For over a year after she first joined Twitch, Clara Sorrenti used the streaming platform like most of its users: to broadcast herself playing video games for a handful of viewers.
The trans Twitch star delivering news to a legion of LGBTQ teens
But when Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, launched a campaign against gender-affirming care for young people, it struck a nerve with Sorrenti, who transitioned as a teenager. The 28-year-old took to Twitch, talking openly about her experience in hours-long streams.
Now, Sorrenti is one of the most popular openly trans streamers on Twitch, amassing over 3,000 subscribers as of May, who pay $4.99 per month to support her streams. She is part of a new class of stars who have abandoned the platform’s traditional game-stream format to talk about news and politics. This cohort of creators, who have embraced the Just Chatting category, have emerged as pundits for a generation disconnected from cable news.
In the third quarter of 2020, Just Chatting became Twitch’s most-watched category and now accounts for 13.2 percent of content watched on the app, according to Streamlabs, a live-streaming software company. As “Keffals,” Sorrenti is a rarity on Twitch, a place known for its combative community of male gamers and the rapid-fire abuse often lobbed between streamers. As a wave of anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ legislation has swept the country, her stream is one of the few media outlets where viewers can hear the news from a trans person.
“When I came out as trans, there were no high-profile trans figures in the media at all,” Sorrenti said. “I think it’s important for there to be high-profile trans figures in the content creator world because that’s where young people are looking for news and information.”
Hosting from a spare setup in her London, Ontario, Canada, apartment, she narrates her shows in a trademark sarcastic deadpan. Sorrenti curses frequently, sighs often, but rarely yells as she reads from tweets and articles online. She breaks down the laws and political news for an audience she describes as primarily LGBTQ teenagers, frequently using the pronoun “we” to describe herself, her viewers and the trans community.
Describing an Alabama law making it a felony to provide gender-affirming care for those under 18, she slumped in her office chair and stared toward the camera. “They literally want these kids to f—–g kill themselves,” she said. “I don’t know what the future looks like.”
A flood of messages came in response: “So wack” and “I’m heartbroken,” her fans wrote.
She celebrated a federal judge striking down a Tennessee law that required businesses to post warning signs if they permit transgender people to use their preferred bathroom and railed against Ohio potentially reviving a bill banning gender-affirming care for kids under 18, even with parental consent. She intersperses the news with updates about her personal life and offbeat interludes, like riffs on the release of the Lego Star Wars video game or Elon Musk taking over Twitter.
Like all successful streamers, Sorrenti is an expert at driving attention and doesn’t shy away from conflict. The day after the Uvalde, Tex., school shooting, as trolls attempted to spread the baseless conspiracy theory that the gunman was a trans woman, she told her audience the world would be better without conservatives. Months earlier, she tweeted that she hates liberals even more.
Her response to the Disney CEO’s decision to keep donating to supporters of the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill came in a tweet: “centrism is a disease.”
When a tweet by Sorrenti attacking conservatives made it to the top of r/Conservative, a subreddit with nearly 1 million members, she leaned into the controversy. “Come watch conservative cringe with the only Twitch streamer currently on the front page of r/Conservative,” she implored her fans. She later released a YouTube video titled “I got to the top of r/Conservative.”
Sorrenti aspires to get bigger, like Hasan Piker, a left-wing political commentator who amassed more than 50,000 paid subscribers, and speak specifically for the trans community.
“Conflict equals growth,” said Brendan Gahan, chief social officer of Mekanism, a creative agency. “It’s not those that play it safe who grow audiences.”
Chelsea Manning, a trans woman and former intelligence analyst who went to jail after giving classified documents to WikiLeaks, has appeared as a guest on one of Sorrenti’s streams and called her a “pioneer.” “This is an environment that’s breeding an enormous amount of toxicity and here’s a person entering the space head-on, who would typically not be willing to. I see nothing that Keffals is doing that Hasan [Piker] isn’t doing, that Joe Rogan isn’t doing,” Manning said.
Sorrenti’s viewers say it’s powerful to hear a trans woman talking about the rash of discriminatory laws happening in America. For some, the community around her is a type of support group.
“Especially with the laws coming out all over the country, a lot of kids don’t have an outlet to discuss their sexuality in an open way,” said Will Larkins, a 17-year-old student activist from Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has sought to ban transition-related care for transgender youths. “The appeal of live streams is feeling like you’re having a conversation with the creator and hanging out with them. Being able to have that outlet where you can talk to someone who you look up to as a creator but also went through the same thing, that’s a very powerful thing.”
About 5 percent of young adults in the United States identify as transgender or nonbinary, and 53 percent of those younger than 30 say they know a trans person, according to the Pew Research Center. Yet trans people are almost nonexistent in legacy media.
And on Twitch, a platform with no gatekeepers and few start-up costs, these new voices are finding an audience.
A new generation
Sorrenti used the name Keffals as her online handle growing up, to play games including “Team Fortress 2” and “Garry’s Mod.” By the time she was 12, she realized she was trans. She would come home from school and spend hours searching for information and community online. She joined chatrooms for trans people and found out about a trans youth support group in her city.
Her family was skeptical about her transition, but eventually became supportive. When she traveled to Thailand for gender-affirming surgery in 2013 at age 18, her parents accompanied her and paid for it. “My family realized,” she said, “that unless they were actively supporting me, things would get a lot worse.”
