Hunting Trans People For Sport, Profit, Charity and Teh Lulz

My phone apparently knows who I am

A few things happened to me this week which, together, encouraged me to write this post. First is a little toy app I downloaded for my iPhone. It goes and looks at tagged images on your FaceBook and then tries to identify people in them if you point the camera at them. It works surprisingly well – the image on the right is the result of holding the phone up and telling it to use the front facing camera. The image follows me around in real-time.

The second was a revolting advertising campaign by Irish bookies, Paddy Power. They have created an advert which invites people to “spot the stallions from the mares” at the Cheltenham Ladies’ Day, where “stallions” refers to transgender women in the crowd. I won’t go into why this is problematic – Paris Lees has written an excellent analysis at Pink News and I would urge you to read it. She goes straight to the crux of the matter:

The problem with “spot the trans lady” though is that, for one person in the game, it’s really not that fun. Ask any trans woman. Most of us, at some stage, have faced the humiliation of strangers playing it on us – Paris Lees

It has also transpired that in an apparent collusion with the Beaumont Society, who are doing well with own goals at the moment, they’ve arranged for numerous transgender women to be planted in the crowd for Paddy Power’s punters to spot. Hilarious laddish fun, especially for those who happen not to be aware of this “game” and are unwittingly dragged into it. If they’re lucky, all they’ll face is humiliation, but these things can turn nasty very quickly.

The third is the unveiling of a high tech advert by charity, Plan UK, which shows a video to people standing at a bus stop at Oxford Street, but only if it determines that they are women. It does this by using biometrics – distance between the eyes, jawbone shape, nose size and shape, etc.. Essentially it’s looking for the absence of what testosterone does to a skull.

Plan claim it is “90% accurate” at guessing the “gender” (they mean sex) of the person standing in front of it. I suspect their tests were using mostly, or exclusively, cis people. Given the stated biometrics are those which can often give trans people difficulty, and which many trans women endure harrowing surgery to rectify, I can imagine the accuracy of the guess is significantly below 90% for trans people.

In other words, this advertising gimmick doubles up in function as a trans person outing device.

Quite apart from the transgender angle, I can’t imagine what Plan UK were thinking. Really, the scene in Minority Report where the protagonist walks through a mall and is recognised by electronic adverts which call to him by name and try to sell him things was, I suspect, penned as a cautionary tale and not an aspirational one.

Imagine if when this technology becomes widespread – a world in which billboard adverts guess the gender of the person looking at them and then try to target ads based on that guess. While this may sound like an advertiser’s dream (I note that gender seems to be the key determinant when targeting ads online – I’m quite sick of sites that know I’m female trying to sell me diets), it’s pretty much a nightmare to trans people, who rely on relative anonymity in crowds to live a tolerable life in a world which is really quite a hostile place to us.

These ads will misgender cis people too, but for trans people, their constant misgendering will serve to confirm the suspicions of the sort of people who still stare at me even now, after six years of oestrogen HRT (at least they mostly just stare now – it wasn’t always limited to that).

This and the Paddy Power stunt seem to be confirming that when it comes to advertising, no idea is too bad, nor too vulgar, nor too invasive of privacy, nor too unpleasant to vulnerable minorities to run. Trans people are an obvious target – a society as neurotic about gender as ours finds us hilarious, possibly as a way of coming to terms with just how much it feels disgust at existence and what we represent. If we can’t hide in plain sight in the safety of a crowd, then we’re easy prey for those who would abuse and assault us.

Putting all this together suddenly caused a light to go on in my head. Technology isn’t inherently good or evil; its what you use it for that matters. It seemed obvious though that we were only a small step away from smartphone apps which didn’t just recognise your friends; they would soon be able to guess the sex of total strangers, based on the same sort of technology that Plan are using. Furthermore, given the obvious public appetite (so well demonstrated by Paddy Powers) for humiliating transgender people by outing us in public, such technology would soon be used to bully people suspected of being transgender.

And then a second light came on – what if I wasn’t just worried about the future? In trepidation, I had a look in the app store. Yes, a “gender scanner” app already exists, and apparently there’s one for Android too. I’ve tested it out on myself, and what it said is perhaps less important than the possibility that it will be used to bully people suspected of the terrible crime of Being Trans in Public.

Along with Paris, I’ve been the subject of “games” of “spot the tranny”. I’ve been photographed on trains by groups of older kids who seem to find the presence of a trans person hilarious. It was pretty humiliating. I fear that the immorality of advertisers and the relentless march of face-recognition technology are only going to make life harder for us, perhaps in ways we can’t fully anticipate yet.

24 thoughts on “Hunting Trans People For Sport, Profit, Charity and Teh Lulz

  1. Well written analysis and not something I’d considered before. I like to think I’m pretty non discrimatory on all aspects of my life – and the direction things are going as you articulated concerns me.

    I’m not Trans or Gay but don’t believe discrimination just affects those immediately on the receiving end but if unchallenged diminishes all of us

    Bear 🙂

  2. Hey Sarah,

    I think I’ve found you. The only other trans woman in the world who climbs.

    Fucking stoked!

    High five. Hit me up if you’re ever on the west coast of the USA!

    • Heya! I actually know quite a few trans women who climb, and some of them are in the Bay Area.

  3. I sponsor two children through Plan UK, Y in Honduras and S in Mali. Over the years I’ve sponsored D in Sri Lanka too (until she reached 18), I’ve spoken about child sponsorship on radio and written about it too and encouraged people to give through Plan.

