Adelaide Kramer was in the audience during an event at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she used to be a student, when the speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos, projected a photograph of her on the wall. He then launched into a hateful tirade against Kramer, calling her a "tranny." The photo had been taken early in her transition, and the audience—a room filled by her classmates—laughed as Yiannopoulos degraded her.
Yiannopoulos is an extreme right-wing figure who is best known for his brand of loud bigotry, and for the fact that he was banned from Twitter last year after inciting racist harassment of the actress Leslie Jones. (Last week, it was announced that he'd signed a $250,000 book deal, provoking a massive backlash.) At the UWM event, which was part of his so-called "Dangerous Faggot" college tour, he told the audience that Kramer had failed at being a woman. "The way you know he's failed is I can still bang him," Yiannopolous, who is gay, reportedly said.
The attack went on. Earlier in 2016, Kramer had filed a complaint against the school for preventing her from using the women's locker room, and Yiannopoulos suggested that Kramer's presence in women's spaces on campus was predatory. "Milo made this implication that I'm just in there to check out women," Kramer tells Broadly. The moment Yiannopoulos publicly singled her out was painful, and she immediately felt unsafe: "I realized, Shit, coming here to protest with my presence was a mistake."
"I should not have come in here," she recalls thinking. "I should have stayed outside." That's where her friends were—outside, protesting the fact that Yiannopoulos was allowed to speak. "I didn't know if I was going to get attacked or not. I was just like, 'Dear god, I hope nobody recognizes me.'"
"When you have a room full of people that are just laughing at you as if you're some freak of nature, like you have some kind of mental illness—which is how he described me—it's like, I don't even know how to describe it, but it was way too much," Kramer continues.
According to local press, Yiannopoulos had been brought to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee by a conservative student organization called Turning Point USA, reportedly the same organization responsible for the ominous "professor watchlist." Another campus organization, the Coalition Against the Ultra Right (CAUR), had been protesting the university's decision to allow Yiannopoulos to speak well before December, Kramer said. However, UWM Chancellor Mark Mone had insisted that, under free speech laws, the conservative student group had a right to have their speaker, however controversial. The protesters felt that there should be an exception, trying to explain that Yiannopolous has directly targeted people and harassed them before. According to Kramer, on one incident, when the CAUR tried to approach the chancellor to discuss their concerns directly, campus police were called.
I didn't know if I was going to get attacked or not. I was just like, 'Dear god, I hope nobody recognizes me.'
When Yiannopoulos first mentioned Kramer's name, Kramer thought that the college administrators—who she says were present in the audience—would immediately put a stop to his presentation. Instead, she says, Yiannopoulos, was allowed to continue. The following day, Chancellor Mone sent out an email to the school, explaining both his legal obligation to allow speakers of all political views to express their opinions and the importance of protecting free speech. He also added that he disagrees with Yiannopoulos' views and condemns hate-mongering, and insisted that he wouldn't "stand silently by" while a student is "personally and wrongfully attacked."
Kramer viewed Mone's email as insufficient; in return, she sent her own email to the school, lampooning Mone for his decision to allow Yiannopolous to speak in the first place. "Milo has a supremely extensive, highly-documented track record of doing precisely this," Kramer wrote, explaining that the targeted harassment should be no surprise. "As I've already said, you knew this would happen. We told you it would. And we told you again. And again."
Today, Kramer is moving on, but she feels that what happened to her was wrong. "I think verbal assault should be called verbal assault," she explains, adding that it "doesn't add anything constructive to speech; verbal assault is damaging [and] leads people to suicide."
When Yiannopoulos appeared at UWM, Kramer had already withdrawn from the school. She says that she had decided to leave earlier last year, in part because of the conflict that she'd had with the school due to their locker room policy. "I had to keep fighting [for] my gender, and I reached the point where I'm out of patience to debate people on it," Kramer explains.
There's a legal obligation for schools to address such harassment.
She believes that discrimination—and certainly targeted harassment by school-sponsored speakers—can be an impediment to education for transgender students. "If you get that kind of abuse several times a week, it really fucks with you," Kramer says. Though she feels like she was ultimately able to handle the pressure she was put under, she worries other students might not be able to.
Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, tells Broadly that, under Title IX of the US Constitution, universities "have a duty to ensure a safe environment for all students, regardless of sex or gender identity." But that doesn't include "policing the speech of every adult who visits campus." According to Rowland, "when a visiting speaker chooses to use a speech to attack the identity of an audience member, he is the one who bears moral or legal responsibility for those words." Trying to hold a university liable for that "would be a death knell for controversial speech on campus."
But other experts, such as Neena Chaudhry, the director of education at the National Women's Law Center, feels that Kramer could have a legal basis for arguing that the school should have intervened when Yiannopoulos began to target her directly. According to Chaudhry, the question at hand is when free speech crosses over into harassment. "There's a legal obligation for schools to address such harassment, and that includes when it's by a third party," Chaudhry says.
Kramer says that she (unsurprisingly) received a deluge of hateful messages from people after Yiannopoulos targeted her—but she has also received an overwhelming amount of support. Hundreds of people from around the world have reached out to her. "Connecting with other trans people who could relate to my experience was probably the most healing aspect of it," Kramer says. She also received letters from the school's LGBT Center as well as professors who were upset about what had happened.
Kramer doesn't share her personal life with her family often, but her mother came across news coverage of the incident, and she read the email that Kramer wrote to Chancellor Mone. "My mom read that and wrote me this very heartfelt text, basically apologizing for all the ways [my family] had treated me before," Kramer says. "She said that my email tore her heart out."
She feels other trans students need to defend their rights. "Keep advocating for change, don't accept complacency," Kramer says. "The people who care about you and support you actually outnumber the haters by like 10 to one."