Technology is developing at a colossal rate that even the savviest of us are struggling to keep up. CCTV cameras watch us on a daily basis, with people arguing that their increase is an invasion of privacy or simply necessary to protect us from crime. Our dating lives are now dictated by how we present ourselves on an app, with thousands of people swiping through an endless catalogue of would-be dates during their lunch breaks. So perhaps it’s come as little surprise that one of the latest technological developments focusing on the gay community has also divided opinions.
Researchers at Stanford University have developed facial recognition technology that is able to identify whether someone is gay or heterosexual based on their picture. Although the technology is far from 100% accurate, it is clear why many are concerned about the potential consequences of this research. Effectively what researchers have developed is a virtual ‘gaydar’, a concept that is no stranger to gay and bisexual men. Many of us will have been asked by our heterosexual friends if we poses the superpower of knowing if someone else is gay. Of course, we’re not born with a sensor that starts beeping when in the presence of fellow gay and bisexual men – we inadvertently revert back to archaic stereotypes to form our conclusions.
Similarly, the latest research from Stanford seems to be emphasising this notion of stereotyping. The technology looks at similarities between the faces of both heterosexual and gay men and women, with researchers stating that “gay faces tended to be gender atypical.” Comments like this create generalisations about the appearance of gay men, which have the potential to be harmful.
Within the gay community, many men struggle with their body image and feel as though they don’t ‘fit in’ with the community given the strong emphasis placed upon appearance. At a time when we should be focussing our efforts on attempting to break down these barriers, this technology is giving the green light to the exclusion of certain gay and bisexual men from the gay community simply based on their appearance.
It is also clear that this technology could be used to discriminate against gay men. LGBT rights across the world vary greatly, with thousands of gay men facing the real prospect of being killed, tortured or imprisoned due to the homophobic laws that dictate their daily lives. Are governments that believe gay men should be punished for their sexual orientation going to invest in this technology as a means of prosecuting gay men?
On the other hand, this technology could be used to prevent malicious activity on dating and hook-up apps. At the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, a reporter for The Daily Beast used these apps to identify gay athletes and outed them in an article. To his own admission, the reporter stated that he was straight, so could this new technology have prevented such a witch hunt of gay Olympians? Perhaps the only positive we can glean from the limited research, is that it could have the potential to protect users from copycat behaviour.
Although the intentions of researchers at Stanford University may not have been malicious, I would question why they are seeking to identify someone’s sexual orientation in the first place. People already self-identify their sexual orientation on dating apps, for example, so why is it needed? Equally, it does seem plausible that this technology could incite others to commit acts of homophobic hate crime. What’s more, given the issues around body image within our community, this technology only emphasises the notion that gay and bisexual men need to conform to a particular image and could have potentially harmful effects of people’s mental health. Despite facial recognition technology being a technological advancement, it does nothing but emphasise archaic stereotyping and facilitates a huge step back for gay and bisexual men.
Words: Hadley Stewart