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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A Snapchat photo filter that lets people see themselves in highly feminized or masculine form has proven wildly popular. It's drawn a mixed reception, though, from people whose real-life journeys have taken them beyond the roles assigned to them at birth.

Between the lines: The filter has proved to be a surprisingly powerful tool for people to imagine themselves in another gender. It also has highlighted society's continuing challenges with understanding people who are transgender, intersex, nonbinary and gender non-conforming.

Driving the news: People around the globe were quick to not only use the filters on themselves, but also apply them to politicians, soccer stars and celebrities.

The big picture: While some in the LGBTQ community have been critical of the filters as making a joke out of a serious matter, others say the filters have allowed them to explore themselves in the safety of a digital world.

How it works: The filters, which are powered by machine learning and debuted late last week, transform a Snapchat user's hair, facial shape and other aesthetics to make them either more traditionally masculine or feminine.

What they're saying:

  • J.E. Reich, journalist, to Axios: "As a person who identifies as both queer and genderqueer (and who has not gone through any sort of medicalized transition), I found a sense of empowerment when using the 'genderswap' Snapchat filter. The act itself was something like staring into a possible world. It was a way to encounter a concrete image of what I would look like if I decided to pursue hormone therapy, and the actualization of this gave me the courage to admit to myself how much I want to. "
  • Kate Sosin, an LA-based reporter, to Axios: "As a transmasculine person who has not undergone hormone therapy, I have never been able to imagine my features changed by testosterone, and I was so curious to see myself that way. This was a glimpse of that. The other filter gave me a rare and odd opportunity to see myself grown up as my sex assigned at birth, which I haven't seen since I was in high school trying to perform that. I was also deeply curious about that." 
  • In a piece by Vice's Serena Sonoma, Dana Vivian-White, a non-binary speaker and trainer who serves on the board of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, suggested that most people are just using the Snap filter to play around with gender ideas rather than thinking about the realities of transgender or gender-non-conforming people. “Yet there’s a fine line between encouraging people to take gender less seriously and not considering trans realities or carelessly perpetuating misunderstanding about trans identities,” Vivian-White told Vice.

For the record: Snapchat declined to share statistics on use of the filters, but a spokesperson said the Lens team is working with others throughout Snap, including employee resource groups, to ensure its lenses are diverse and inclusive.

Our thought bubble: Different parts of our society are still in vastly different places when it comes to talk about gender. Some see it as a rigid binary to be enforced, others as a journey to be traversed, and still others as a source of humor. How one sees Snap's filter depends largely on the face staring into the selfie cam.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

U.S. ambassador to Russia will return home briefly: State Department

John Sullivan, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, during a briefing in Moscow in 2015. Photo: Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS via Getty Images

The State Department said Monday that the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, will now be returning to the United States this week before returning to Moscow "in the coming weeks."

Why this matters: The statement, from a State Department spokesperson, comes just hours after Axios reported that Sullivan had indicated he intended to stand his ground and stay in Russia after the Kremlin “advised” him to return home to talk with his team.

Scoop: Leaked Ukraine memo reveals scope of Russia's aggression

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits a military exposition in Sevastopol, Crimea, in Jan. 2020. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Russia has been holding last-minute military exercises near commercial shipping lanes in the Black Sea that threaten to strangle Ukraine's economy, according to an internal document from Ukraine's ministry of defense reviewed by Axios.

Why it matters: With the eyes of the world on the massive buildup of troops in eastern Ukraine, the leaked memo shows Russian forces escalating their presence on all sides of the Ukrainian border.

Elon Musk: Autopilot feature wasn't enabled in fatal Texas crash

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted on Monday that "data logs recovered so far" show the car's Autopilot feature was not enabled — and it did not have access to "full self-driving mode" — in the deadly crash in Texas involving the company's electric vehicle.

Background: Local investigators said they believed the car was operating without anyone in the driver's seat. At the time of death, one man was in the passenger seat, while another was in the rear seat, KPRC 2 reports.

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