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I have recently encountered a claim that a certain well-known public figure/celebrity that has publicly denied being transgender is, in fact, transgender. The claim appears plausible and mentions some supposedly telltale anatomical features that are frequently seen on people publicly identifying as transgender and are commonly associated with being transgender in public discourse and gossip. I have viewed a few pictures of this celebrity that are available on the public internet and agree that the celebrity appears to have those aforementioned anatomical features. This, of course, does not prove that they are transgender but it transforms the claim from idle gossip to a plausible subject of rational inquiry.

I am currently evaluating whether or not this claim is sufficiently well-believed to meet Skeptics notability requirements and feel that our existing guidance on notability is sufficient, so I will exclude consideration of that for the moment.

Assuming that the claim (Celebrity X is transgender) I found meets notability requirements, is there a problem with asking it? I know that many (but not all) transgender people do not appreciate being "outed" in public and even take steps to hide their former identity from others, but then Skeptics and the Stack Exchange Network as a whole has historically been open to discussing potentially distressing matter and revealing (or debunking) "inconvenient truths".

I did find a previous discussion of claims that a celebrity has a certain medical diagnosis, but the diagnosis in question there was one that most likely would only be answerable by consulting privileged medical records. A question as to whether or not a person is transgender could be answered from non-medical sources, such as old public records or memories of people who knew the person in the past. For example, an answer might look like,

Yes, James Smith appears to be transgender. According to a quotation by Ann Jones reported by New York Times journalist B. McRab (cite),

James Smith and I were best friends in fifth grade, except he went by the name Margaret and always wore dresses to school. He was also a Girl Scout and I know they don't let people in to Girl Scouts who are identifying as male. My father told me in 1996 that James had been kicked out of Girl Scouts the previous fall after coming out as a transgender boy and requesting to be called James. I lost contact with him after that, but I know he is the same person I knew.

Discussion:

Since the celebrity in question has publicly denied being transgender, I could phrase my Skeptics question instead as "Celebrity X has denied being transgender, is it true that they are not transgender?", but that only goes to the notability of the claim, not its appropriateness.

Unlike well-known transgender celebrities such as Chelsea Manning, Elliot Page, or Amy Schneider that have been open with the public about being transgender and/or were already celebrities before transitioning (and thus unable to hide their past), the celebrity in question has, as far as I have been able to tell, always been known under their current name and gender since entering the public eye. This makes me suspect that inquiring about their gender history might be considered an invasion of privacy, even if the question could be answered by consulting only non-privileged sources such as high school yearbooks, non-sealed court documents, or interviews with childhood friends.

In response to Oddthinking, the reason I am asking this here on Meta is to gauge the community's tolerance for questions of this nature before I "ask away" and find myself in trouble for breaching a previously unwritten boundary. It might be helpful to define a clear site policy (based both on what I'm asking here as well as the linked question on medical diagnoses) on when an otherwise notable claim is not suitable on Skeptics for privacy reasons.

Also in response to Oddthinking's mention of "what they believe in their heads", It would be possible to phrase a question in terms of legal recognition of gender, public identification as a gender, or affiliation with gender-restricted organizations. For example, a question could be phrased, "According to [Notable Source], James Smith is a former Girl Scout who was expelled in 1995 after filing to legally change his gender from female to male and his name from Margaret to James. Is this true?". Having been an enrolled member of Girl Scouts and having filed for a legal gender change are both objective facts that can be investigated rather than mind-reading opinion questions about how someone feels about their gender or whether they enjoy wearing dresses and putting on makeup.

Evidence that could be used to support a claim that a person is or is not transgender could include:

  • Legal petitions for changes in official gender markers, proved by citation to the applicable case or record.
  • A history of public statements in which the person has inconsistently identified their gender.
  • Current or prior attendance at single-gender educational institutions, such as Mount Holyoke College.
  • Current or prior membership in organizations that limit membership based on gender, such as Girl Scouts, Freemasonry, or certain religious orders.
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    If "mentions some supposedly telltale anatomical features" comes up a lot in notable claims, it might be worth having a canonical question about whether those are, in fact, anatomical features not possessed by cis people. Most such "transvestigation" claims are utter bollocks, with "anatomical features" as the only justification, and can usually be dismissed out of hand.
    – wizzwizz4
    Dec 31, 2022 at 18:52

3 Answers 3

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I don't think we have a policy on this. But my personal opinion would be that this is none of our business. This is a very private issue, and I think this site should not be a tool to enable violations of privacy.

In almost all cases the notability requirement stops questions of this kind before we have to face this dilemma, at the moment such a question becomes notable the cat is out of the bag and the privacy already violated by many different actors. I'm not thinking only about the question you asked about, but also similar kinds of questions that touch on very private areas.

This site has the potential to play a rather ugly role, a significant number of our questions is about offensive claims. We should always ask ourselves if we simply amplifying ugly, offensive statements. If we are doing this, then this site is doing more harm than good. And so far our only defense here is the notability requirements, which is supposed to ensure that we don't amplify, we only come in after the claim is already well known and widely distributed.

The case you describe is one that might just barely pass by the notability requirements at best. And for this kind of sensitive topic I don't think that is enough, I personally would put a higher bar on the notability here before allowing that question. This sounds like we would be mostly amplifying some ugly rumors. I'm not exactly sure where we should put the notability requirements for this kind of question touching on very private aspects of a person, but I think it might be a good idea to have them very high, higher than the standard we usually apply.

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  • I personally greatly dislike the idea because it requires entertaining inspection of the specific femininity and masculinity of specific people. That's a really poor etiquette; very bad taste. If you want to talk about it, do it privately with few listeners.
    – user11643
    Jan 8, 2023 at 5:39
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I have joked several times about needing a "None of our damned business" close reason. This question has made me never want it more. I had quite a visceral reaction against using this site for such witch-hunts. [I don't consider my gut reaction as a good basis for policy here, but I want to declare my biases.]

Our current rules don't explicitly prohibit such questions. I have been keeping a watchful eye out to see if we have any taboo topics here, and I have not observed any. (The closest: We ask that discussions of suicide use appropriate language to avoid encouraging it. We have had a persistent Holocaust-denialist troll in the past, so questions on the subject tend to garner careful scrutiny with a trigger finger on the Close button.)

The Code of Conduct may police some of the hostility behind such a question, but I can't see how it polices the invasion of privacy.

However, our current rules do prohibit questions about what an individual's motivations and beliefs are, on the grounds that they cannot be answered empirically.

The American Psychiatric Association explain that:

The term “transgender” refers to a person whose sex assigned at birth (i.e. the sex assigned at birth, usually based on external genitalia) does not align their gender identity (i.e., one’s psychological sense of their gender).

and

It is important to note that gender identity is different from gender expression. Whereas gender identity refers to one’s psychological sense of their gender, gender expression refers to the way in which one presents to the world in a gendered way. For example, in much of the U.S., wearing a dress is considered a “feminine” gender expression, and wearing a tuxedo is considered a “masculine” gender expression. Such expectations are culturally defined and vary across time and culture. One’s gender expression does not necessarily align with their gender identity.

So, asking if someone is transgender is asking about what they believe in their heads. We can't provide references to what people believe in their heads.

I would love to argue that this means that the question can't be asked here, but I can see workarounds: "Did [celebrity] have a typical masculine gender expression as a child?" would be answerable with evidence, even if "Is [celebrity] secretly a trans woman?" would not.

I would love to see evidence from the community that such questions are not be tolerated here.

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    Didn't people make this type of claim against Michelle Obama from time to time when her husband was still in office?
    – Joe W
    Dec 19, 2022 at 18:41
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    @JoeW Yes, and we do have a question about that. I answered it back then because I felt that disproving and contextualizing the claim added value. Looking back, I'd agree that it's none of our business, and also see the problem of us amplifying rumors about personal details of peoples lives that was raised by Mad Scientist. I think the question raises a broader issue of when it's acceptable for us to invade the privacy of public individuals, and finding a workable policy may not be all that easy.
    – tim Mod
    Dec 19, 2022 at 20:33
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    Personally, I think the notability requirement for these sorts of privacy-invading questions should be applied more rigorously than for other claims. We should make sure that we aren't amplifying rumors to a notable degree (a start would be to remove these kinds of questions from the hnq, requiring high-profile sources to establish notability (and deleting questions if they are not presented), etc).
    – tim Mod
    Dec 19, 2022 at 20:35
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    I agree, @Tim, and upvoted your answer suggesting it.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Dec 19, 2022 at 21:04
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I'm afraid I have to disagree with the mods here.

It's a gossipy claim but since we allow claims such as "Obama was not born in the United States," I don't see what would be the problem with "Obama was not born as a female." Of course, notability is essential in these cases!

  • Is it our business? If it's a notable claim, I think, yes. Notable claims are our business.
  • Are we outing anyone or violating anyone's privacy? No, we cannot reveal secrets because the evidence we show must already be public.

The only case I might doubt is a privately trans person being outed by a notable claim. However, what can our answer be in that case? That the evidence is that the person claims they are cis. I don't see how we could out the person unless there's evidence in the open, in which case we would report facts.

On the other hand, I think it would be more interesting to discuss a "privacy" clause, to decide how we should handle cases where a party to the claim has publicly asked for privacy. I suspect there's no easy answer here, but perhaps Oddthinking and the other mods can have a deeper think.

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  • When people made the (false) claim that Barack Obama was not born in the USA, they argued that it was relevant, because if true it might have affected his eligibility to be president of the USA. I haven't seen anyone argue the relevance of saying that a certain celebrity is secretly transgender.
    – Golden Cuy
    Jan 2, 2023 at 12:26
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    @AndrewGrimm I'm fine if the argument is that of relevance or notability, but I don't think we can blanket-case all "secret transgender" cases as not notable.
    – Sklivvz
    Jan 3, 2023 at 15:24
  • We can blanket them as offensive. If true, offensive. If false, still offensive.
    – user11643
    Jan 8, 2023 at 5:44
  • @user11643 the question over Obama's birth place was also arguably offensive. It is still a good question to have on the site.
    – PC Luddite
    Jan 30, 2023 at 8:48

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