Photos: Getty Images | Image: Natalie Moreno
I first saw them on Twitter – images of celebrities overlaid with phrenology-style diagrams supposedly proving the most famous people in the world are all secretly trans. A close-up picture of Kanye West’s face, a skull superimposed over it; a photo of Arnold Schwartzenegger’s “T-Rex arms”; Margot Robbie’s “squared mandible” and “sloped back forehead” – all proof of a mind-melting secret. Even compared to other deranged ideas lurking in the murkier corners of the internet, this one seemed particularly batshit.
I’d stumbled across transvestigation, also known as elite gender inversion. It’s the conspiracy theory that celebrities are secretly transgender as part of a pact with an evil cabal – and anyone can become a target for the people looking to prove it. In Facebook groups like Transvestigation Disclosure NOW, members speculate about celebrities who are “inverted”, as they put it, offering up nonsense evidence that they are disguising their trans-ness. And it’s not just the usual targets for conspiracy nuts – Lady Gaga or Michelle Obama, to name a couple – but seemingly anyone. Harry Kane? Trans. Phoebe Waller-Bridge? Inverted. The Rock? You better believe he’s got a biologically female skull.
Skull shape, hip shape and Q angles (a legit scientific term for the shape of the leg) are all commonly pointed to as evidence, echoing the racist pseudoscience of phrenology with extra transphobia to boot. Often, investigations are no more sophisticated than photoshopping lines over celebrity pics. Images showing Henry Cavill’s “girly eyes”, Paul Mescal’s “flamingo foot”, or even Andrew Tate’s apparent lack of bulge are all the proof transvestigators need.
While the novelty value of these weird memes has propelled them to a massive audience through social media, it is worth pointing out that this conspiracy theory is incredibly niche. The biggest transvestigation groups have a few thousand members – tiny by Facebook standards – and the biggest elite gender inversion Twitter account, Son of Man, has 25,000 followers. But despite the small numbers, there is a dedicated community of acolytes who appear to really believe this stuff.
Take Sam, whose mother truly thinks that Michelle Obama was born a man. The 27-year-old – who, like others in this piece, is speaking anonymously to protect his family’s privacy – says it started back in 2014, when she began talking about how then-US president Barack Obama planned to imprison people in concentration camps. She now believes Michelle Obama is actually a man called Michelle Robinson, a QAnon-adjacent theory that has, obviously, been debunked. When his mum started spouting these theories, Sam was horrified. “I remember being kind of taken aback with that and just thinking it was very perverse,” he tells VICE. For people like Sam’s mother, Michelle Obama is kind of the gateway drug into transvestigation. The current iteration of the conspiracy theory can be traced back to 2014 when comedian Joan Rivers made a joke about Barack Obama being gay and Michelle being trans. Not only did conspiracy theorists not get the joke (which, to be fair, wasn’t funny), but when Rivers died after suffering cardiac arrest a few months later, many thought the Obamas had offed her for outing them.
Even before that, unfounded rumours about celebrities being trans or intersex – usually female, often Black – circulated in conspiracy circles and beyond. Back in 2008, unfounded rumours that Lady Gaga was a hermaphrodite made tabloid headlines, with Serena and Venus Williams another common target. This baseless suspicion is often rooted in racism or sexism and aimed at women who dare to transgress gender norms, but is now also tied to a wider panic over the so-called trans agenda. “While most conspiracy theories blame powerful groups, some blame ‘scapegoats’ who don't necessarily have a lot of power,” says Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. “For example, immigrants are often blamed for attempting to take over and feminists are sometimes accused of having an agenda to oust men from positions of power.”The latter, she explains, is also linked to the general idea that "gender ideology" is a conspiracy to undermine traditional societal values – something that has become a mainstream right-wing talking point on both sides of the Atlantic. This in turn sows the seeds of the conspiracy theory that trans rights are not about protecting a minority group, but are instead tools to eliminate biological sex and destroy family values. Transvestigation can have a devastating impact on the people close to those who fall into its hateful orbit. Take David, a 22-year-old student from Brazil. Though he was born in the US and raised speaking English, he’s now back in his home country and describes his parents as evangelical Christians “prone to the types of conspiracy theories typically seen in more right wing evangelical circles in the States”.
His mum has always been paranoid about supposedly secretive elites in Hollywood and the music industry. “The details kind of change over time, but the general idea is that: Rich and famous probably equals a devil worshipper,” he tells VICE. More recently she's taken to calling trans people “inverts” and suggesting that “most people in the music industry are trans”. David, who is gay, has struggled to stay on good terms with his mum given her extreme views. He points to one of his favourite musicians, SOPHIE, the trans hyperpop artist who died in 2021, as an example of how difficult it’s been to maintain a relationship with his mother. “I would talk about her all the time with people and try to value her memory. But around my mum I would try to avoid mentioning she was trans, because I knew how she'd react.” David no longer lives at home. His mum recently kicked him out after finding out he had received the COVID vaccine. He says he wished he’d left on better terms, but he’s in a much more accepting and comfortable environment now, living with his best friend and one of his brothers who left with him. “The vaccine thing was the breaking point,” David says. “But before that, me and my mum were kind of making an active effort to act like our differences weren't eating away at each other.”
While transvestigation shares similarities with QAnon and other extreme right-wing conspiracies, it is not necessarily part of them. Transvestigators are not always pro-Trump, for example – some of them believe he’s just another “inverted” elite. And transvestigation has a more esoteric, new age spin than its far-right cousins. Central to this is the belief that elites have traded their gender with an evil force in exchange for power, wealth and fame. Marc Tuters, a research fellow in conspiracy theories at the University of Amsterdam, explains that while new age spiritualism might not be an obvious jumping off point for conspiracy theories like transvestigation, it can be very reactionary – and conspiracy theorists will look to slot any ideas they can fit into their worldview.“It's kind of like world building,” he says. “These narratives fit into a broader narrative so that it will connect, like a puzzle piece, into another narrative where [beliefs emerge] like the ‘trans agenda’ is also connected to the transhuman agenda.” This is borne out by David’s mum, who is a devout evangelical Christian. He says she believes that trans acceptance is the first step in what she describes as a "transhumanist agenda" that will eventually turn us all into genetically modified mutants. Sam, too, describes his mum as a spiritualist whose own faith is central to her conspiratorial beliefs. And the result of this paranoid delusion and nastiness? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has turned inwards. In 2022, one of the main figureheads of the movement – Inanna Snow, a chess-playing vegan and new age hippie – was booted out of the transvestigation groups she used to manage, herself accused of being trans. Some of the groups now carry messages distancing themselves from her, while her own social media feeds are lined with pictures attempting to prove that she is in fact a real woman and it’s her accusers who are trans. Transvestigation is online transphobia played out to its absurd endpoint. It’s rooted in fear and paranoia over the supposed trans agenda and gender ideology – who is allowed to be a woman and who is not – stoked by right-wing politicians and their media allies. But the conspiratorial thinking behind transvestigation fuels real world hatred, too. From the harassment of drag shows by neo-Nazis, to assaults on trans people in bathrooms and shootings in LGBTQ+ venues, transphobia has existential consequences for those in its sights.