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Identity

Snapchat's Gender-Swapping Photo Filters Can Result in Real Transphobia

"There’s a fine line between encouraging people to take gender less seriously and not considering trans realities."

by Serena Sonoma
May 16 2019, 7:47pm

Photo by Zackary Drucker for The Gender Spectrum Collection.

Last week, Snapchat rolled out a new feature that allows users to view a gender-swapped version of themselves. Screenshots of the filters popped up across social media, with at least one person going so far as use a “female” version of himself to match with people on Tinder.

Gender-swapping filters are nothing new—this form of technology has been used for years in apps like FaceApp—but the popularity of the Snapchat filters has caused concern among some members of the transgender and gender-nonconforming community.

Dana Vivian-White, a non-binary speaker and trainer who serves on the board of directors at Collective Action for Safe Spaces, believes most cisgender people are enjoying a basic form of gender play without any real thought about TGNC people. “Yet there’s a fine line between encouraging people to take gender less seriously and not considering trans realities or carelessly perpetuating misunderstanding about trans identities,” they told VICE.

While cis people are able to use the filters “with zero triggers whatsoever," said Lisbeth Plague, a trans woman, seeing cisgender people use the filters makes her feel dysphoric because of the hypothetical outcome of using it herself. “I’m paranoid that someone I know is eventually gonna be like, ‘Come on, it’s fun, let’s see you try it!’”

Adrian Ridings, who is non-binary, said they have personally heard from some trans people that the filter is fun and gender-affirming, while others see it as oblivious to the violence waged against transgender people. "I kind of liked [the filter], because it’s hard to imagine what you’d look like as [another] gender, and I love that we can do that,” Ridings said. However, they also unfollowed people on Twitter who liked a joke that echoed the longstanding trope of trans people using their gender as a “trick.”

Eric Stanley, an assistant professor in the Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Riverside with a focus on queer and trans social movements, noted that the social media response to gender-swapping filters seems like the latest iteration of ongoing practices of transphobia and homophobia. “It seems like [the response to the filters] supports the idea that men should be ‘outraged’ when they learn that the gender of those they are attracted to does not directly map on to the cultural norms dominant society mandates,” they said.

“I can’t tell you how many videos I’ve seen of people using the filter as an opportunity to bash transgender people, and to say it’s ‘the devil’s work,’ and how it’s going to get people ‘catfished,’” said Maliyah London, who is trans. For the TGNC community, catfishing, a term meaning to lure (someone) into a relationship by using a fictional persona, could potentially lead to violence in the trans community, as well as reinforcing the idea of TGNC people engaging in a form of trickery. “We are essentially the butt of the joke, through cruel and insensitive caricature.”

When reached for comment, a spokeswoman for Snapchat wrote that the company "understand[s] that identity is deeply personal" and is working across the company to ensure its filters are "diverse and inclusive" by offering a variety of different effects.

The issue may not be the filters themselves, but the intention of the person using the filters, explained Rebecca, a trans woman who asked that her last name be omitted for privacy. “While I enjoyed using the filter because it helped alleviate my gender dysphoria, the way many cis people used it was counterproductive," she said, speaking specifically about people using it to make transphobic jokes and mislead people on dating apps.

“I do think there is a great opportunity in providing people space to explore their gender expression," said Celeste Divinity, a Black trans woman. "However, from the things I have seen, too often, cisgender people are using it to engage in behaviors that aren’t even acceptable for actual gender fluid and trans people.”

Divinity feels that seeing straight men using the filter to catfish their friends is unfair, noting that these same people demonize and antagonize trans women online for simply being on these apps. “I'm banned from Tinder for no [other] reason than altering my profile when I transitioned," she said—though Tinder offers 37 gender identity marker options, transgender people have reported being kicked off of the app for no discernible reason other than their gender in the past.

"Having people make light of something that I get brutalized for is patronizing, to say the least,” Divinity said.

Josh Langdon, a queer LGBTQ rights attorney who defends transgender people in cases concerning their identities, said that Snapchat should have talked to the TGNC community before releasing the filter. “This is passive-aggressive transphobia, in the sense that it fetishizes gender,” Langdon said.

Others, like intersex author Vanessa Clark, believe it's the responsibility of cis people to understand their own role in using the app. “It just reads as really hypocritical when cis people can use it to treat gender as a convenience and a joke for fun and laughs, while they turn a blind eye to trans and non-binary people and our struggles.” (In 2018, the Human Rights Campaign released a report detailing the ongoing violence committed against the transgender community. The report documented at least 22 transgender people killed in the U.S. that year, and notes that that number is likely underreported, as transgender people targeted with deadly violence may not be properly identified as transgender.)

Clark said she wishes cisgender people would think about how, to them, the Snapchat feature is just a filter, but "the least they can do is be more respectful and more mindful to us—not just online, but offline, too.”