Two AI generated white men in my likeness.

In AI, My Gender Lives

Seeing myself for the first time in an AI headshot generator

Coty Craven
Human Parts
Published in
8 min readJul 13, 2023

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The ease with which friends and acquaintances label me “she” has always felt like a personal failure. How can they know my gender when it’s something I’m still coming to understand myself? Having always gravitated more toward masculinity and trying to outwardly appear masculine, when I hear “she,” I wonder, have I failed at masculinity? What part of me are they seeing and thinking “yep, that’s a woman there,” and how can I rectify that?

Long before I knew what transgender was or that nonbinary was a possible option, I basked in the joy of receiving the occasional accidental “he” label. The first time it happened was at the grocery store with my mom. I was nine and moved proudly through the world with my mullet and acid washed jeans, fully embracing my “tomboy phase.” I held a Whatchamacallit in my hand at the checkout, hoping that if I held it for long enough, the cashier would take it from me and scan it as part of our order. Instead, she asked my mom, “Is he getting that too?”

He.

She thought I was a boy and I felt accomplished. Immediately my thoughts went to wondering when that would happen again and hoping it would be soon. That was also when the constant reminders from my mother that I was failing at gender, a poor excuse for a girl, began. The mullet which had been her idea suddenly made me look like a boy. My taste in clothes was now met with her disapproval but much to her dismay, she’d raised a fat child and tomboy clothes were the only clothes that fit me.

When I was a teenager, I discovered the irony of this woman who had never spent a day of her life trying to look feminine or pretty, this woman who belched loudly like Barney on The Simpsons and cursed like a trucker, having critiques for my performance of femininity. She carried on believing that she had an innate femininity which required no further performance, yet reminded me daily that my female performance was a failure.

The older I got and gained more agency in my appearance, the harsher her critiques became. And while I never tried to embrace femininity, save for a couple homecoming dances and prom during which I wore dresses because I had no choice, I also never explored being “he” any further. After all, if my mom told me I was ugly now with my short-but-still-feminine haircut and tomboy clothes, what words would she find to wound me with if I got the haircut and wore the clothes I actually wanted? I couldn’t bear anymore rejection from the one person I needed to accept me, so I remained a shitty woman. A butch lesbian. The accidental He.

“He” never really went away despite being something I never felt safe pursuing or even exploring further. I still delight in the “Excuse me, sir!” mistakes I get in public. I have mastered androgyny. No one can glance at me and immediately know which gender to label me as, except for those friends who do so accidentally because they knew me as “she” for so long.

I learned what nonbinary was in 2017 and have been they/them since working through my feelings that nonbinary was something for young people to claim. I am not out as nonbinary to my family. You could not pay me to endure that rejection and mocking from my parents. But in every other aspect of my life, I am Coty, they/them. Nonbinary felt like a safe haven of noncommittal. I could identify as such socially and professionally and still let my parents live under the illusion that I’m their daughter.

The insults for failing at femininity still come frequently from my mother. I began working out about two years ago and while the transformation I see in my body, losing the soft, round, feminine parts and seeing them replaced with muscle and sharper angles brings me such joy, the change brings more rejection from my mother. “All your exercising is making you not look like a woman anymore,” she told me. She said it with the intent of making me stop, thinking that I’d be troubled by this information. But what I heard was mission success. Finally, my body was beginning to match the person I am in my mind, if only I could get rid of those pesky breasts I have wanted to be free of since they began to grow 30 years ago.

Since changing my name from Courtney to Coty and seeing my body become more masculine, I’ve been pushing down a pull to further explore maleness. I know it’s there, just as it always has been, but I also know that embracing that means complete rejection from my parents, the end of having a family. Embracing anything beyond what I present myself to them as now would be met with incessant mocking and insults from my mother and complete rejection by my dad. He did, at one time, tell me that he would not have a gay daughter and the matter was never spoken of again.

I’ve been successful in my denial too. Nonbinary is “good enough” because it’s still not female and has not resulted in the loss of my family, which I’m not sure I’m quite ready to lose. I express my maleness in the fictional characters I write. All of my main characters are trans men because like so many writers, I write what I know, whether I am open to admitting trans men are what I know or not.

I see the transitions of trans men I follow on social sites, their joy, their comfort with finally having the bodies and faces that feel correct, and I think (with such shame), “One day…One day my mom will die and I can finally be free. Free of her insults and critiques, free to change this face and body that do not fit.”

I realize the unhealthiness of the mother/child relationship that has me waiting for her to die so I don’t have to endure ever more hurt and rejection and yet, I cling to it because as Bessel Van Der Kolk explains in his book, The Body Keeps the Score, abused rats return to the nest when they need comfort and safety, despite knowing that it will only result in more abuse and pain.

I was forced to confront the pull to maleness I’ve so adeptly buried recently during an illness which left me supine on the couch for seven days. When I’d had my fill of reading and video games, I turned to my phone for entertainment. I saw an ad for Mayo Studio, an AI “professional headshot generator.” Initially, I was interested to see how it could turn my bad selfies of me with my dogs beside me into professional headshots. I chose my ten best selfies and fed them to the app. It prompted me to choose my gender. Male, female, or other. I chose other, hoping it would nicely reflect my androgyny.

An hour later, I had my photos.

Six AI generated images of white people in my likeness. Two older men, two women, and two androgynous people.

Some of them were distinctly female, looking like Glamour Shots from the early 90s. Two of them are not photos of me but of my dad in fancy clothes. And some were just androgynous me in clothes I’d never actually wear. AI clearly understands gender to be a black and white matter. You are male or you are female.

Two AI generated white men in my likeness.

There were two photos though that rattled my buried maleness free from the hole in which I’d hidden it. They were distinctly male but not looking so far from reality that they felt like I was looking at someone else. They had my eyes, my lips, my hair, my two different ears. But they also had stubble, an Adam’s apple, and masculine facial structure. I was not looking at my dad or a female stranger. I was looking at myself. The version of me that I’ve long denied for the sake of acceptance and love which AI just created without any hesitation, judgment, or conditions.

I decided I would try “he” on. Test drive maleness. There’s a large part of me that feels silly for being 40 years old and still not being certain of who — or what — I am. That feels silly for feeling like I’m lacking, like I could be better if only I looked more masculine. My upbringing was purely blue-collar Midwestern. We don’t explore our feelings and we make do with good enough because good enough is probably the best you’ll ever have. Nonbinary androgyny is good enough. But still not what feels like home.

So I told the two people I knew my delicate masculine feelings would be safe with. My partner and the friend that accepts every expression of gender without needing clarification or asking questions. I was anxious to tell my partner because she’s previously identified herself to me as queer and in my binary-thinking mind, queer for her meant she’s attracted to women and nonbinary people. Not men.

I messaged my friend first. “What if I’m he/him instead of they/them?” His response? “Well hi!” I showed him the photos and told him I was feeling very much myself when I looked at them and was trying to figure out if that’s who I am. And so he told me he would use he/him for me until I told him otherwise. That was the end of that conversation. Exactly what I was hoping for.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I brought it up to my partner but her response was not it. She told me, “C, I say I’m queer because you’re nonbinary. Prior to you, I’ve been straight. It’s just a word.”

I don’t know when I’ll be ready to no longer have my parents in my life or when I’ll be ready to choose rejection and I struggle to really adopt he/him when the package doesn’t match the label. But now that I’ve felt that gender euphoria for the first time and seen the person I’ve been denying since I was nine years old, I know that there’s more to me than nonbinary and “good enough.”

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Coty Craven
Human Parts

Award winning nerd with dogs. I wrote a book once. Sometimes I write about video games.