Yale Daily News

Editor’s Note: This article contains descriptions of racist, homophobic, anti-transgender, antisemitic, pornographic, obscene and violent words and images.

Two February events sponsored by the Office of LGBTQ Resources — one to uplift Black transgender storytelling, the other held in honor of Andrew Dowe ’08, GRD ’20 — were targets of malicious “Zoom-bombing” attacks.

Individuals interrupted the virtual meetings with “racist, homophobic, anti-trans, antisemitic, pornographic, obscene, and violent words and images,” according to a email on Monday afternoon from the Office of LGBTQ Resources sent to people on that panlist. Several attendees at the events have referred to these attacks as hate crimes. Some criticized administrators for not notifying the community of the attacks before the Monday email. The Yale Police Department is currently investigating the incidents and has not yet found the individual or individuals responsible.

These attacks occurred in the two weeks following the recent death of Dowe, who was a lecturer, director of undergraduate studies of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and associate director of the Office of LGBTQ Resources.

“The trauma caused by these events, during this time especially, is significant,” the message — which was signed by Secretary and Vice President for University Life Kimberly Goff-Crews ’83 LAW ’86, Associate Vice President of Institutional Equity, Access, and Belonging Elizabeth Conklin, Director of the Office of LGBTQ Resources Maria Trumpler, and Associate Director of the Office of LGBTQ Resources Seth Wallace — stated. 

The first of these “Zoom-bombing” attacks took place on the evening of Feb. 5 during a community storytelling event celebrating Black and transgender voices. The virtual event, entitled “Black Trans Storytelling with Ashia Ajani, D.L. Cordero, and Ty Cooper,” invited a panelist of Black trans, nonbinary and gender non-conforming educators, storytellers and activists to share stories centered around community. It was intended to be a space reserved for individuals — both in the Yale community and outside of it — who identify as Black or of African descent and trans, nonbinary, non-cisgender or gender nonconforming.

Instead, the several dozen participants of the event experienced targeted attacks by hijackers, who shared violent, pornographic images, hate speech and Nazi symbols.

“What we went through was traumatic,” Akweley Lartey ’23, who hosted the Feb. 5 event, said. “We live at the intersection of multiple marginalizations, and we are still in mourning for Andrew Dowe.” 

The second attack occurred a week later on Feb. 12, during a virtual weekly sewing circle for members of the community to grieve together and work on a wall hanging as a tribute to Dowe. 

It was during this memorial event that Zoom hijackers shared a disturbing graphic video and used Nazi hate speech. When the meeting was moved to another link, the Zoom bombers followed, continuing to play the video and make comments. 

Both attacks appear to have been coordinated by multiple individuals. 

According to Lartey, Zoom bombers interrupted the Feb. 5 meeting twice. Although the event required pre-registration, many individuals registered to attend with spam email addresses when the event began. After the Zoom bombers who displayed graphic audio and video content were removed from the rooms, Lartey said that the event was then locked as a safety measure, and attendees spent the remainder of the meeting meditating and reflecting together in the online space.

A week later, 24 minutes into the community sewing circle event on Feb. 12, multiple individuals entered the Zoom room — for which a “waiting room” had not been enabled — and indicated that they knew Dowe. One used nonsensical language to introduce their gender identity. After a personal Zoom link was circulated among meeting participants to restart the event, Zoom bombers once again intruded into the new room.

At this point, Michelle Morgan GRD ’17, who hosted the event, shut down the meeting. 

Conklin added that while the individual or individuals perpetrating the attack are exclusively to blame for these incidents, conversations within the Office of LGBTQ Resources and the broader community have been underway to determine strategies to enhance security protocols and minimize risk for future events. The rise of “hateful zoom-bombing attacks” in universities nationwide appear to especially target events featuring members of the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities, wrote Conklin. 

Virtual meeting hosts may explore options like transitioning meetings into webinars, requiring pre-registration prior to attending an event, enabling virtual waiting rooms, using password-protected meeting spaces and disabling attendee screen sharing. Yale IT staff are also available for consultation regarding Zoom meeting setup. 

In an email sent Monday evening notifying the Afro-American Cultural Center community of both incidents, Dean Risë Nelson offered resources for counseling and support through campus and the Af-Am House and encouraged community members to stay vigilant in protecting themselves against possible Zoom-bombing incidents in the future.

“There are members of our House community who are hurt, deeply saddened, and understandably shook up by these incidents and by the ongoing violence against Black [trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming] folks in our world, even in our own community,” wrote Nelson in the Monday email.

Nelson and two other sources contacted by the News indicated that they did not hear about these incidents until this past Monday.

In fact, the community notification sent by the Office of LGBTQ Resources on Monday — 17 days after the first attack — was the first time most community members at Yale apart from event attendees were informed about both incidents.

Four event attendees criticized the Office of LGBTQ Resources for their delay in notifying the community several weeks following the first attack. 

“This has been an exhausting time, but people do need to be held accountable,” Lartey said. “There was no sense of urgency — it felt like [attacks like these] don’t matter when they happen to Black trans people.”

Lartey and others expressed frustration that although he shared what had occurred with office staff, the office did not undertake any concrete actions in the immediate aftermath of the Feb. 5 event to notify others of the Zoom bombing or offer coordinated support for event attendees.

Regarding the Feb. 12 attack, Morgan said she was not aware a Zoom bombing had occurred a week prior — and that she would have been more on guard were she informed.

“Harm can continue to perpetuate,” Lartey said. “People are still having spaces and meetings. I was [responding to the event] without a lot of support, and moving forward this shouldn’t be the case for anyone else.”

Lartey informed Trumpler of the Feb. 5 event immediately afterward. Trumpler, who took part in the sewing circle on Feb. 12, instantly identified that the interference was a Zoom bombing like the one that had occurred in the previous week, according to event participants. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Goff-Crews also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“We are committed to continuing to take steps intended to prevent such attacks moving forward, and to ensure a swifter community response if something similar were ever to occur within our community again,” Conklin wrote in an email to the News.

According to Wallace, separate debriefing meetings have since been planned in response to both events next week, and event attendees can also access individual mental health support resources.

Morgan, Lartey and two other event attendees also questioned why news of the attacks did not more rapidly reach a broader audience across the University. The news was later shared through specific outlets through the Office of LGBTQ Resources mailing list, the LGBTQ affinity group, the Deans’ Designees, the Intercultural Affairs Council, Heads of College and Residential College Deans and others.

On Wednesday evening, Goff-Crews sent a campus-wide email about the two targeted events and the risks of Zoom bombing. She also indicated that those were not the only events targeted by hijackers.

While Morgan, Yale’s digital accessibility specialist, expressed sympathy for concerns voiced by students in the wake of both events, she suggested that the Office of LGBTQ Resources is understaffed and under resourced and said that staff members are currently grieving the loss of Dowe. Those compounding factors, she speculated, may have made it more difficult for the office to gather resources to support community members immediately after the attacks.

“The broader question is how Yale handles moments of crisis,” she said. “What does it mean to have an appropriate response to hate crimes?” 

Both events have been reported to the Yale Police Department. According to YPD Police Captain William Kraszewski, Sergeant Kristina Reech, the YPD’s sensitive crimes and support coordinator, is working alongside a detective in the YPD’s Investigative Services Unit to identify the individual or individuals responsible for the attacks.

Teleconference hijacking can be reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center and may be prosecuted as a federal crime.

Impacted students may reach out to chaplains at the Yale Chaplain’s Office, Walden Peer Counseling, Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education or grief counselors through Yale Mental Health and Counseling.

Emily Tian | emily.tian@yale.edu