Screenshot: EstroLabs Website
Last week, a verified Twitter account went viral after advertising fake hormone pills in a scam that specifically targeted some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community—before the website selling them disappeared from the internet. The account named “QueerQuirk” began advertising a product called “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Estrogen,” which turned out to be a supplement that has no proven effect on raising estrogen levels and has been shown to instead raise testosterone levels. The tweet led to enormous backlash online, with many pointing out that the “company” seemed to be a scam targeting trans people by either collecting their data or selling them harmful products, or simply taking their money for pills that don't exist.
“We're officially the 🔌 to get HRT style pills without a doctor's note,” read a tweet promoting the product. The link attached to the tweet led to a product page on a different site called EstroLabs, which showed that the pills were essentially Ashwagandha supplements being sold for $44.95 per bottle. Ashwagandha is a shrub that is commonly used for stress relief and has not been approved for Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT).“If Mother Nature had a gender transitioning assistant, it would be Ashwagandha,” the sketchy product’s description read. In the customer reviews section, there appeared to be a fake testimonial that included an image stolen from a Reddit user. The effort appears to be at best an elaborate troll, and at worst an intentional attempt to directly harm LGBTQ people. When taken in large doses, Ashwagandha can have adverse effects, including symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, and in rare cases, liver failure. The daily dose recommended by EstroLabs is 2400 mg, but according to Healthline, most research suggests taking 250-600 mg per day.It is unclear if anybody actually gave the money to the site. In a statement posted to QueerQuirk’s Twitter, the company claimed that 284 people purchased the pills. Shopify did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Many of the products on the EstroLabs site seemed tongue-in-cheek but at least, on its face, seemed nominally supportive of trans people. But one of the "products" being sold was an "Oops! All Testosterone" t-shirt with the description "Pairs perfectly with the 'I bought gas station HRT pills from EstroLabs and all I got was this male pattern baldness' coffee mug!" that suggests the site was intended to troll and harm LGBTQ people.“No way can Ashwagandha be a substitute for HRT, particularly Estrogen,” Swapnil Hiremath, a Staff Nephrologist at the Ottawa Hospital and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa who authored a paper on the supplement, told Motherboard. “[I]t will not do the action that HRT is supposed to have, and it may do something else!” Hiremath added that natural health products also don’t have the same quality control standards as prescription drugs, and potency can vary wildly from one brand or batch to another. “Natural products might be useful and effective—and many current drugs (eg aspirin, digoxin, sirolimus and so much more) have herbal origins—but not this slapdash fashion of usage!” Hiremath said.Since being called out, the QueerQuirk Twitter account has gone private and added a banner on its site which reads, “QueerQuirk has recently become the target of a troll attack. QueerQuirk.com is not affiliated in any way with any social media accounts. We will be back soon with updates as we try to figure this situation out, thank you.” However, a quick glance at the website’s footer shows social media links to the same QueerQuirk Twitter account that sent out the scammy posts. The EstroLabs site has also been taken down completely.
Posts on Gab and far-right Telegram groups viewed by Motherboard have shown people celebrating, but not taking credit for, the website.The fake pills come amidst a series of legislative and political attacks against trans people and the LGBTQ community. More than a dozen states have recently passed laws making it difficult or illegal for trans youth to obtain gender-affirming healthcare such as hormones and puberty blockers, and some Republican lawmakers have begun to extend these bans to trans adults. Every major medical association in the U.S. has found that these treatments are safe and effective, and the most recent research indicates that they reduce suicide risk among transgender youth by as much as 73 percent.“In this circumstance where a large group of transgender people is suddenly being cut off [from] care all at once, there is now an increased demand for alternate means of obtaining hormone therapy. With that increased demand, there are people that are willing to try to take advantage of those people,” Erin Reed, a queer legislative researcher and independent journalist who closely follows the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ laws, told Motherboard. “People understandably are going to try to seek out other ways to get their meds, and so they’re going onto various websites, some of these places they’re going are not as trustworthy and reliable as others. This is one of the many consequences of cutting off a group of people from their medication.”
Twitter users have been vocal about the suspicious nature of the EstroLabs and QueerQuirk sites. According to publicly available domain records, the QueerQuirk domain was only created two weeks prior, and the EstroLabs domain was activated less than a week before the Twitter account’s posts went viral. Both sites are set on rainbow gradient backgrounds and feature similar site templates from Shopify. QueerQuirk did not sell the “HRT style pills” on its own website, but instead featured apparel, including various t-shirts of animals supporting LGBTQ+ rights. The site’s “Our Story” page details a vague narrative of a founder who was kicked out of their home when they were thirteen and found the LGBTQ+ community as a safe haven. “Our story isn't one of sunshine and rainbows. It's a story of resilience, of determination, and a triumph of spirit against the odds. At the tender age of 13, our founder was forcefully pushed out from the only home they ever knew. Abandoned and alone, they were thrust into a world that was both intimidating and unkind,” the “Our Story” page stated. “Life on the streets was harsh, but there was a newfound sense of freedom. Free to be who they wanted to be, they embarked on their journey of self-discovery. They began working odd jobs, determined not to let their circumstances define their destiny. Their struggle was immense, but it was during these dark times that a community emerged. A community of diverse, bright, and courageous individuals - the LGBTQIA+ community.”
At the bottom of the page was an image of QueerQuirk's CEO—a person of color with purple dreadlocks and eyeshadow, without a name. Many users believe that this image is AI-generated, as the image has an airbrushed style and the collar of the person’s shirt seems to blend into their neck tattoo.On Saturday, the QueerQuirk account tweeted, “Our #HRTstyle supplements just broke the internet 😱 We’re so grateful to the #trans community!” Four hours prior, it had released a statement from EstroLabs' “founder Cody” that read, “We are extremely disappointed to see the bigoted backlash on our most recent twitter announcement. We believe that gender affirming care is a human right and that’s why we’re passionate about bringing a no-prescription alternative to estrogen pills.” The “bigoted backlash” referred to a number of primarily trans and gender non-conforming people who expressed concern for their community. Twitter has not taken any visible action against the account, which is “verified” under Elon Musk’s new system for the site, which allows anyone—including T-shirt bot accounts—to receive a “verified” checkmark by paying $8. Twitter could not be reached for comment, due to Musk’s policy of responding to media requests with the poop emoji.Reed warns that people in states that ban trans healthcare should take precautions when seeking out medications. She suggests traveling to states where they are available, if possible, instead of relying on unverified online sources."We need our public health communicators to sound the alarm that these care bans are detrimental to people, they hurt people in a myriad of ways and this is just one more of these ways,” said Reed. “It’s extremely important that if you are going to go the route of obtaining medication through other means given that your state or locality has banned them, that you make sure that you are doing your research on the providers of those medications.”