Roughly six years had passed since Barack Obama left the U.S. presidency when, in June 2023, podcaster Jason Whitlock released a 124-minute podcast episode largely dedicated to baseless conspiracy theories surrounding Obama and his family. In particular, Whitlock asked listeners to question whether Obama's wife, Michelle, was in reality a transgender woman attempting to keep her gender identity a secret from the public.
Additionally, Whitlock raised the possibility of Barack Obama being gay, a question that often coincides with conspiratorial thinking about Michelle Obama's gender identity. The podcast episode, part of Whitlock's show produced by the conservative media outlet TheBlaze, had 331,000 views on Whitlock's YouTube account, as of this writing.
"First of all, I don't know if Michelle is packing a sack or not," Royce White, a former NBA player and guest on the episode podcast, said to Whitlock. "I can't be sure. I've never seen her sack. I'd have to get up close to really know. Never been anywhere near the Obamas." (When we reached out to Whitlock to ask about the episode — namely, why these theories were covered on the show when there's no real evidence to support them — he said the explanation was found within the episode.)
The episode's thumbnail on YouTube (@realjasonwhitlock/YouTube)
Despite numerous fact-checking efforts to debunk these conspiracy theories involving the Obamas, Snopes has seen them repeated on popular platforms since the early days of their careers in politics. For example, questions over Michelle Obama's gender identity have surfaced due to digitally altered photos to exaggerate her physical features, as well as social media posts that speculate whether she is the real mother of her children, Malia and Sasha. As of 2023, people consistently searched Snopes' site for facts on the matter, using phrases like "michelle obama is really a man."
"These claims will likely not go away," Newly Paul, an associate professor of print/digital media at the University of North Texas, wrote via email. "They seem rooted in spite, sexism, and racism, which fact-checks cannot cure."
Gender and sexuality scholars say the conspiracy theory about Michelle Obama being a trans woman has thrived for more than a decade because it's rooted in racism, transphobia, and misogyny, as well as how some Americans believe a first lady should embody certain race, class, and gender norms. According to the Smithsonian, Americans expect the first lady to be a symbol of "home, family, and womanhood."
"By questioning her sexuality and her physical appearance, the memes attempt to paint her as completely opposite to the traditional notions of a first lady as feminine," Paul wrote.
In this story, we'll break down the phenomenon, as well as how the baseless rumor gained momentum over the years. We reached out to the office of Barack and Michelle Obama for interviews and will update this story if we get a response back. She's at least aware of the smear campaign, commenting publicly in her 2018 memoir "Becoming"(bolded emphasis ours):
I've smiled for photos with people who call my husband horrible names on national television, but still want a framed keepsake for their mantel. I've heard about the swampy parts of the internet that question everything about me, right down to whether I'm a woman or a man. A sitting U.S. congressman has made fun of my butt. I've been hurt. I've been furious. But mostly, I've tried to laugh this stuff off.
Catalysts That Made the Conspiracy Theory Mainstream
The claim that Michelle Obama is a trans woman has permeated corners of the internet and pop culture since at least 2008 — that's when we first received reader emails asking us to confirm or deny it.
The claim truly picked up steam in July 2014, when the late comedian Joan Rivers was recorded on the streets of New York City calling Barack Obama gay and using a slur against transgender people in reference to Michelle Obama. "We all know," Rivers said, supposedly in reference to Michelle Obama's alleged secret of being trans.
The video clip of Rivers quickly went viral, despite the fact that she provided no proof to substantiate the allegations. Shortly after Rivers made the remarks, a representative released the following statement to CNN on behalf of Rivers:
I think it's a compliment. She's [Michelle Obama] so attractive, tall, with a beautiful body, great face, does great makeup. Take a look and go back to La Cage Au Follies (sic). The most gorgeous women are transgender. Stop it already … and if you want to talk about 'politically correct,' I think this is a 'politically incorrect' attack on me because I'm old, Jewish, a woman and a 'hetty' – a heteosexual … and I plan to sue the reporter who, when he turned off his camera, tried to touch me inappropriately on the a** - luckily he hit my ankle. Read the book … if you think that's silly, wait to (sic) you see what I say about FDR and Eleanor!
