The Last Sunday after the Epiphany - February 27th, 2022
Psalm 99; Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12 - 4:2; Luke 9:28-36
Yasuo Nakajima considered himself an interesting person. A former competitive bodybuilder with an extensive knowledge of insects and plants, his main passion these days is his three Yamaha motorcycles, which he repairs in his living room and rides around the Japanese countryside for weeks at a time.
Thus, when the divorced father of three had been posting about his adventures on Twitter for months and had only netted six followers, he was disappointed. “No-one wants to read what a middle-aged man posts,” he later told interviewers on a TV variety show.
It was thus that Soya was born. Having seen his kids playing with the appearance-altering FaceApp on their phones, Nakajima—with a few taps—transformed himself into an attractive young woman. He created a new Twitter handle—a mash-up of his kids’ names—and began posting as his new persona. Soya did all the things Yasuo did… repaired the bikes, posed at scenic overlooks, talked about life. When he was frustrated, it showed in her normally-beaming face.
Unsurprisingly, Soya’s posts were far more popular than Yasuo’s had been. Before long, she had thousands of followers, and Yasuo began adjusting his real-life appearance to make the ruse more effective, growing out his hair and experimenting with skin care treatments to help the app do its job. Soya’s manner of speech—though sprinkled with emojis —was largely a product of Yasuo’s own personality, and over time his two identities grew closer together. “When I compare how I feel when I started to tweet as a woman and now, I do feel that I’m gradually gravitating toward this persona … this fantasy world that I created,” Nakajima told the Washington Post. “When I see photos of what I tweeted, I feel like, ‘Oh. That’s me.’ ”
What began more or less as a gag was hard to turn off when each post was rewarded with so much positive attention. Over time he allowed more of himself to imbue Soya’s persona, and hers into his. He is far from the first person to experience what Stanford University researchers call the Proteus Effect, where the drivers of virtual-reality characters, or avatars, start to adopt qualities of their creation as if they were their own.
In the Internet’s early, text-only days, it was possible to reinvent oneself completely and thus escape the expectations that match your real-life age, gender, and appearance. Few people used their real names on message boards. Victims of bullying and abuse found a safe forum to escape their isolation. Virtual-reality platforms like SecondLife allowed users living with disabilities or insecurities to create characters who look however they wish, free from stigma or baggage. And many of them started to “own” those idealized characteristics to some degree.
It wasn’t until the advent of smart phones and social media platforms like Facebook that real-life identity checks became the norm, in large part so they can assert control over your wallet. And in the age of the “selfie”, it would be difficult to keep up a fake persona for long.
Until now. Advances in image-altering filters like the one Yasuo used, which can respond in real time to every nuance of your expression, are making it possible for any smart phone user to create still images or even video with an idealized or distorted version of ones’ self (or someone else) that many others will unquestioningly accept as real. Researchers are eyeing this with fear that blurring the lines between fantasy and reality will have damaging effects on our culture’s standards of beauty, and with it our collective sense of self-worth. Child psychologists are already worried about the effect this is having, particularly on young women and girls. Some "deepfake" influencers, as they are known, have been exposed with side-by-side photos of their true, less-perfect selves. It could also have profound political or legal implications if we can no longer assume that a video of a politician speaking about foreign policy is really and truly that person saying those words.
Once Soya’s popularity had taken off, Yasuo’s debated what backlash there might be if he was “outed” especially how his kids might react. Our choices—even when they’re good ones for us—can have a real impact on the people who know us, or think they do. As we heard in the reading from Exodus as well as Luke’s Gospel, humans generally crave predictability. We expect those in our lives to be the people they have always been. When someone close to us reveals that they have been carrying a secret or that they are changing the trajectory of their life in a way that does not match our image of them, we can find it disconcerting and don’t know how to react. We may find ourselves like Peter, babbling about construction projects in a misguided show of support, but more often find ourselves wanting to bury our heads in the sand like the Israelites around Moses, rather than cope with the cousin who wants to be called by a new name or referred to with pronouns we don’t know how to pronounce.
The transgender people I worked with at Integrity and the OASIS all asserted they did not “become” the other gender when they transitioned. They were always that person; they were just finally allowed to fully be that person in the world. In other words, they were not putting on a mask; they were finally taking it off. That insight helped me relate a little better to what the apostles, including His own siblings, must have felt when Jesus told them, “I am still the man you have known all this time. But I am also, and always have been, God.” and also His heartache when time and time again they—and we—don’t get it.
For his part, Yasuo does not identify as transgender, nor did he try to gain any reward through his deception, a practice called catfishing. But he realized last spring that fans were starting to realize there was more to Soya than met the eye. Perhaps unconsciously, he had allowed glimpses of his unaltered body and mannerisms to slip into her world. After struggling with the possible consequences for a while, finally one night he posted an image on her account of a motorcycle with his unaltered face visible in the mirrors.
To his amazement, his fans by and large took the revelation in stride. Beyond the flurry of media attention to the technical novelty of his “creation”, people, including his own kids, seemed to understand that Soya—though not a real person—is authentically part of who Yasuo is. While he may have masked himself in a way that was more likely to get us to notice, the stories he shared were his own, and the number of people following Soya’s adventures continues to grow.
I am not suggesting there was anything particularly admirable about the path Yasuo took, but as someone of similar vintage who spends probably too much time online, I do understand his motivation. The social internet is clearly ruled by the young and the genetically gifted. I may think my long-winded stories are interesting, my dad jokes are funny and my pictures are pretty, but the algorithm apparently disagrees and saves opportunities to be seen—called impressions—for the more-sought-after demographic, leaving me with the digital crickets, scrolling through the carefully curated versions of their lives that the beautiful people deign to share. So I can look at another guy’s long-haired midlife crisis with some empathy.
I think the take-away here is not so much what Yasuo did or why, but how the public responded when he came clean. Each of us faces the choice of how to react when those we love reveal layers of themselves—be they dreams or shortcomings or simple, hard truths. Maybe we would inwardly prefer that they continue to masking these aspects of themselves, at least when there’s company, while Grandma’s alive, in front of the neighbors. However—as Paul said—isn’t it us, then, who stubbornly keep putting on a veil, over our minds?
God—who sees past any filters we can dream up—thinks we can do better. As Paul told the Corinthians, “All of us, with unveiled faces, are seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, and are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
Let us pray and strive to bring about the realm of heaven right here… that we might all have the grace to welcome and listen to even those whose choices or ideas challenge us… maybe even especially them. That this can and will be a place where no masks—physical or metaphorical—are needed, so that all who enter can feel seen and heard and safe and loved… just as they are.