Transvestigation: What to Know About the Bizarre and Transphobic Conspiracy Theory

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“It’s like a trans-pocalypse,” digital creator Matt Bernstein joked in a December video, “and they are the only cis people left.”

Bernstein was referring to the phenomenon of “transvestigation,” a bizarre conspiracy theory that tries to prove that prominent people are secretly trans, using gendered pseudoscience, strange graphics, and lots of all-caps admonitions to their audiences to “WAKE UP.” “Transvestigators” largely focus on female celebrities and public figures: Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, athletes like Serena Williams – anyone who’s currently in the public eye. They also have some frequent male targets, including Barack Obama and Bill Gates; in other words, men who already appear in other conspiracy theories, like those about the “secret rulers” of the world and the “true” nature of power.

Transvestigation relies on the false and hateful notion that being transgender is in some way wrong or deviant, a shameful secret to be concealed; it sometimes refers to supposedly trans celebrities as “inverts.” (The other words used to refer to trans people are invariably slurs.) Some versions of the conspiracy theory, like many others, are also antisemitic, holding that powerful, hidden Jewish influences are trying to “force” secretly transgender celebrities on the world; not infrequently, they are also often racist, focusing especially on Black women.

The conspiracy theory and those promoting it can be found on sites like X and YouTube, and its proponents rarely only participate in this one conspiracy. Transvestigation accounts also often make references to Freemasons controlling the world, the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, flat earth, demons, and other out-there, conspiratorial, or occult ideas. The entire idea of transvestigation is often tied to what these conspiracy theorists call “Elite Gender Inversion,” which essentially holds that every famous person is secretly trans, part of a cabal who are transgender as part of a ritualistic initiation of some kind. Tranvestigators are rarely large or well-known accounts; the most-followed accounts on places like X and YouTube have a few thousand followers. This content also appears on TikTok, despite a 2022 pledge by the company to try to root out transphobic content. The LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD calls transvestigation a “hate-driven” conspiracy theory, adding, “This is a notable example of how transphobic hate actually impacts everyone — the targets of the harassment are cis celebrities.”

Besides being an example of the deepest, murkiest, dankest end of the conspiracy pool, the transvestigation community is also a model for how online conspiratorial social movements persuade people to get involved in them, says Joan Donovan. Donovan, PhD, is the founder of The Critical Internet Studies Institute and a professor of Journalism and Emerging Media Studies at Boston University. She’s a recognized expert in misinformation and disinformation, and sees transvestigation as part of a larger pattern.

Transvestigation, Donovan says, belongs to a long trajectory of “digital sleuthing,” where, as she puts it, “the audience is empowered to seek out those bread crumbs and bring them back to the group to discuss them."

“This was a good way to get people invested… to send people out to look for every time celebrities used the pizza emoji,” Donovan continues. With transvestigation, its followers will point out the size of a person’s hands, the width of their shoulders, the way they walk, or a variety of other specious features to "prove" their supposed transness.

“In some ways it plays on this idea that trans people are a mystery to be solved,” Donovan says. That’s useful for getting, and keeping, an audience engaged, especially if it already plays on someone’s pre-existing prejudices. “The developer of that kind of content often will present it as if it’s a question that the audience should look more into. It’s a strategy for getting people to come back to the account over and over, because they’re consistently presenting more problems that you could solve with your own research.” It also hooks into a historical fascination with celebrity gossip, she points out, and the long practice of speculating about the sexuality of celebrities: Before the internet, gossip columns would regularly insinuate that a celebrity was gay, using supposed “clues” like whether they wore nail polish.

“It’s part of this longe lineage of activating audiences and making them feel like they’re part of the story,” Donovan adds. “In the case of transvestigation, it really only works if you believe trans people do not have a right to privacy.”

Overall, Donovan sees a “major transformation,” she says, “in how people encounter news or information online,” one that encourages more and more direct involvement from people consuming it: You’re encouraged to “participate and click like and share and be part of this movement that’s happening around you.”

For extremist communities, that can be a form of indoctrination, Donovan says, and that’s clearly what’s happening here. “These smaller accounts are doing that indoctrination work of getting people to think that the ‘trans agenda’ is real… because we’ve [apparently] been living with these celebrities who are trans for years and no one has unmasked them or shown who they ‘truly’ are.”

Izz LaMagdeleine is a web producer and fact-checker at Snopes who has covered stories about transvestigation, especially baseless, lurid, purposely rude theories about Michelle Obama being “a man,” which have been circulating for at least a decade, part of an attempt to discredit both her and President Obama. Transvestigation ties in with a larger and more mainstream landscape of transphobic policies and rhetoric, they say, flaring up at a time when Republican politicians are once again pushing anti-trans bathroom bills and promoting dehumanizing anti-trans rhetoric on both a state and national level.

“Trans people are such a small percentage of the population,” LaMagdeleine points out. “And none of these people who have been the public focus of these conspiracies has been found to be trans. Factualness gets pushed aside in order to uphold this belief that trans people are taking over society.”

“It’s a stupid theory,” they add. “But it’s also something that’s truly impacted and harmed people.”

Samantha Lux agrees; she’s a well-known digital creator and trans activist who serves on GLAAD’s board of directors. Lux says she’s seeing a huge upswell of anti-trans content online, of which transvestigation is one small part.

“I have always seen transphobia online in the form of hate comments and teasing, but there’s been a dramatic upshift in it lately,” she tells Teen Vogue. “Instead of seeing a few hate comments under trans people’s content, we see massive social media empires built on a foundation of misinformation and fear mongering about the trans community. Anti-trans activists are creating very profitable careers off of content in the same realm as transvestigations, resulting in more and more people being influenced to be anti-trans and send increasingly intense hatred to the community.”

The response, she adds, should include a better awareness from social media platforms about the kind of content they’re hosting: “Social media companies need to take accountability and take the appropriate steps to keep their platforms safe for everyone.”

Lux and LaMagdeleine both separately said they worry about the chilling effect that transvestigation and transphobic content generally could have on young people seeking out more information about their gender identity online.

“Had I seen this type of content when I was first discovering my trans identity or when I first came out as trans, it would’ve been, honestly, very scary,” Lux says. “Knowing that there are people out there who would try to ‘out’ me with the goal of directing harm my way would create a lot of anxiety and fear about life as a trans woman, more than I already had. Not simply because of the fear that my trans identity would be revealed, but what that would mean in terms of safety. Is someone going to think I’m trying to deceive them simply because of who I am and attack me for it? Are my friends going to be attacked alongside me due to our hands being the same size?”

In the end, Lux adds, “So much can run through our heads, but at the end of the day, that’s what anti-trans activists want — they want trans people to be afraid. They want trans people to feel responsible for the attacks on non-trans people motivated by trans hate. They want trans lives to feel impossible to live. This is exactly why we must live our lives authentically, vocally, safely, and proudly, and continue to fight back against misinformation whenever we can.”

Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue