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AI Art Gives Users Gender Euphoria—But It's Not Without Controversy

AI Art Gives Users Gender Euphoria—But It's Not Without Controversy

Lensa app

Out writer Saskia Maxwell Keller takes a look at the Lensa app through a trans lens.

"Sold my soul for the gender euphoria," writes J.J. Maley, co-producer of A Strange Loop, in a recent Instagram post.

Accompanying it, a black-and-white, soft-focus image of Maley as an astronaut.

Lensa, an app by Prism Labs that uses artificial intelligence to create custom portraits of users, has taken the internet by storm. But something about the app seems to especially appeal to queer and trans users.

For just $7.99, or $3.99 with a free trial, the app will generate 50 customized images of yourself, which Lensa calls "magic avatars." All you have to do is provide 10-20 selfies and select "male," "female," or "other." Lensa then spits out a slew of alternative self-iterations. Superhero, cyborg, fairy. Some in rainbow colors.

Because you input the photos yourself, you're likely to admire the outcome. But at the same time, there's this idea of AI's impartiality. This is what a computer thinks you look like.

"A handful of friends remarked on how the pictures made them feel, hinting at the gender euphoria of being seen the way they see themselves," writes Taylor Hatmaker for TechCrunch.

As a trans person who has, like many, conceived of my gender in semi-fantastical terms, I tried the Lensa app out of curiosity.

I kept thinking of the lyrics to "Faceshopping" from the late, great Sophie: "I'm real when I shop my face."

My own experience, however, was disappointing. Though I selected the "other" option, my portraits came out way more femme than I see myself. The portraits also occupied that territory psychologists call the "uncanny valley," looking both like, and unlike, me.

If all of this sounds, ominously, like something out of science fiction, that is because it kind of is.

Aside from fears about AI artworks "stealing your likeness" or police using them to identify you in protests, many artists have called out the app for its murky ethics.

"Do not use Lensa App's 'magic avatar' generator," writes Meg Rae in a widely-shared Instagram post.

The app, Rae explains, uses Stable Diffusion, an AI model that samples work from artists that never consented. "This is art theft," she writes.

"Big Tech is behind this," writes Jon Lam in an Instagram post. "Ripping off artists everywhere for $8 a pop."

"This is what normalizing data/art thievery looks like," the Riot Games artist continues. "Malicious apps disguised as fun trends."

Some queer celebrities have responded by taking down their Lensa portraits. Star Trek actor Wilson Cruz linked to a Mashable article in his Instagram story.

"It feels really good to have an image of yourself that makes you feel represented," reflects nonbinary actor Theo Germaine in a tweet. "Using the app made me feel good, and actually addressed some dysphoria and dysmorphia I experience."

But, Germaine goes on: "What's the point of engaging in something that is potentially grey area re: ethics, even if it gives you an ego boost?"

Germaine points out that the Lensa app was released around the holidays when gift-giving is up. "Will the app being released at this time affect art commissions this year?"

That is yet to be seen. And while the trans joy the Lensa app inspires is a positive force, it is regrettable that it is at the expense of living, breathing artists -- especially LGBTQ+ and BIPOC artists. Perhaps instead of AI, commissioning a one-of-a-kind, hand-made portrait by a local artist is a much better and more ethical alternative. It will give you as much, if not more, gender euphoria as an AI-generated one.

RELATED | Blake Jacobsen Brings Blue-Collar Roots to Queer Photography

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Saskia Maxwell Keller