Behind a sliding bookcase in the library of a house in Buenos Aires lies a secret room.
There, in July 2017, federal police in Argentina discovered the largest cache of Nazi memorabilia in the country’s history. Most of the items turned out to be forgeries or period pieces later emblazoned with Nazi symbols to increase their value in the marketplace.
One of the period pieces investigators found most disturbing was a device used to measure head size.
There are legitimate uses for cranial measurements, such as charting an infant’s growth or investigating human remains at a crime scene or archeology site; but none of these uses are why this medical instrument was stashed in that secret room along with the Hitler Youth Harmonicas and silver swastika rings.
The Third Reich used craniometer measurements to identify Jewish individuals for execution as part of its Final Solution.
Meet the transvestigators
Eugenics, a pseudoscience tying morality to physicality, gave the Nazi’s antisemitism a veneer of legitimacy. Now, a whole new generation of eugenics practitioners, who call themselves “transvestigators,” are using “science” to verify their own prejudices and propagate mind-boggling conspiracy theories on par with the worst the world has ever seen.
Swedish politician and trans activist Mia Mulder says, “Transvestigation is a catch-all theory that everyone who is in power is actually a secret trans person. These people usually gather in Facebook groups but also produce content on YouTube and Twitter.”
Transvestigators don’t need a secret room; they’re broadcasting from their basements and proudly posting their declarations on social media. This group of self-appointed men and women are using the digital equivalents of craniometers and other tools for measuring facial features and bodily proportions to “analyze” photographs of famous people to determine if those celebrities are transgender.
“It’s people pushing extreme versions of gender norms and expectations in terms of presentation, physical build, mannerisms. … If someone deviates from this slightly from their presented gender, then they must therefore be trans,” explained author Jamie Raines.
These self-appointed experts claim they can “tell” a person’s sex at birth based on “skeletal markers” like dental arch, clavicle measurements and Q-angle.
“People who do this will draw measurement lines, like a line from shoulder to shoulder, or hip to hip and say the shoulder-to-shoulder line is longer than the hip-to-hip line. Therefore, this person is actually (trans),” Raines said. “Obviously there’s nothing wrong with being trans; but in this scenario it’s definitely being used as a negative thing.”
In some videos, the investigators dispense with the pseudoscience altogether and rely on “vibes” and “energy” to discern just who is a transgender person in disguise.
How long has this been going on?
It’s unclear exactly when the obsession with “outing” transgender celebrities began. In 2014, Time magazine’s cover featured actress Laverne Cox with the headline, “The Transgender Tipping Point.” The issue’s article on the rising acceptance of trans people in America agitated right-wing conservatives and fundamentalist Christians. Author and trans activist Brynn Tannehill said in 2014, “The Religious Right’s morale reached its lowest point. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was repealed in 2011. Same-sex marriage looked inevitable. It was here that the Right made a decision to shift their culture-war focus to transgender people.”
That same year, Joan Rivers cracked a joke that statuesque former First Lady Michelle Obama was a trans woman. Never one to pass on a conspiracy theory, Infowars host Alex Jones claimed he had “the final proof.”
His rants weren’t that different from most of the racist, sexist and homophobic slurs shared online by the conservative right during the Obama administration, but now they’ve found new life among transvestigators.
“In these circles there is a strong racial component,” Mulder said. “The standards presented here are obviously impossible for anyone to meet. But (they) are often biased in favor of white women. The people being transvestigated are often Black, disproportionately so.”
When Joan Rivers died later in 2014, conspiracy theorists speculated the Obamas had Rivers killed for coming too near the truth. This spawned the belief that the world’s elite are all secretly transgender and always have been. According to transvestigators, not only was Michelle Obama transgender, so was Martha Washington. In their YouTube videos, transvestigators began accusing world leaders, entertainers, tech executives and sports figures of being transgender.
How can anyone believe this?
The whole notion is so ridiculous and so easily refutable, one wonders how such homophobic nonsense could ever catch on. However, as repulsive and absurd as these transvestigators and their theories are, it would be foolish to ignore them or dismiss what they are up to.
