I met Bhumika Shrestha in a cafe in Kathmandu along with a Nepali journalist friend. I had read about her fight for transgender rights in Nepal and how she was the first person to travel out of Nepal on an “other” gender passport (one of the Nepali transgender community’s many recent victories). But this was the first time we had spoken.
She was impeccably made-up and had a busy, no-nonsense manner. If I didn’t make a good impression immediately I suspected I would be leaving Nepal empty-handed.
I wanted to make Bhumika, and her story, the heart of an experimental journalism project on the Web. The project would use state-of-the-art artificial intelligence to answer users’ questions with video answers, in order to simulate conversation.
If all went as planned, Bhumika herself would appear onscreen to answer questions about her own experience, and about Nepal’s remarkable journey from conservative Hindu monarchy to a regional role model for gender and sexual minority rights.
Maybe transgender rights is an odd subject to choose for this experiment. What do transgender rights and artificial intelligence have in common? Nothing, except that this new technology allows the journalist to step out of the frame in a way that was not previously possible.
As a cisgender (non-transgender), heterosexual, white man from a wealthy country, I wanted to avoid filtering her story through my experiences. I wanted to be a simple facilitator for a conversation between the audience and the subject, present only to provide necessary context.
Using this technology to allow someone from a traditionally marginalized minority group to seize the microphone, to “speak for herself”, seemed like a good way to inaugurate a new type of story.
But first I had to get her on board.
With the help of my friend, who smoothed over the language barrier, I explained the concept.
Bhumika received multiple phone calls and text messages as I tried to make my case, and seemed perpetually at the eye of a communications whirlwind.
It was a big ask. I needed her to sit in a room and answer every question I could think of in order to create a rich enough set of answers. I needed two days out of Bhumika’s impossibly busy schedule. And I needed her to turn off her phone for the whole time.
The conversation happened mostly in Nepali between my friend and Bhumika. I received a noncommittal “yes”, but the whole conversation was over before I was confident I had fully communicated the scope of the project.
The next day my friend called me to tell me Bhumika needed to reschedule. I was worried, but my friend assured me that Bhumika was excited to participate in the project.
We were not able to secure a studio that met our needs, so we went to a local guesthouse and asked to rent out their office. On the appointed day, we pushed all the furniture to one side of the room and set up a stool in front of a white wall. It would have to do.
Bhumika arrived and we started the interview. I had seen enough interviews with transgender people to know that they could go disastrously wrong. Even seasoned interviewers make the mistake of thinking that a transgender person’s gender identity gave them license to ask the most intrusive personal and anatomical questions.
Because of the nature of the project, I had to ask these questions anyway. My role was to anticipate audience questions, and I had made a list of questions collected from colleagues and friends. Sure enough, people were curious about sex reassignment surgery, transitioning and other highly personal subjects.
Every time I asked a sensitive question, I prefaced it by suggesting that if she found the question inappropriate, she could instead explain why a transgender person might be uncomfortable answering such a question.
In that way, the project could double as an educational experience, teaching good manners when talking with transgender people. But to my surprise, Bhumika said she did not mind answering even the questions I had most dreaded asking.
(She only opted out of answering one question: Whether she was currently in a relationship.)
Our makeshift studio was stiflingly hot, but we could not open the balcony door because of noise from outside. Bhumika was an absolute professional. She answered our questions without complaint under the hot lights for hours on end. Then she came back and did the same thing the next day.
Elated, I headed back to Hong Kong, ready to get to work building the ambitious project. It would combine Google voice recognition, IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence, Facebook’s React architecture, Amazon’s Lambda functions and many other technologies.
But more important than the technology is how it lets me take a back seat. Because after all, Bhumika can speak for herself.
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