Gender X and Deictic Relations

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

New York City recently joined California, Oregon, and Washington state with a recent change in law that allows for a third gender option – simply called “X”.

According to ABC7 in New York, the change “allows people to change their birth certificates to “X” by attesting that it reflects their ‘true gender identity.’ Parents also can choose “X” for newborns.”

From a behavioral science perspective, we can think of gender identity as a set of deictic relations – or ways of thinking and speaking that involve “I” vs “YOU.”    The Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) notes that “deictic relations seem to be a particularly important family of relational frames that may be critical for perspective-taking…These frames are unlike the others mentioned previously in that they do not appear to have any formal or nonarbitrary counterparts.”  In other words, many of the ways we relate things and events around us originate from physical properties, but not deictics.

When we say something is “bigger” or “smaller” than something, this is taken from our understanding of physical size.  We can then take those physical relations and apply them to the world around us in ways that have nothing to do with physical or formal properties (i.e., they are arbitrarily applicable).  For example, you may have been in an argument with someone who made you feel “small” even though your physical size was unchanged; or you may hear a piece of important news and say that the news is “big” even though physical size has nothing to do with it.

However, deictic relations, which form our sense of self, or our identity, don’t seem to have a physical basis.  According to ACBS, “frames that depend on perspective cannot be traced to formal dimensions in the environment at all; instead, the relationship between the individual and other events serves as the constant variable upon which these frames are based.”

This aligns with the general view that we construct our own gender identities, which may or may not correspond to our biological sex.  Psychology Today, for instance, denotes cisgender from transgender.  The former is a gender identity which traditionally corresponds to one’s sex, while the latter does not.  “Others” they noted “whose gender identity feels neither masculine nor feminine, may identify as non-binary.”

A few years ago, Facebook famously added over 50 gender options to their network.  If you are interested in learning more about gender identity you can read more about those options here.

What do you think about the role of deictics in gender identity?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which owns the top behavior analytic media outlet in the world,  bSci21Media aims to disseminate behavior analysis to the world and to support ABA companies around the globe through the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century blog and its subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurialbSciWebDesignbSciWriting, and the ABA Outside the Box CEU series.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  Dr. Ward has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward is passionate about disseminating behavior analysis to the world and growing the field through entrepreneurship. Todd can be reached at [email protected]

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  1. The idea that we can choose our gender and change it on any given day seems odd from a legal standpoint not to mention how confusing this must be for children. I think it is important that as a field we defer to biology and the natural sciences rather than hypothetical constructs and nonscientific language for determining gender. Here is a list of some of these gender pronouns: xe, xem, xyr, xyrs, xemself, ve, ver, vis, verself, ze/zie, zim, zie, zis, zieself, sie, hir, hirs, hirself, tey, ter, tem, ters, e, em, eir, eirs, emself. What makes this socially significant is that a bill was recently passed in Canada stating it is now a hate crime to not refer to an individual by their chosen gender pronoun. I have compassion for the LGBT community and equal rights for all individuals but there is no precedent for compelled speech in english common law and we should think twice before adopting some of these pronouns.

    • I think that as a field it is our ethical duty to respect the dignity and culture of the client. It is not up to a clinician to impose gender upon someone who they are working with b/c that clinician may be more comfortable with the traditional gender binary, rather than the stated and self-identified gender of the client. That being said, there is biological evidence (not that there needs to be) that the gender an individual identifies as corresponds to that gender on a neurological level. – this article details some of this. Back to our ethical duty to provide services that are sensitive to the cultural needs of our clients, it is important to NOT misgender clients and, when we inevitably do (it happens) to own it. If anyone has a transgender client, learning about the cultural dynamics and bullying, and life-threatening circumstances they often endure would be crucial to providing ethical services.

  2. I was conceptualizing gender as a hypothetical construct i.e. a variable not directly observed, difficult to measure and based off self-report. It may be true that our identity does not have a physical basis as you propose in the article but our identity and our beliefs, for that matter, can be measured best by our behavior rather than by who or what we choose to label ourselves. I was unaware that our gender was even listed on our birth certificate before this article.

    • Thanks for the clarification! How we talk about ourselves is directly observed behavior and thus not a hypothetical construct in that sense. Functional Analytic Psychotherapy does a particularly good job at tracking language as behavior. From our perspective, we don’t need to take language as a way to infer about unobservable/hypothetical states, we just take it as behavior.

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