Gender confusion is a nonclinical term that refers to an individual's feeling of not identifying with his or her assigned gender. In popular and scientific discourse, this term has been associated with diagnostic categories for transgendered and transsexual individuals, such as gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder. Gender confusion may also be used to describe behavior that is a symptom of these conditions. More generally, gender confusion refers to children, adolescents, or adults who either consciously or unconsciously do not present, behave, or identify as strictly male or female. In addition to being used to describe an individual with trans, androgynous, or indeterminate gender, the term can also refer to the reaction such a person might provoke in a social context. In this latter sense gender confusion describes the uncertainty some people feel when confronted with a gendered reality that disrupts the male-female gender binary.
THE ROOTS OF GENDER CONFUSION
As with scientific studies on the causes of homosexuality, studies have not produced sufficient evidence for why some people do not identify with the gender that has been assigned to them. The use of the word confusion in relation to this phenomenon is both apropos and misleading. Gender is a confusing and complicated construct, but those who exhibit gender confusion may not actually be confused about what gender they are. The polarized gender binary likely produces widespread confusion because women and men rarely identify with every aspect of feminine and masculine stereotypes and roles. Nevertheless, the term names behavior that blurs the line between male and female and carries a connotation that being confused about one's gender is abnormal. Ironically, those who identify as transgender or transsexual or are categorized as such rarely discuss confusion. In fact, most trans individuals feel that they were trapped in the wrong body from a young age and describe their condition as having always existed (Ames 2005). In other words there is little doubt or confusion for them about which gender they actually are. From this perspective gender confusion is instead a social term that polices the borders of gender and relegates nonnormative genders as immature, undeveloped, or deviant genders.
THE CULTURAL TERRAINOF GENDER CONFUSION
Although some cultures are more tolerant about gender expression and variation (a typical example is the American Indian two-spirit who embodies a fusion of masculinity and femininity), cross-culturally, those who do not fit into normative gender categories are tormented and discriminated against. Gender confusion can result in assault, rape, and discrimination for the person who does not conform to gendered expectations. Gender confusion, and the homophobic and transphobic violence sometimes directed at it, can be tied to what feminist and queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1985) has called homosexual panic—the pervasive anxieties in modern European and North American culture that surround nonnormative sexuality and gender. Cultural manifestations of gender confusion can be found in childhood exploration and play, eroticization in fashion advertisements and styles, and backlash against people whose genders do not conform to social standards.
Cross-gender identification in children has been well documented; however, the frequency of this behavior and the ultimate social implications of it are uncertain (Zucker 1985, Bradley 1985). Controversial claims regarding a direct correlation between childhood gender confusion (or cross-gender identification in children) and homosexuality or transsexuality have never been confirmed. Classic examples of gender confusion are the young boy who plays dress-up and the young girl who plays with cars and footballs. These behaviors are viewed as reparable and, increasingly, as ordinary. In a revealing double standard gender disorders are typically diagnosed when girls make claims of being anatomically male but when boys make any insinuation that they prefer feminine behavior and activities or would rather not have a penis (Sedgwick 1991). Many scholars with radical positions cite the psychological obsession with gender confusion—especially in its manifestation as gender identity disorder in childhood, which is in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV)—as merely a shift in the continued pathologization of homosexuality.
Pat, a character in the popular television show Saturday Night Live (SNL), is a humorous, if simplified, manifestation of gender confusion both as an ambiguous gender status and as a reaction felt by people when confronted by androgynous or gender-bending individuals. In these skits SNL performer Julia Sweeney dresses as an unattractive, androgynous person who consistently deflects the efforts of celebrity guests to discover Pat's gender in indirect ways. In preparing for the character Sweeney attempts to drop all gender-coded behavior, movement, and affect, and the skits satirize gender's elusive power and society's extremely regulated gender codes.
A particularly infamous social site of gender confusion is the gender-segregated bathroom. For transgendered individuals as well as women who have short hair or men who have long hair, confusion in the bathroom can be comical, frustrating, or dangerous. The segregation of bathrooms, a convention implemented globally to a range of degrees, is representative of the polarizing dichotomy of gender and the social expectation that individuals must fit themselves (in this case, literally) into one of these two distinct boxes. For individuals who do not identify as male or female, who may be transitioning from one gender to another, or who simply do not exhibit the stereotypical characteristics of one gender, navigating this seemingly simple space entails much anxiety, safeguarding, and fortitude.
A final cultural manifestation of gender confusion is presented in the context of global militarism and reveals how racialized encodings of gender can produce a different kind of gender confusion. The scholar Zillah Eisenstein (2004) cites the use of gender confusion as a tactic of torture that was used at Abu Ghraib, a five-compound prison just outside Baghdad run by American soldiers after the former Iraqi government was ousted from power. The rape and torture of Muslim men in the prison at the hands of white American female soldiers represents an ultimate humiliation because the men were treated as women—the men's genders were essentially confused by these acts. In Eisenstein's take on the scandal, the fact that the abusers were white women further confuses because the women inflict the type of abuse and cruelty that is usually directed at them. Swapping genders with the men, the women, as decoys of this masculinist endeavor, perpetuate a racist imperialism while obscuring its patriarchal origins.
Ames, Jonathan, ed. 2005. Sexual Metamorphosis: An Anthology of Transsexual Memoirs. New York: Vintage.
Bradley, Susan J. 1985. "Gender Disorders in Childhood: A Formulation." In Gender Dysphoria: Development, Research, Management, ed. Betty W. Steiner. New York: Plenum Press.
Bruhm, Steven, and Natasha Hurley, eds. 2004. Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Eisenstein, Zillah. 2004. "Sexual Humiliation, Gender Confusion, and the Horrors of Abu Ghraib." Women's Human Rights Net. Available from http://www.whrnet.org/docs/issue-sexualhumiliation.html.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1985. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1991. "How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay." Social Text 29: 18-27.
Zucker, Kenneth J. 1985. "Cross-Gender-Identified Children." In Gender Dysphoria: Development, Research, Management, ed. Betty W. Steiner. New York: Plenum Press.