    I am seriously considering stopping, because of the ad. How do I explain to Y and S why I am no longer their Sponsor mummy? It’ll be easier to tell Plan why they are losing over £300 a year from me.

    I hope they change their minds pronto, but most importantly I hope they understand why.

    • Don’t stop sponsoring the kids they shouldn’t have to suffer because Plan have done something daft. Do tell Plan that you think it’s a bad idea and that as a sponsor you think they need to reconsider how they’re advertising to and targetting people. 🙂

  4. I think the Plan UK idea is a big mistake. I find it somewhat ironic that CEO Marie Staunton is claiming that they are trying to dispel sexist gender stereotypes yet at the same time they are using facial recognition technology which has been programmed to recognise a person based on a checklist of…ahem…sexist gender stereotypes of how a woman should look. Even if it is 90 per cent successful how can Plan UK justify the further marginalisation of the 10 per cent of women who are judged not to fit the idealised standard of femininity that the facial recognition software sets. This will also exclude many already socially stigmatised women with facial disfigurements – whose rights and opportunities organisations like Plan UK should be championing!

    Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking blog.

    • how can Plan UK justify the further marginalisation of the 10 per cent of women who are judged not to fit the idealised standard of femininity that the facial recognition software sets. This will also exclude many already socially stigmatised women with facial disfigurements – whose rights and opportunities organisations like Plan UK should be championing!

      I think that’s an extremely pertinent and thoughtful point. Thank you for making it.

  5. Got a response from Plan UK this morning. Have forwarded it to you via email in case it’s of use.

    they plainly don’t get it!

    All women are equal, but some women……………

  6. Advertising also isn’t inherently evil… On the web, there are Google ads which track you and Facebook ads which use data you gave to Facebook (and nobody clicks them anyway). But there are also Fusion, Carbon, BuySellAds, The Deck, etc. ad networks which never do any personal targeting yet work much better because they’re targeting audiences specific to websites, so eg. they have a Design network and the advertisers place ads about design on sites about design. I found many useful things with these ads.

    I hope physical ads won’t completely turn into former.

      • According to that I’m 66% female and also 15. (just forty years inaccurate, then!)

        Also finally had a chance to find time to look at your ‘own goals’ link. The comments column- internalised transphobia much? No wonder the media get away with as much as they do- we’re still too busy arguing amongst ourselves!

        • wow, it actually got my age off by only one year
          apparently I look like some pretty cute girls!!! and some of them certaintly do look alot like me when i am female… although im not sure about the suggestion that I look like jacko, ozzy or the joker from batman LoL

  7. The technology Plan UK is using is transitional, of course. In short order it will be more like what we saw in Minority Report, and won’t detect merely our gender or age range but our name and browser history. Already, when I go to Facebook after browsing online at, say, Victoria’s Secret, I see Victoria’s Secret ads on my Facebook page. Even if I hadn’t just bought anything there. I’m sure it won’t be long before I’d see Victoria’s Secret ads at these same bus stops Plan UK are using.

    But help an ignorant American out: why would a charity only want to target female donors?

  8. I’m 90% female (given that I am a cis-girly this is fair enough) but my nearest match is Hugh Jackman, and apparently I’m half my actual age…

  9. Pingback: Lazy Sunday: Can We Start Again? | Sincerely, Natalie Reed

  10. What is the name of that app please? It looks brilliant!

    I think the gambling advert is repugnant, I am astonished it got past the advertising agency. It was shown to me by YouTube while waiting for a clip, happily you can mute it.

    Not sure I agree that Plan are so in the wrong though-it’s a gimmick aimed at intentionally discriminating against men, in order to make a point about prejudice. I think it is an unintended and unavoidable consequence that there is some error, and I don’t think most people attribute particular weight to the criteria digital recognition software uses to do its job, just as we aren’t overly offended when an Indian call Center worker mistakes our gender based on the sound of our voice over a low quality phone line. I certainly don’t think it is intended to be used to out trans people, nor do I think that is where we are going in the future, as I see no benefit to anyone of such a development. This advert isn’t a sentient being capable of prejudice and it hasn’t been programmed for malice.

    I recognise that there are sensitivies for trans people who have to cope with this kind of selection from other people on a daily basis, which I obviously cannot relate to.

  11. It is very helpful to be told about etiquette when talking to (some) trans people. I certainly wouldn’t ask someone about their genitals – but I might have asked about stages, and I can see that that might be unhelpful. I can also see that people using your old name would grate, but that is fairly obvious, and is true of anyone who changes their name for an important reason.

    During the process for a legal change in gender is there advice given or an encouragement to reflect upon the perception of others to the change? Some sort of transgender 101?

    • During the process for a legal change in gender is there advice given or an encouragement to reflect upon the perception of others to the change? Some sort of transgender 101?

      You may be seeing this as far more organised and supportive than it actually is…

      • I’m sorry that comment was meant to be on your previous post about not asking about people’s genitals – silly chrome!

        I was under the impression it was quite a structured process with mandatory counselling and legal advice etc.

        • I was under the impression it was quite a structured process with mandatory counselling and legal advice etc.

          People do seem to have that impression, and are generally quite surprised when they discover what it’s really like. I had counselling, but I paid a lot of money for it. Mostly people are just left to get on with it by themselves, and sink or swim. I’m aware that some of the routine appointments at gender clinics that PCTs often insist on can consist of talking about the weather for 5 minutes every 3 months.

  12. if you’re lucky, here in nthe north east of England clinics it’s every 9 MONTHS and even then they physically lose your records or penalise the disabled.

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