of the “party industry.” One retailer, Party City, sells a million gender reveal party items a year.
The makers of Tannerite, meanwhile, advertise their product as “Best. Baby. Gender. Reveal. Ever.” in a goofy video set to a death-metal soundtrack that suggests that part of the fun of sharing your baby’s sex with your friends is also the chance to blow things up by using a high-power rifle as detonator.
There are other clever ways of revealing your baby’s gender. If you have a few hours free, you can find online videos of parents shooting off blue or pink water from fire hoses to announce the joyful news or slicing open a cake filled with colored marbling. One family invited friends over and had their pet alligator bite open a colored balloon. I like that one, but as I watched it I had reason afresh to consider the state of Florida, a place that the more I learn about it, the less I understand.
I remember when the obstetrician revealed the genders of our own children, back in the day, and I recall well the sense of wonder the news brought us. Knowing the sex of our child felt as if we had cut in half the number of possible futures our family might find itself in. There’s a way in which, in the heart of pregnancy, that was very comforting.
But celebrating a child’s gender before it’s born is a tricky business. It sets expectations for who that child will be. It also leaves the unfortunate impression that gender is the most important thing to celebrate about that child.
And sometimes it’s just plain wrong.
As a late-transitioning transgender person, I’ve experienced both sides of a lot of this world. I have been both a best man and a matron of honor (and I can tell you that being a matron of honor is a lot more fun; being best man felt a little bit like being a security guard at a very sketchy nightclub). I’ve attended bachelor parties as well as bridal showers. (In this instance, I’d give the nod to bachelor parties, although that may be only because the one I went to in my boy days featured a guy named Amazing Larry riding a unicycle while juggling bowling pins and wearing a leotard.) At the bridal shower, my girlfriends and I mostly said ooh and ahh as we opened up boxes of high-end lingerie.
Which was fun, but let’s be honest: Victoria’s Secret is no match for an Amazing Larry.
As a transgender person I thought my eyes were pretty wide open when it came to gender issues. I tried to avoid defining either of my children based on their sex and encouraged them to find their own path, wherever it might lead.
But I was still caught off guard when my older child came out to me as transgender, at age 23. The news stunned me and left me, for a little while, unable to speak.
Then I put my arms around her, just as my own mother had put her arms around me, and told her that I loved her, just as my own mother had said those words to me.
Would a moment like this have come about if I’d greeted the news of my child’s gender, back in 1994, with an exploding Tannerite device ignited with a shotgun?
Possibly. But I’m hoping that in spite of all the mistakes I’m sure I made as a parent over the years, letting my child know that I would always love her, no matter what her gender, was not one of them.
What does bringing a new life into the world actually mean, in the end, besides lighting a fire, passing the flame of your own life on to a new generation? But I can assure you, that fire will glow whether your child is male or female or even something in between.
There are a lot of things to celebrate about a new baby. Gender isn’t one of them.
Instead, we should celebrate our child’s humanity — with all of its complex, contradictory potential — with openheartedness and with love.