Clara Sorrenti, a Canadian trans streamer and political commentator known as Keffals, said she was swatted and arrested earlier this month after trolls impersonated her and sent fraudulent emails to local politicians threatening to harm “every cisgender person” at city hall.
Swatting — the act of making a false report of extreme violence in order to elicit an overwhelming law enforcement response to someone’s home — is a harassment tactic that can turn fatal.
In a YouTube video posted Tuesday, Sorrenti said that she and her family asked law enforcement for help dealing with harassment and online threats in the months leading up to the Aug. 5 incident, which occurred in London, Ontario.
Instead, Sorrenti said in the video, the police “terrorized” her and her loved ones by waking her up at gunpoint, seizing her devices and repeatedly misgendering her. The experience left her traumatized and fearing for her life, she told NBC News.
“Swatting incidents have ended with people dying before, and what happened to me was a particularly egregious case of swatting,” she said. “There’s this added layer where I had my identity stolen.”
Ontario Police Department officials did not respond to requests for comment. However, on Wednesday, Police Chief Steve Williams issued a statement addressing the misgendering of Sorrenti.
“It has come to my attention that Ms. Sorrenti was referred to during her time in London police custody by an incorrect name and gender,” Williams said in the statement, posted to the police department’s website. “We acknowledge the distress this has caused Ms. Sorrenti and we will be reviewing the occurrence to understand how that might have happened. At this time, we are still in the process of gathering the information necessary for this review.”
Sorrenti, who has been an advocate for the trans community and grew her platform by debunking transphobic talking points, has faced continued harassment both online and in real life. The threats have “escalated” in recent months, she said, as right-wing campaigns targeting trans people gained momentum. American lawmakers proposed a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills, many of which would limit trans rights, this year. Trans creators like Sorrenti have become targets for transphobic hate.
“Especially in the United States, transgender people are at the focal point of a culture war,” Sorrenti said. “I expected things to get more dangerous for me, but I could have never expected what happened that day.”
Sorrenti said her brother had asked the London Police Service to place their family on a no-swat list in March in the wake of the escalating harassment.
On the morning of Aug. 5, Sorrenti said an email from someone claiming to be her was sent to some London city councilors. The email, which Sorrenti said was shown to her while being interrogated, included Sorrenti’s deadname, a photo of a handgun and threats to harm others.
The email was “riddled with grammatical errors” and “read more like a troll would say” than something she would, Sorrenti said. But the photo of the illegal firearm “couldn’t be found anywhere else online,” which is what she believes prompted the police to obtain a search warrant for her apartment and arrest her. She was in custody for about 11 hours.
“They didn’t even talk to me that entire time until they finished searching the apartment and brought me in for interrogation,” Sorrenti said.
Despite legally changing her name 10 years ago and twice running for political office under her chosen name, Sorrenti said that she was booked under her deadname. When law enforcement performed a wellness check on Sorrenti’s mother, they asked about her “son.” Being booked under her deadname and being repeatedly misgendered “reveals the prejudice that many police have towards transgender people,” Sorrenti added.
“It was very bittersweet, because on one hand, I feel fortunate to live in a place where the chief of police is willing to apologize to a transgender person for misgendering and deadnaming,” Sorrenti said. “However, I would have liked to have an apology for the very real threat to my life. I deal with bigotry on a daily basis, but I have never been that terrified in my life.”
The London Police Service is “committed to bias-free policing,” Williams said in his statement. In situations in which they “may fall short,” he said the police department promises to “learn” and “do better.”
Sorrenti was released with no charges. But she said London Police held her and her fiancé’s phones, computers and an external hard drive until this week.
The “unjust seizure” of her and her fiancé’s devices, Sorrenti wrote in a GoFundMe campaign, has “severely affected” their livelihoods. Sorrenti is raising funds to pay for legal fees and to relocate now that her harassers know her home address. She planned to relocate soon after she was released, but was unable to access the funds until Wednesday because her harassers mass-reported the GoFundMe campaign.
The Aug. 5 incident is the latest in a long-running harassment campaign against Sorrenti and other marginalized Twitch streamers. Last month, Twitch banned Sorrenti for “repeated hateful slurs or symbols” after she showed screenshots of the online abuse she receives. She tweeted that her account was mass-reported. Twitch reinstated her account two weeks later. Sorrenti said she “never received any sort of support” from Twitch despite the “huge target” on her back.
Swatting and doxxing violate Twitch’s community guidelines, but many bad actors who harass streamers using the practices remain anonymous. The lack of recourse and continued harassment has forced trans streamers off of the platform.
A representative for Twitch could not comment on specific cases like Sorrenti’s, but asserted that the safety of the platform’s community is a priority. Twitch’s authority is limited in the real world, the representative noted, but the company is taking steps to better protect users from offline harassment. The company has quadrupled its Law Enforcement Response team, which partners with law enforcement and government agencies to “promote safety on and off Twitch,” and last year expanded its policies to account for off-platform violence and harassment.
Despite the onslaught of online abuse she receives, Sorrenti is determined to continue streaming. The response from her community of fellow streamers and viewers has been “overwhelmingly supportive,” and Sorrenti is hopeful that the virality of her experience prompts Canada and the United States to take online harassment seriously.
She returned to Twitch on Wednesday after she said the London Police Service released her computers and other devices.
“I don’t want anyone to bully me out of doing something that I genuinely want to do, and something I feel passionate about,” Sorrenti said. “While I am scared that the harassment could escalate into something even more violent, like people actually showing up to my house, I feel very comforted knowing that people have my back.”