“The people involved in this conspiracy theory are extraordinarily bigoted,” Mulder said. “Not just against gay people and trans people, but against everyone who doesn’t fit their very, very narrow worldview, basically any group you can come up with that isn’t white and Christian.”
Yet these “investigations” into Hollywood’s hottest couples are just the entry point into a much darker more convoluted and ultimately more dangerous set of beliefs.
According to those “in the know,” the Illuminati are back and still working with the Freemasons to realize the New World Order Pat Robertson warned us about.
The internet’s algorithms propel conspiracy theorists from one fringe claim to another and then another, causing cross-pollination between theories old and new. According to those “in the know,” the Illuminati are back and still working with the Freemasons to realize the New World Order Pat Robertson warned us about. Only this time around, the Illuminati are giving hormones to children in order to control the “public’s perception of reality.” These children are then elevated to celebrity status as adults and used to “force” the “transgender agenda” onto the world.
In a throwback to the “satanic panic” of the Reagan years, transvestigators also allege celebrities and cultural leaders have sold their souls to the devil. According to Raines, they “claim that every celebrity is trans and transitioned as a sacrifice to become rich and famous, as if being trans is an inherently horrible thing that nobody would ever want to do.”
Sometimes, this soul selling reportedly happens when these celebrities are children, and sometimes it happens when they’ve taken some time off to have plastic surgery done. (It’s not liposuction, it’s Satan).
“What we’re living through is a trans panic akin to the satanic panic of the ’80s and ’90s, when parents and police were convinced there were devil-worshipping cults infiltrating every facet of society,” said Slate’s Riley Black.
Fed by religion
Mia Mulder believes Christianity and the notion of purity play big roles in transvestigation. Those involved believe “you should be as God has created you to be, and so any manipulation of that image is against God, (including) minor surgery or vaccines. All of these things they claim are a part of the demons’ greater plan to corrupt who we are supposed to be as human beings. In their view, we are vessels of a perfect, divine soul and the more we change our exterior, the more we corrupt that soul.”
“Their videos often include Bible verses taken out of context and interpreted to reflect their own confirmation biases.”
Transvestigators are suspicious of organized religion, especially the Catholic Church. However, their videos often include Bible verses taken out of context and interpreted to reflect their own confirmation biases.
In some variations of the conspiracy theory, the world’s elites worship Baphomet, a demonic male-female-winged goat mash-up with sketchy ties to the Knights Templar (seriously). A few transvestigators insist Hollywood celebrities aren’t human at all but blood-sucking lizard people (again, seriously).
What all these conspiracy theories, from the Illuminati to the lizard people, have in common is an origin story rooted in antisemitic propaganda. As far back as the Middle Ages, Jewish people were accused of worshipping the devil, corrupting children and drinking blood. What we’re seeing today are these same tropes now transferred to transgender people, who are the latest minority to find themselves in the crosshairs of conservative Christianity.
Making the ‘other’
The Nazis knew it wasn’t enough to malign an already marginalized group of people; they had to demonize them as well. This requires stripping people of their humanity and reclassifying them as the “other.”
Traditionally, the Western world has defined otherness as existing in opposition to and outside white Christianity. Building on centuries of European fear and hatred toward Judaism, Nazi eugenicists used pseudoscience to classify Jewish people as a separate and inferior race. They then integrated that false belief into their propaganda, stoking fears about a secret circle of Jewish leaders conspiring to control the world’s politics, economy and media.
The theory that the world’s elite are all transgender follows this same pattern right down to the antisemitism.
“Some transvestigators have repurposed the racist and xenophobic Great Replacement Theory as part of their ideology.”
Some transvestigators have repurposed the racist and xenophobic Great Replacement Theory as part of their ideology. This belief falsely contends that secret Jewish organizations are at work replacing white Europeans and Americans with nonwhite immigrants.
The transvestigators kept the anti-Semitism but swapped out the nonwhite immigrants for transgender folks. They claim “transgenderism” is a form of “ethnic warfare” designed by Jewish leaders to feminize “Western Man” and sterilize “Western Woman.”
The extreme version of this conspiracy theory, referred to as “transhumanism,” postulates “transgenderism” will cause people to be so disassociated from their biological nature that the secret Jewish sects controlling the world can implant microchips in everyone’s brains and forcibly integrate humanity with computers.
