Houston’s Lou Weaver is the premiere character on Transfigure8, a new app that offers support for the trans community
by David Goldberg
Nobody can deny that the LGBT community has had a stake in the smartphone app world since the beginning. After all, Grindr was created for us, by us, in 2009. Apps and robots are fast integrating into daily life, changing our conceptions of identity, the self, and gender. In 2010, Martine Rothblatt—the highest-paid female CEO in the United States and a transwoman—commissioned a robot counterpart to be designed after her wife, Bina. Now, in 2015, Brad Henry, an app developer in Columbus, Ohio, has gathered a team to use artificial intelligence to support and educate trans and questioning individuals, their allies, and their families.
Transfigure8, Henry’s app-in-development, doesn’t seek to create new sentient beings, but rather to replicate chosen trans leaders as animated avatars, or “agents,” who can answer a user’s questions based on voice recognition software. While still in the fundraising and development phase, Transfigure8 now has one prototype “agent”—Houstonian LGBT activist and transman Lou Weaver. Ideally, anyone could download the free app and engage in a dialogue with an animated talking-head version of Weaver—and in the future, other agents—who would give answers in his voice and his script, totally unedited. Weaver based his agent’s platform off of “elevator speeches,” as he calls them, along with trainings and curriculua that he has developed for his consulting firm, Lou Weaver Consulting.
“It’s in their words,” Brad Henry says in an interview with OutSmart. “We don’t edit the script, so what they say is what goes in the app. That’s very purposeful: I’m not here to edit their voice; they own their voice, it’s not mine. From my perspective, it would be wrong to make those types of changes. I want it to be as realistic as possible.”
Weaver’s on-screen agent appears soft and rather inoffensive, like a character from the Despicable Me movies. That Weaver was a strong choice as the app’s initial avatar is obvious: since moving to Houston in his mid-30s and beginning his transition in 2008, he has become a community sensation, with terms as president of the Transgender Foundation of America and on the boards of Houston GLBT Political Caucus and Montrose Grace Place. He was also a co-chair for last year’s Creating Change conference in Houston, among many other accomplishments in local politics.
“Lou really is the catalyst behind all of this,” Henry says. The two met in 2014, when Henry was in Houston to give a presentation of his own, and happened to see Weaver speak. “Lou and I connected immediately. He is an extraordinary individual.”
For Weaver, it was a no-brainer of an opportunity—not just to immortalize his likeness, but to provide information to people in regions of the country who may otherwise have limited or no access to trans education. “Who would think that you can sit in the comfort of your own home and hide somewhere and talk to a little cartoon about what it means to be trans?,” Weaver tells OutSmart.
Henry conceptualized the app after his own coming-out experience in his mid-20s. “It wasn’t just about me coming out [as a gay man],” Henry says. “Dealing with family and friends’ feelings went on for years. It took me a while to realize that
it wasn’t just my coming out, but a process for the individuals around me. So I’m concerned about their perspective. This app was designed for anyone and everyone that wants to explore the topic and wants to be able to have an open dialogue without fear of repercussions or reprisals after saying the wrong thing.”
Henry himself has been reminded of the need for Transfigure8 multiple times while interacting with the trans community about the app. Current and correct terminology changes fast for the trans community, especially as the larger surrounding culture becomes more aware of it. Henry says he is aware that he will make mistakes in the process, but that he is thankful to learn. “When we started working on the application, I used the word ‘transgendered’ and got smacked around for that,” he says. “The first prototype agent we used was a drag queen, and I got corrected for that. Every day I learn something new, which is absolutely extraordinary.”
But that’s one of the main challenges of this venture: how do you stay perfectly up-to-date with a movement that is by definition transient? “Language around being trans changes so quickly,” Weaver says. “Things I said a year ago are not even close to being socially accepted in most circles right now. Sometimes, as a trans person in this community, I can be behind the times or say something incorrectly because I can be unaware that we’ve changed.” For now, Transfigure8 will focus on answering the basics, and serving as a bridge to resources like The Trevor Project and local community services.
Besides an ever-shifting lexicon, the other puzzle—and miracle—of creating representational trans agents is the vast diversity of backgrounds, religions, races, and gender identities that comprise a fast-evolving culture. Henry and his team hope to construct 50 agents in the next five years that will be able to best accommodate a wide matrix of intersectionality—for example, an agent with the experiences and understanding of living as an African-American transwoman, or an agent who could empathize with a Muslim mother whose son is intersex.
Until then, the team clearly maintains that Weaver is no paragon, but rather one of many helpful voices. “My story is representative of me and what it is like to grow up like me,” Weaver says, “but there are so many other ways to grow up, or be trans, or whatever label someone might want or not want. This is not the only story by any means.” What’s more, Weaver’s script avoids moralistic language and follows WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health) standards. Any question that his app agent cannot yet answer will be used to help the app expand and learn.
The Transfigure8 team must raise $50,000 to complete their prototype, at which time they’ll approach LGBT and allied foundations to help sustain and expand the project. They face an uphill battle, as the app is not meant to be profitable. In the incipient crowdsourcing phase, Transfigure8 has received some criticism, but Henry maintains that it can’t fulfill every need for everyone. It’s only one tool.
“This app is meant to be supportive,” he says. “It’s just technology. It can’t give you a hug. It can’t tell you that tomorrow’s going to be a better day.” But for questioning individuals who feel stranded, it could provide essential insight into the biggest change of their lives.
For Weaver, that’s a massive step forward. “When I was growing up, there wasn’t a Google search for ‘Why do I feel different?’ Transgender wasn’t a word in the vocabulary,” he says. “This will be so valuable for people who don’t necessarily have access to other people. We’re only vulnerable when we feel all alone.”
For more information, visit transfigure8.org.
David Goldberg is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.