Rivers died two months after the video surfaced online, in September 2014. As the video swept the web, Infowars founder Alex Jones chimed in to support Rivers' theories. He described Michelle Obama using a slur against trans people and said she had "shoulders that are wider than a man’s, which physiologically doesn’t happen." Those comments from Jones — a prolific conspiracy theorist whose false claims about the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, in particular, resulted in him being ordered to pay $1.5 billion to victims' families — helped power the rumor about Michelle Obama for years.
In addition to celebrities and media provocateurs, some conservative politicians helped push the theory to mainstream audiences in the 2010s. For example, in 2016, McClatchy DC reported that a Republican state representative in Kentucky, Tim Couch, promoted the notion of Michelle Obama being trans with posts on his Facebook page, including one with a link that cited Rivers' viral comments. (He did not return that news publication's requests for comment. The posts were later taken down, and the Facebook account's profile name was changed to that of Couch's wife.)
Social media posts trumpeting the conspiracy theory continued circulating in 2023, particularly in September 2023, after former Fox News host Tucker Carlson interviewed Larry Sinclair — a man who, for years, has claimed without verifiable evidence that he took drugs and had sex with Barack Obama when he was a young politician. (There's no evidence corroborating that that ever happened.) Also, Jones continues to promote the theory to fans; for example, in a September 2023 segment of "The Alex Jones Show," he called Michelle Obama "Big Mike" numerous times.
Specific Rumors That Fit Within the Phenomena
- The Obamas are supposedly not the real parents of their two daughters (a claim heavily discussed during the above-mentioned episode of Whitlock's podcast);
- Rivers was purportedly killed for "revealing the truth" about Barack being gay and Michelle being trans;
- Michelle Obama's birth name is "Michael Lavaughn Robinson";
- Photos supposedly exist depicting Michelle Obama "as a man" in her younger days married to Barack Obama.
Reputable fact-checking organizations like Snopes, PolitiFact, USA Today, Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Reuters have debunked all such prongs of the overarching conspiracy theory, concluding that the alleged "evidence" for each claim was illegitimate.
One of the most popular claims, at the time of this writing, was the false notion mentioned above targeting Malia and Sasha Obama, now 25 and 22, respectively. According to the claim, the two were conceived by surrogate parents, and Barack and Michelle Obama supposedly tried to conceal that fact since public knowledge of it would expose their alleged secrets around Barack's sexuality and Michelle's gender identity.
That particular claim has existed since at least 2013, PolitiFact reported. We found examples of it on multiple social media platforms, including a June 2023 Instagram post that featured footage of the podcast episode from Whitlock.
Denouncing Barack and Michelle Obama as "frauds" or as "two gay pedophiles," believers in this theory often cast Dr. Anita Blanchard and Martin Nesbitt, real longtime friends of the Obamas, as the alleged surrogates. Working as the former first lady's doctor, Blanchard delivered both Sasha and Malia Obama — but Blanchard's involvement in their births ended there.
Promoters of the conspiracy theory say the lack of available public photos showing Michelle Obama pregnant is suspicious, and that they're not publicly available because they don't exist, and they don't exist due to the alleged surrogacy. Our research efforts so far, using open-source tools, have not uncovered any such pictures. But there are a range of perfectly logical reasons for that to be the case, including the possibility that the Obamas simply decided to keep such photos private.
Furthermore, Michelle and Barack Obama have discussed the births of their daughters publicly with no mention of surrogacy, though in her 2018 biography, Michelle revealed both Sasha and Malia Obama were conceived through in vitro fertilization.
Another popular claim that believers of the "Michelle Obama is trans" theory circulate is that Rivers' death in 2014 was supposedly connected to her viral comments about the Obamas. Such posts imply that someone, or some group, working on behalf of the Obamas orchestrated Rivers' death because she shared "the truth" about them.
"FLASHBACK: Joan Rivers leveled some serious accusations about Michelle Obama," one post on X (formerly known as Twitter) said in September 2023. "Joan Rivers DIED a few weeks later." Attached to the post was footage of Rivers making her comments about the Obamas. We found numerous similar posts on other social media platforms, including on TikTok.
FLASHBACK: Joan Rivers leveled some serious accusations about Michelle Obama..
Joan Rivers DIED a few weeks later..pic.twitter.com/7M7Ws6KtWt
— Chuck Callesto (@ChuckCallesto) September 6, 2023
In reality, Rivers died days after she stopped breathing during a routine endoscopy, according to The Hollywood Reporter. There's no evidence whatsoever that the Obamas had anything to do with her death, and its timing appeared coincidental.
