Zach Blas’ ‘Fag Face Mask’ Protests the Technology of Gaydar

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f you thought gaydar was your ability to spot another member of the tribe based on his grooming, the lilt in his voice or the way he walks or moves his hands, Zach Blas can set you, uh, straight.

Blas was the guy you might have spotted in the West Hollywood Library parking garage during last year’s Gay Pride event, wearing a bizarre neon pink mask and inviting you to sit for a face scan. A gay artist with a thing for science, Blas has collected biometric scans of the faces of gay men to create the “fag face mask,” an aggregation of those scans that blurs the “gay” characteristics that he says can be picked up by something as common as a Kinect attached to your Xbox. His contention that one gay man can pick out another based solely on his facial features is supported by various scientific studies (one of which says it’s easier to discern whether or not a woman is a lesbian from looking at her face than whether or not a man is gay.)

Blas, based in Brooklyn, is founder of Queer Technologies, which describes itself as “an organization that produces products and situations for queer technological agency, interventions, and social formation.” Among its products are transCoder, a queer programming anti-language; ENgenderingGenderChangers, a “solution” to Gender Adapters’ male/female binary, and Gay Bombs, a technical manual manifesto that outlines a “how to” of queer networked activism. It’s all a bit technical. For example, if you can grasp the definition of transCoder (“offers libraries rooted in theories of queerness as an attempt to sever ontological and epistemological ties to dominant technologies and interrupt the flow of circulation between heteronormative culture, coding, and visual interface”) you probably have graduate degrees in both philosophy and biomechanics.  Some of that work is now on display at South by Southwest, the annual hipster music, film and tech fest in Austin.

From a practical point of view, Blas’ research supports concerns voiced by privacy groups that the growing use of facial scanners is a real invasion of one’s privacy. It’s not only government agencies that are using such tools. Mike Rispoli, communications manager of Privacy International, raised such a concern in an interview with PinkNews, the UK gay website, about FaceTag, an app that let’s someone use your nameless photo to find you on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram (and in the UK determine if you are publicly identified as a sex offender). The fag face mask is intended as a protest against the use of that technology as a tool for stereotyping.  Blas’ “Facial Weaponization Suite” also includes masks for black people.

It’s unlikely that the airport security folks will let you wear a fag face mask when you go through the scanner at LAX (and best we can tell, they aren’t yet available at The Block Party or Andrew Christian or Chi Chi LaRue). But the research on which Blas fag face mask is based means that gay men who describe themselves as “discreet” on Scruff and Grindr might as well give that up. Soon the NSA will be able to spot you from a mile away.