Snapchat Can’t Tell You What It’s Like To Be Trans

Try listening to actual trans people instead.

Image of two people smiling and taking a selfie. Photo by Lina Yatsen courtesy of Unsplash

A few days ago, Snapchat released their Gender Change Filter, which overlays the user’s face with a hazy image of themselves with either a square jaw and beard stubble, or massive Frozen-style doe eyes and puffy, sexy baby lips. Cis people have been chirping excitedly about this filter since its release, and posting screen caps of their “gender swapped” selves to Snapchat’s primary rivals — Facebook and Instagram.

Snapchat lost most of its relevance in recent years, as Instagram Stories and TikTok videos usurped its hold over self-deleting images and strange, digitally altered thirst traps, respectively. But the Gender Change Filter has sent the social media app rocketing back into prominence, at least for a time, with scores of former users redownloading it so that they can see their altered, transitioned selves.

Of course, the Snapchat Gender Change Filter does not actually show you, humble cis smartphone user, what you would look like if you had a different gender identity. For that, you only have to look in a mirror. Or listen to literally any transgender person in the world.

A bureau with a mirror. Photo by Alex Lopez on Unsplash

When you’re transgender, the first person you have to come out to is yourself. I don’t know a single transgender person who didn’t harbor some self-doubt or confusion about their identity before finally reaching a point of acceptance. Sometimes that acceptance is very difficult to find or embrace. So many of us are made to feel that we are freakish, that our needs are pathetic and attention-seeking.

But the second you reach the point of realization, you begin to clear the fog that has surrounded your self-concept for years. You might find yourself dredging up old memories, and finding a new way to rearrange them and make sense of them. Bad, self-destructive habits might suddenly have an understandable reason behind them. And, wonderfully, you might begin to feel the exhilaration of knowing that you were never an alienated, incomprehensible freak, not really — you just didn’t have words for who you were.

Your face does not change when this happens. Except for maybe cracking a smile.

Transition doesn’t work like a Snapchat filter. No trans man suddenly sprouts a steely glare and a five o’clock shadow upon embracing the fact that he’s a dude. No trans woman instantly transforms, Sailor-Moon-like, into a baby-seal-skinned, pouty-mouthed babe once she cracks out of her proverbial egg. And nonbinary people like me definitely don’t turn into the ethereal sexless wood nymphs that so many of us yearn to be.

Every transition is different. Some people embark on their transitions by getting a wig or a haircut. Many start taking hormones, but many don’t. For me, the first step in my transition was a really adorable button-up shirt with raccoons on it. I have trans friends who have gotten tons of surgeries and trans friends who didn’t alter a thing about their outward appearance after coming out.

That’s because transition is an internal and social process more than it is a physical one. For many of us, the physical changes don’t happen in a vacuum. We often change our appearances because we want the social recognition of our true gender. But chasing the approval of cisgender people is always a losing battle. We can try to look like the gender-conforming hotties created by that insipid Snapchat filter, and make our self-esteem worse in the pursuit of that absurd ideal, or we can accept our identities as real and valid no matter how we look.

Can you do the same for us, cis people? Can you accept and celebrate us even if our transitions don’t leave us looking like your altered, Vaseline-lensed selfies?

A white family taking a selfie. Photo by Jessica To'oto'o on Unsplash

Would cis people love the Gender Change Filter if it gave them a less halcyon image of life as another gender? Could a cis lady handle looking at herself three months on Testosterone, with a whisper of chin hairs and a voice that cracks? Would a cis guy feel comfortable seeing himself as a trans woman a few months on Estrogen, looking more or less the same, except with smoother skin and brighter eyes?

Let’s take it even further. What if the filter didn’t do anything? What if you opened up Snapchat, focused the selfie cam on your face, hit the Gender Change button and all that happened was some sparkly text saying: Congratulations, you are now a dude. Or: Great news! You’ve been a woman all your life, and you didn’t know it. Or: You’re nonbinary. Welcome to the family!

Only the most badass and emotionally secure of cis people would fuck with a filter like that. Those realistic images of “gender change” certainly wouldn’t have become a social media phenomenon.

People with social power love to learn about oppression through playacting. Thin people wear fat suits and feign shock when the world suddenly becomes harder to navigate. Christian white women don hijabs and report back on the discrimination they experienced with alarm and pained voices. There are a variety of wearable gadgets that can teach you how it feels to be physically disabled or elderly. For a few minutes. Until you decide to take it off.

There’s a powerful alternative to this self-absorbed pretend-playing. It’s called listening to people who live this way every day. A curated, contrived glance at another life will never measure up to the decades of experience that real fat people, Muslim women, disabled people, and trans people have accumulated. Oppressed people are the be-all-and-end-all experts on their oppression. And they have so much to teach you. If only you’d listen.

So, you’d like to know what you’d look like as “another gender”? I have the answer for you. You’d look like you do, right now. You’d be the exact same you, with the same jaw, hair, skin, eyes, passions, and memories, but with a different truth glowing brightly in the recesses of your heart.

Understanding this fact requires no Snapchat filter. All you have to do is extend your compassion, empathy, and attention to people who know more than you will ever, ever know about what it’s like to be another gender.

Open your heart. Open your ears. Listen to trans people. Close that app.

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