Analyzing regular people
Now, many transvestigators are moving on from analyzing celebrities and focusing their attention on regular people.
“Sometimes people will post pictures they’ve taken of strangers in the street, on the bus, in the subway, and ask other people to “transvestigate” them. The default belief is that the world at large is dominated by (transgender people) doing Satan’s bidding,” Mulder said. “Some people are terrified that their local school council has been infiltrated, … that their library staff has been infiltrated by (transgender people) culling information that is true and replacing it with perverse propaganda.”
One transvestigator on YouTube examined the photos of the homecoming kings and queens of various colleges and high schools and declared them all transgender. He then warned his audience that their children and even their spouses may be among the “transgenders taking over the world.”
Why you should care
If you’re like me, reading all these revolting homophobic and antisemitic conspiracy theories makes you want to scrub your computer screen with Clorox. Why dive into this cesspool at all? Who cares what some basement-dwelling creeps are posting on YouTube?
The reason is these individuals, and their ideas, aren’t staying in the basement. Recently, a couple in Canada disrupted an elementary school track and field day and accused a 9-year-old girl of being “obviously trans” because of her pixie haircut. Before they were ejected from the event, the two called the girl’s mother “a genital mutilator, a groomer and a pedophile” and demanded to see the child’s birth certificate.
Religious leaders and politicians also are coopting the conspiracy theories of transvestigators, legitimizing them, and using them to advance their own political objectives. A Catholic priest in Poland claims, “Genderists act in secret like a mafia.” He believes “they want to do their revolution top-down, by taking the centers of power and the media” and destroy the Catholic Church.
His views reflect those of 30% of Catholics in Poland, where local governments have established “LGBTQ ideology-free zones.”
Connection to anti-trans legislation
Closer to home, the U.S. is witnessing a spate of anti-trans legislation. Ohio Republican Rep. Gary Click is sponsoring one of several state-level bills banning gender-affirming care for minors. Click also is a Baptist minister who has preached that individuals are pushed by Satan to become transgender as part of the devil’s plan to undermine the family and destroy society. Fellow Ohio minister Stuart Long spoke before the Legislature in support of the bill saying, “When they can confuse your identity, they can destroy this country. The only thing that makes sense in this country is that demons are influencing people.”
“The only thing that makes sense in this country is that demons are influencing people.”
During debate on a bathroom bill in Florida, Republican state lawmaker Webster Barnaby, who referred to himself as a “proud Christian conservative,” rebuked trans constituents and called them “demons and imps.” Barnaby later apologized but only after the bill was passed out of committee.
Jeff Mateer, a Trump judicial nominee for the Eastern District of Texas, said a transgender girl, who sued her school for the right to use the bathroom of her choice was evidence of “how Satan’s plan is working and the destruction that’s going on.” Although Sen. Ted Cruz continued to support his candidacy, Mateer’s nomination later was rescinded.
Cruz, who in the past has floated the possibility that Sen. Elizabeth Warren is a man, is just one of a growing number of national leaders willing to dabble in conspiracy theories for political gain. This comes as no surprise to Tannehill: “Republican politicians benefit from stoking moral panics because it plays to their base. It’s (also) no coincidence that the same people calling for turning the U.S. into a Christian republic are also flogging the trans panic.”
Traditionally, such off-the-wall conspiracy theories have remained on the fringes of the party, bandied about by those who feel they lacked agency as a way to challenge the government. Now politicians like Cruz and Trump who do have power are using tales of a secret trans agenda to further mobilize support.
Two weeks before the 2022 midterms, extreme right-wing organizations funneled tens of millions of dollars into ads and political mailers with anti-trans messaging. America First Legal, the group behind most of those ads, was founded by the Trump administration’s Stephen Miller. Miller once told CBN the acceptance of trans people is an “assault” on “Western civilization” that would cause it to “topple in on itself.”
Tucker Carlson repeated this version of the Great Replacement Theory more than 400 times on his show. Donald Trump is another vocal supporter. The targeting of transgender people is uniting adherents of various conspiracy theories, MAGA politicians and Christian nationalists.
