How to Build a Kinder Web for the Transgender Community

Transgender people face many kinds of discrimination. Some are more obvious than others.

The transgender community is four times as likely as the general population to have household incomes less than $10,000 per year, according to a report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. It also is twice as likely to be unemployed. And transgender people face significant discrimination when seeking housing, which helps explain why they’re about twice as likely to be homeless as the general population.

For the transgender community, the web is an important resource for finding trans-friendly doctors, housing, jobs and public restrooms–many things the rest of us take for granted. But web filtering software designed to prevent access to pornography often stops people from accessing websites that with information on a host of other topics, such as breast feeding, safe sex and, yes, transgender issues. It’s a subtle–and possibly unintentional–form of discrimination, one that can have a big impact. Web filters are more than a temporary inconvenience for many transgender people who rely on public libraries and internet cafes to access the internet. The problem is even worse in the UK, where all new internet connections are filtered by default at the ISP level.

>It’s a subtle–and possibly unintentional–form of discrimination, one that can have a big impact.

“Because homelessness and poverty are such a big issues in the trans community, many don’t have access to unfiltered, uncensored internet,” says Lauren Voswinkel, a transgender software developer based Pittsburgh. These hurdles to accessing information can make it even harder for transgender people to escape poverty.

That’s why she’s building Transgress, a tool that lets people bypass web filters to access sites about transgender issues and only transgender issues. Transgress is one of many projects to come out of Trans*H4CK, a series of hackathons dedicated to using technology to improve the lives of transgender people. The site isn’t up and running yet. But Voswinkel has built the underlying code–available on GitHub–and needs volunteers to help to bring the site onto the web, complete with its own design and branding.

Trans*Hack was founded by transgender activist, filmmaker and artist Kortney Ryan Ziegler. He says he came up with the idea after attending a filmmaker hackathon last year. “I didn’t think it was very queer friendly, specifically trans friendly,” he says. “I felt a little bit of push back. So I thought it would be great to have a hackathon that was transfriendly.”

He then realized that he could organize a hackathon that was not only more welcoming to the transgender community, but that also focused specifically on solving the problems that many transgender people face. So far events have taken place in Oakland, Chicago, and Las Vegas. The next will be in New York City. Attendees already have built several resources during the hackathons, including the question and answer site GenderOverflow and R.A.D, which Ziegler describes as a Yelp-style site where transgender people can review doctors, businesses and more.

Voswinkel came up with the idea for Trangress while driving to the Trans*Hack event in Chicago. She was thinking about a speech given by Sarah Brown–a Cambridge, England city councilor and the only openly transgender elected politician in the UK–about web filtering in the UK and how it was stopping people from accessing many different types of content beyond pornography. Voswinkel realized that some means of selectively circumventing web filters was needed if any of the other sites and resources built at the event were to have any impact. “If you cannot help the least among you, you’re not helping anyone really,” Voswinkel says.

When Transgress launches, the web application will work by taking a particular URL, fetching its contents to verify that it is indeed a site about transgender issues, and then displaying a slightly modified version of the original text, replacing keywords like “transgender” with symbols so that the fetched pages won’t be automatically blocked.

In order to make sure the pages fetched are actually relevant, Transgress will scan them for keywords. This is an important part of the process, since Voswinkel doesn’t want Transgress to be blocked itself. “You can’t use it to visit a paywall site or go on Facebook–unless it’s a Facebook page about trans issues,” she says. But Voswinkel hopes people will host many mirrors of the web application, in case the main site ends being blocked by default by some web filters.

Ultimately, Transgress is just, well, a hack. Voswinkel hopes it will help transgender people in the short term, but she also hopes it starts a conversation about the limits of web filtering its and the unintended consequences. “Net neutrality is going to make this more important as we move to a more and more controlled web,” she says. “I hope that other people will do some of this advocacy work, but if that doesn’t happen I’ll be doing what I can to make those conversations happen.”

Correction 10:30 PST 05/26/14: This article has been updated to include a link to the Transgress website.

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