We Need To Talk About the Racist, Transphobic Attacks on Michelle Obama

Former First Lady Michelle Obama with daughters Malia and Sasha Obama and mother Marian Lois Robinson

I logged into my Twitter account in late September and saw that the hashtag #BigMike was trending.

Who was Big Mike? Probably a sports thing. Odd that it was trending under “Politics.” I clicked the hashtag and saw that it had started after far right celebrity James Woods had posted a picture of several past Presidents and First Ladies at Barbara Bush’s funeral.

James Woods advancing a QAnon conspiracy theory about First Lady Michelle Obama

James Woods was hinting at a conspiracy theory that has been a fixture on QAnon for at least two years now, if not longer. That conspiracy theory is that First Lady Michelle Obama is a man, or a trans woman. Her daughters, Sasha and Malia Obama, are not hers but are “rented” from another couple. It’s an odd assertion considering that Malia Obama looks like her mother so distinctly.

Michelle Obama was standing in the slight foreground, as was Melania Trump. This made them appear slightly larger than Obama, however QAnon proponents cropped out Melania in an attempt to make Michelle Obama look larger than she was.

The theory first started with late comedienne Joan Rivers who said during a street interview in 2014 that President Obama was gay and that First Lady Michelle Obama was a “tranny.” It was a terribly racist and transphobic joke. Rivers died a few weeks later while getting surgery and conspiracy theorists immediately drew the conclusion that her death was because she knew the “truth” about Michelle Obama.

Questions about President Barack Obama’s sexuality have been swirling since 2008 when his GOP opponents found it very difficult to dig up any dirt on the clean-cut Obama. The racist stereotype of the hyper-sexualized black man is deeply ingrained in American culture so the fact that a black man could be a faithful husband to his wife and father to his daughters was simply unacceptable to white Americans. Where were the “baby-mommas?” Where were the multiple girlfriends and one-night stands and crowds of illegitimate children now living on welfare? George W Bush being a faithful husband and father was taken for granted by white America. Of course a white man can be monogamous and faithful. A black man who was faithful to his wife, however, HAD to be gay.

Obama’s presidency pre-dated QAnon but there were far right outlets for rightwing conspiracy theories. Larry Sinclair, an eccentric fraudster and con man, published a book alleging that he had had a homosexual affair with Barack Obama. Conspiracy blogger Wayne Madsen talked about a huge gay conspiracy where Obama, Rahm Emmanuel and Deval Patrick (among others) frequented Chicago’s gay bathhouses.

Starting in 2018, QAnon arose and did what QAnon does best: it took an obliquely racist conspiracy theory and made it more blatantly racist along with misogynistic. Not only was Barack Obama gay, according to QAnon, but his wife Michelle Obama was a trans woman with a large penis who used to be called Michael Lavaughn Robinson (aka “Big Mike”). This conspiracy theory was “substantiated” by the Joan Rivers video and photoshopped pictures that made Michelle Obama look taller and larger than she really was. A favorite technique of QAnon photoshoppers was to photoshop Michelle Obama looking taller than Barack Obama, thus emasculating him and humiliating her by implying that tall women were somehow less feminine.

An original photo released by the Obamas of Michelle Obama and Barack Obama on their honeymoon.
A popular photo on QAnon Twitter, altered to make Michelle Obama look substantially taller than her husband.

There are even more humiliatingly photoshopped pictures of Michelle Obama where she is shown with wrinkles in her clothes that look like a bulge in the crotch. There are other manipulated photos making fun of the breadth of her shoulders. “THIS is why there are no photos of Michelle Obama pregnant!” Q Twitter will remark. The “Big Mike” QAnon theory is just the latest iteration of mocking and shaming black women’s bodies in American culture.

Secondary to the QAnon “Big Mike” rumor is another rumor that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is also a trans woman. This rumor started with footage of Ardern walking down a hallway with wrinkles in her dress that made it look like she had a bulge in her crotch. Any woman who has ever worn skirts with hose will recognize that type of wrinkle as something that occurs when static cling builds up between the hose and the inner lining of the dress. This awkward static cling is common when women are walking and it can create weird wrinkles.

It should come as a surprise to no one that this type of weaponized transphobia being aimed at non-trans women is primarily targeting powerful women. Michelle Obama is an enormously influential First Lady. Jacinda Ardern is the Prime Minister of New Zealand and frequent target of the far right after she outlawed automatic weapons following the mass shooting in Christchurch.

It should also come as no surprise that the poison of transphobia is being spread to target non-trans women. Trans-exclusionary feminists (known more pejoratively as “TERFs”) argue that trans women should not be included in women-only spaces or even be recognized as women at all. Trans-exclusionary feminists state that trans women are often predatory men using their status as “trans women” to invade women-only spaces and violate women. The statistics on this, however, do not bear out that conclusion. “Harry Potter” author JK Rowling is perhaps the most well-known trans-exclusionary feminist. Rowling has said, in all seriousness, that trans men try to target lesbians and seduce them into transitioning to men. It is bizarre to think that the long, expensive painful process of transitioning from female to male- and then living as a trans male- is less burdensome than just being a lesbian. There is literally no evidence for this conspiracy theory.

There is evidence for one fact, however: Trans-exclusionary feminists are being much too quiet about the transphobic attacks on First Lady Michelle Obama and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Indeed it is very peculiar that trans-exclusionary so-called “feminists” would use utterly dehumanizing terms to describe trans women and yet feel confident that such hate would not bleed over to affect ALL women. Trans-exclusionary feminists want to protect non-trans women against trans women. These trans-exclusionary feminists are being very quiet, however, when non-trans women are attacked by far right forces weaponizing transphobia. Certainly I have heard very little from trans-exclusionary feminists- let alone condemnation- about the far right conspiracy theories targeting Michelle Obama and Jacinda Ardern.

I myself am a tall and broad-shouldered woman. I am not trans however I was often cruelly teased by my classmates about possibly being a man while I was in middle school. I would also have my gender questioned as an adult woman when I lived and worked in Asia. I would go out of my way to dress in a very feminine manner (make-up, pencil skirts, hose and heels) to make up for my towering height and large shoulders. Other women had it worse and many of my larger female colleagues simply ignored the stares and the giggles when they walked around in downtown Seoul. Tall women, large women, muscular women and women who suffer from polycystic ovary syndrome (which can sometimes involve excess facial hair) can be misgendered. Indeed I could not help noticing under the “Big Mike” hashtag that a lot of women were timidly saying “I’m six feet tall and a lot of people mistake me for a man. But I’m not.” Or “Just because Michelle Obama is tall doesn’t mean she’s trans. I’m tall too and it hurts when people think I’m not a woman.” Transphobia hurts women, trans and cis alike. If any group is going to be “trans-exclusionary feminists” then they need to drop the “feminist” from their title because they are clearly not helping women.

Ignoring QAnon’s weaponized transphobia against powerful women is a bad tactic. It’s time we started talking about why topics like “Big Mike” can trend so easily on Twitter or why such an insulting theory is even allowed to exist outside of the fringes of the internet. Most importantly we need to address the root causes of QAnon’s conspiracies: racism, misogyny and transphobia. We also need to recognize dehumanizing just one small subsection of humanity, trans women, will absolutely come back to haunt us. If you consider yourself a “trans-exclusionary feminist,” you need to address the weaponized transphobia used to hurt prominent women in government. All those transphobic accounts “liking” your statements and battling the annoying libs in your comment section may be flattering, but don’t be fooled. These same transphobic forces will happily destroy you as well if they see a reason to do so. It is time for all of us to choose a side: transphobia or feminism. Because we simply cannot be both.

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