Gateway to violence
What is perhaps most concerning about this anti-trans trend is that fatalistic conspiracy theories like QAnon and those of the transvestigators are often gateways to violence.
The Buffalo shooter who murdered 10 people in a grocery store was a frequent visitor to conspiracy theory sites like 4chan, 8chan and Reddit. He cited the Great Replacement Theory in his manifesto.
In 2020, the man who detonated a suicide bomb in downtown Nashville on Christmas morning, which injured three people and damaged 41 buildings, believed lizard people were controlling the world and he needed to take action.
A group calling itself “Totenwaffen” has started distributing posters decorated with Nazi symbols listing transgender people to kill. What happens when a follower of one of these YouTube transvestigators becomes so radicalized he decides to “fight back” against the Illuminati?
“I can laugh, but at the end of the day it’s really quite horrifying,” Raines said.
For authoritarianism to take hold, citizens must believe they are being protected from an enemy so horrific (like blood-sucking lizard people) or a fate so disastrous (like the collapse of civilization) that whatever the government does to save them is justified.
Nazi propaganda framed Jewish people as just such an enemy determined to destroy Germany and its people.
Hysteria, caused by a trans panic, is one reason Americans are willing to tolerate legislation that violates the rights of trans people in ways that would be inconceivable if directed at cisgender, white, Christian Americans.
“One could make the argument that the Holocaust was the result of a confluence of a moral panic stoked by a political party, which simultaneously managed to seize permanent dictatorial power,” Tannehill said. “Already, transgender people and parents of trans youth are fleeing to states that are passing sanctuary laws.”
Epidemic of violence
The American Medical Association declared in 2019 that violence against transgender Americans had reached epidemic levels, and every November on Transgender Day of Remembrance more names are added to the lists of those lost to anti-trans violence.
“Trans people are overwhelmingly more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators of it, yet the conspiracy theories persist.”
A 2022 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post reported one in four adult transgender Americans have been physically attacked. Trans people are overwhelmingly more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators of it, yet the conspiracy theories persist.
Tannehill believes America is succumbing to what German theologian and pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer called the “Theory of Stupidity,” which “postulates that ignorance is more dangerous than malice.”
In letters written to friends from his prison cell, Bonhoeffer reflected on Hitler’s decade in power and wondered how a sophisticated, intellectual country like Germany could have become complicit in the machinations of the Nazi party. He believed collective moral stupidity, rather than outright evil, was the problem. Evil is easier to detect, expose and fight back against; but a nation is “defenseless” against stupidity.
“According to Bonhoeffer, fighting back against moral panics with studies, reason and logic is doomed to fail,” said Tannehill.
People who want to be supportive allies should also abandon arguing scientific facts with transvestigators, said Riley Black, “By engaging in the back-and-forth at all, allies are buying into the idea that there needs to be a scientifically justified reason for trans people like me to have the same rights as everyone else. Trans rights are not a scientific issue. They are a human rights issue.”
Therefore, the best approaches to combating anti-trans conspiracy theories, legislation and attitudes are to treat these as the critical human rights issues they are.
Another German pastor and Nazi prisoner, Martin Neimoller, often spoke about his early indifference toward those targeted by Hitler’s followers. His well-known quote “First they came for …” is inscribed on a wall of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Chances are the cisgender, white Christians in our Baptist churches never will be the ones anti-trans agitators “came for.” If we heed Neimoller’s warning, however, that’s all the more reason why Baptist churches should say and do something to defend those whom the transvestigators are coming for.
Doing so involves more than showing up for Pride parades in June. It means showing up at school board meetings and legislative sessions and volunteering with LGBTQ community groups all year long. Organizations like GLAAD, PFLAG and The Trevor Project all have resources available online to help allies learn what to do and how to connect.
As for the transvestigators and their deranged theories, do not entertain anything they say.
Jamie Raines framed it this way: “It’s an (absolutely) untrue conspiracy theory. … If every rich and powerful person were trans, we probably wouldn’t see as much transphobia as we do.”
Trans 101 for churches: ways to make a difference for transgender persons | Opinion by Susan Shaw and Brenda McComb