Among posts focusing specifically on Michelle Obama's gender identity, some have claimed, without real evidence, that her birth name was "Michael Lavaughn Robinson." We found several posts across multiple platforms that referred to her as "Big Mike."
Michelle Obama @MichelleObama
Michael LaVaughn Robinson
🔍"Michael LaVaughn Robinson: Also Known As Michelle Obama"
💊 https://t.co/k0KAkjCFrR pic.twitter.com/XcPfNGXEng
— Not Op Cue (@NotOpCue) February 27, 2023
For "proof" to supposedly substantiate the claim, some posts pointed to a purported voting record or mother's will that supposedly identified her as male using the "Michael" name. AFP and The Associated Press, respectively, reported that neither piece of "evidence" was real. Other versions of the claim have also been debunked by PolitiFact, including the false assertion that Amazon's Alexa called Michelle Obama "Michael Lavaughn Robinson" when prompted.
Furthermore, some social media posts have alleged that Barack Obama once "slipped up" and called Michelle Obama "Michael" in a public speech. As USA Today reported, the in-question remark was taken out of context. Videos of the moment in the speech were authentic — in other words, they weren't the product of digital manipulation. But the former president was quoting a letter from a Pennsylvania woman writing about her husband, Michael, and not talking about his own marriage.
As far as photos that supposedly show Michelle Obama as a man in her younger years — such images have been digitally altered to make her forehead, eyes, and hair appear more traditionally masculine. Those photos have spread on multiple social media platforms.
Beliefs Underpinning the Conspiracy Theory
Michelle Obama is not the only target of this type of internet trope. Snopes often debunks baseless claims about high-profile women who supposedly transitioned without telling the public — claims that have targeted U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky and actor Daniel Radcliffe's girlfriend, Erin Darke, for instance.
"Not looking ‘feminine’ enough has been a rod used to beat successful women throughout history and is still employed today (Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Simone Biles, Caster Semenya) which quickly bleeds into homophobic rhetoric, where cis women are attacked for looking ‘manly’ or ‘like lesbians’," wrote freelance journalist Kate Demolder for the Irish public broadcaster RTE in April 2023.
Speaking on Michelle Obama's case, specifically, Aria Halliday, an associate professor of gender and women's studies at the University of Kentucky, said the former first lady's visibility as a popular, high-profile Black woman allowed for people to subscribe to the idea that trans people are secretly hiding in plain sight everywhere.
A believer may say to someone else, Halliday said: "'You don't even really understand how to see and understand what trans people are doing. [...] 'They're pulling the wool over everyone's eyes. Let me show you how.' Michelle is the perfect example. 'And if we can identify her, we can identify all of them and get rid of them."
According to Halliday, misgendering Michelle Obama as an un-admitted trans woman and snidely referring to her as "Michael" gives some indication of how adherents to this conspiracy theory feel about Black, trans women in general. "They are able to tie all of their feelings about trans women; all of their feelings about Michelle Obama; all of their feelings about white people [...] being replaced in the world — they get to do all of that stuff in one place," she said. "And Michelle Obama, because of her position as first lady, kind of sits at the crux of all of those conversations at the same time."
While most people seemingly do not believe the conspiracy theory, "a really small majority" with political and financial influence is dedicated to making sure that the "Michelle and Barack experience" — that is, a Black presidency — never happens again, according to Halliday. "It [the false claim that Michelle Obama is trans] lives and breathes in those spaces and will continue to, I'm sure, because it fits a particular narrative about 'Make America Great Again' [...] 'All are created equal,' but this doesn't include Black people."
Halliday connected the claims surrounding Michelle Obama to ongoing "culture wars" in which the "truth" is defined differently by opposing parties, such as fights in U.S. education over what is written in history textbooks. "They are connected in this kind of larger scheme about who controls the narrative of what is an American, and [to] these people being very scared of being pushed out," she said.
Both Paul at the University of North Texas and Halliday agreed: The baseless claims about Michelle Obama won't disappear anytime soon.
"We're at a point where either you're willing to move on — you're the 80% who are like, 'Look, this is stupid, and I don't have time for this.' Or, you're the 20% who wants to live and breathe these kind of conspiracy theories and narratives," Halliday said.