After Donald Trump’s election, Sorrenti threw herself into politics, attending rallies and events advocating for labor rights and Indigenous sovereignty and protesting U.S. foreign policy. She twice ran for office as a member of the Communist Party, first in 2018 for a seat in provincial parliament, then for Canadian federal office in 2019. She lost the races, receiving only 128 votes in 2018 and 127 votes in 2019. She now identifies as a socialist.
“I never expected I’d do well [in the races],” she said.” I was doing it for political experience. … I think if you can knock on hundreds of doors saying you’re part of the Communist Party, you can probably be a good advocate for a lot less contentious issues.”
As the coronavirus took hold, Sorrenti turned to the internet. She began spending more time on Twitch, mostly gaming to small audiences. By 2021, the platform itself had begun to shift as people began turning to it for news content, and the Just Chatting category surged in popularity. The shift on Twitch dovetailed with a rash of anti-trans legislation that had begun to emerge across the United States. In the first half of 2021, state legislatures introduced more than 100 bills to restrict trans rights.
“I felt like I had to cover this stuff and talk about it,” she said. She began following more journalists on social media and commentating on articles and news events during her streams. As she did, her following grew.
There are few trans voices in the news and politics sphere, partly due to the relentless abuse trans creators face. Streamers from marginalized backgrounds are often targeted with vicious harassment and what are known as hate raids, where toxic communities flood into a streamers’ chat, lobbing attacks at them and their audience.
“Talking about [anti-trans policies] is mentally hard in a way that I don’t think is the same for straight or cis politics streamers because it doesn’t personally affect them,” Sorrenti said.
Last year, Twitch rolled out a revamped tagging system aimed at making it easier for users to discover content within certain categories such as “trans” and “lgbt.” But some trans streamers argued the new tags simply made harassment easier. Twitch declined to comment. Twitch is owned by Amazon; Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.
Sorrenti has openly clashed with Destiny, another politics-focused streamer who was recently banned from Twitch, and Tim Pool, a right-wing YouTuber. Her attacks on popular conservative influencers, including Candace Owens and Lauren Southern, as well as British author J.K. Rowling, have brought significant harassment her way — as well as attention and followers. She also has faced critiques from a handful of leftists and an endless barrage of bad-faith attacks from internet trolls and harassers.
Other large content creators defend her forceful online presence. “It’s not the same as a politician’s curated feed,” said Mike Beyer, a popular political Twitch streamer. “Sometimes things will be insensitive and she’ll walk it back. She’s a Twitch streamer and online organizer, she’s not a f—–g politician and it’s ridiculous to expect her to have focus-grouped tweets.”
Her scrapes with right-wing personalities happen largely on Twitter, where Sorrenti leverages one of the platform’s most reliable weapons — the ratio. A tweet becomes “ratio’d” when the replies vastly outnumber the number of likes or retweets, a signal to onlookers that the original post was contentious or wrong. Sorrenti has become known among her audience as the “ratio queen,” a tactic that shows the power of her fan base.
“I don’t think civility politics works when I’m engaging with people who don’t even view me as human,” she said.
Sorrenti said abuse has led her to become hypervigilant and sometimes unable to connect with her audience as directly as she would like. After a barrage of attacks she no longer keeps her private messaging on social media, or DMs, open. She’s frequently smeared as a pedophile and “groomer,” a term increasingly used by those on the right to imply that members of the LGBTQ community are pedophiles.
“I went from no one knowing who I was to all of the worst people on the internet knowing who I am,” Sorrenti said. “They document every single thing I do online. They hate-watch every one of my streams. It’s made me feel quite alone.”
More recently, Sorrenti has been leveraging her platform for fundraising campaigns. In single stream this April, she raised over $205,000 for the Campaign for Southern Equality’s effort to protect trans youth. “This money is literally going to save lives,” she tweeted.
Aside from her Twitch subscribers, Sorrenti has a Patreon page, where fans can pay from $3 to $200 a month for exclusive content, and she receives direct donations from fans though PayPal. She uses this money to support herself and a small staff. An editor helps cut together clips of her Twitch streams and format content for different platforms, and a graphic designer optimizes her YouTube thumbnails, creates custom-emoji-style reactions called emotes and animations.
Last month, she began working with a manager to streamline the business side of her growing operation. “When you’re becoming a Twitch streamer … you are inviting controversy, you are monetizing that, and that is the industry,” said Manning. “That is how you become a major political streamer, you have to play the game and there’s no other way.”
Sorrenti also has broadened the scope of what sort of political news she covers, shifting toward national and election news. “There’s no way to talk about anti-LGBTQ legislation without talking about the Democratic and Republican parties and people involved in the election process,” she said.
As she grows, Sorrenti has to navigate a contentious political climate. While right-wing content creators often skyrocket to popularity with little pushback, many leftist creators struggle with attacks from their own cohort. “It’s crabs in a bucket,” said Mike Beyer, a large political Twitch streamer. “Anytime someone rises up and gains prominence, there’s going to people who try to grab onto that person’s coattails and pursue their clout.”
Sorrenti has inspired some in her audience to start channels themselves.
“She’s moving things to a more progressive area and making it harder to argue against trans rights,” said Jay, a 19-year-old in Texas who asked to be referred to only by his first name fearing harassment. “She made me realize I can create a space for myself and other trans men on Twitch. Seeing Keffals get to the point she is as a streamer and a publicly known trans person, it’s like, wow, you can actually do that.”