Miles McKenna Got Misgendered in a Space That Was Supposed to Be Safe

The growing complexity of VidCon is becoming a problem.

If you’re even mildly interested by what happens on YouTube and how the platform has come to shape an entire era of pop culture that found its home in niches and extreme ubiquity at the same time, you would’ve been alert that VidCon happened over the last week. It sparked yet again a conversation about the good or bad of our collective relationship with the platform, and what ways could increased access to industry know-how, make creators more aware of the challenges they have ahead as YouTube constantly shifts shape and form. What happened over the last few days though, lived on the periphery of these conversations, and it highlighted an important dimension of LGBT+ activism very few in the industry seem to be privy to.

VidCon prides itself on a tradition of including all creators no matter their size or specialty. Whether that’s mostly a performance, or a genuine concern on the organizers’ behalf is nigh-impossible to judge; but however, an incident stretching over the last few days over the mistreatment of a creator raises once again a common concern among the LGBT+ community that their issues are always a comfortable cushion to fallback on when questions of inclusion are raised, rather than a blueprint by which platform holders — and by extension, VidCon’s organizers — should learn to approach their grievances as they’ve historically mistreated them.

On July 10th, Stevie Wynne Levine — executive producer of Rhett and Link’s Good Mythical Morning — announced on Twitter that she would be moderating a panel on “LGBTQ+ Activism & Awareness”. The tweet included an explicit mention of YouTube creator Miles McKenna’s Twitter handle. It should be noted, this wasn’t the same panel that Kat Blaque and ContraPoints — among others — were on, and it happened on the last day of the convention.

A day after the panel though, news gets out on the open web that panel moderator Stevie Levine had misgendered and deadnamed Miles McKenna–using the word “female” to describe him, while dubiously claiming they didn’t know doing so was an offense of the highest order to trans people. This escalated the profile of the incident from an errant honest mistake into a full-blown controversy in a matter of a few hours, and after Miles protested his treatment by the panel moderator on Twitter, messages of support from his fans and fellow LGBT+ creators would soon follow — some of them even volunteering to have hosted the panel instead — and it seemed like VidCon could no longer afford to brush it off without incurring a non-insignificant blow to their public image.

Hank Green — one of the Founding Members of VidCon — very quickly stepped in and claimed responsibility for improperly screening the moderator before assigning them the panel. But what’s most interesting about Hank’s statement isn’t what he said–but rather what he didn’t say.

What Hank Green helped do by creating VidCon and allowing a new generation of content creators to find a home where they’re respected, and not treated as second-class citizens next to the vanguards of old media was simply unheard of back in 2010. But after Viacom acquired VidCon, that focus appears to have shifted over to the more hard-spoken, clinical side of the industry–VidCon is now the place where you go to learn the inner workings of the industry, rather than just party and get piss-drunk to the beats of a sweeping horde of fans who see in making YouTube videos not the constant headache it really is, but an aspiration for future growth. That industry panache was poised to ground VidCon’s mission in the lived realities of creators. But it turns out that dipping it further into the convoluted bureaucracies of a major industry event introduced an extra layer of complexity that was bound to culminate into an event as easily-preventable as this one was, and the public indignation against Miles’ mistreatment at a panel aimed at LGBT+ creators and viewers was a chief example of that.

VidCon was late to respond, but even as it did, it was neither in a manner satisfactory, or adequate. The official body of VidCon claimed that it was a “mistake”, and while that interpretation is charitable to both VidCon and panel moderator Stevie Levine, it still fails to answer the fundamental question of why she was picked for a panel she couldn’t do her basic due diligence of research for. The only response remotely appropriate to the gravity of the situation is to see that Stevie acknowledges all the problematic dimensions of her selection as a panel moderator for LGBT+ issues when she couldn’t honor the lattermost parts of the acronym, while making honest amends to reach out to the trans community about a behavior that should at all costs not be tolerated within the professional setting that VidCon’s Trevor Project co-sponsored panel was supposed to be.

Stevie’s apology much-belated apology failed to address any standing concerns about her role in the LGBT+ activism panel, and it further reinforced the necessity of reiterating the following, even as it should’ve been dead-obvious: Deadnaming and misgendering trans people should not become common courtesy such as it’s only amended when enough pressure mounts on an organization to address it. It’s not appreciable even when citing events past. The onus should’ve been on Stevie to educate herself on how trans people should be addressed in the past tense, such not to cause confusion.

Parker Molloy — editor-at-large at Media Matters and notable trans rights activist — talked about the grander issue of misreferring to trans people in the context of the media with a special emphasis on Chelsea Manning. The parallels are quite easy to pick out: Chelsea requested that a name and a pronoun be used, and that request has been disregarded by many established figures in the industry, citing bioessentialist rhetoric as justification. Sarah McBride, national press secretary at the Human Rights Campaign spoke to Molloy about this issue saying that “the misgendering of transgender people in the media can send a dangerous message to the public, reinforcing the very prejudice at the heart of the discrimination and violence transgender people face.” She further adds that “every transgender person deserves to have their gender identity affirmed and it shouldn’t be conditional.”

YouTube creator and Filmmaker Bode Riis, aka “SharpLeft”, spoke about the issue as an attendee and had a much more generous interpretation of the events. But while they thought VidCon’s response to the incident was entirely adequate, they’d asserted that the energy in the room had very much become negatively-charged after it occurred, reportedly sending Miles into a frenzy of discomfort and clear discontent with what happened to him in that room in a panel where he shouldn’t have had to deal with the daily trepidations of being an out and public trans figure as it was supposed to serve as a friendly safe space.

Miles McKenna hopes his case will be an instructive moment for when VidCon decides to hold these conversations in the future. What occurred over the last few days should be a learning experience for the convention that being part of the LGBT+ community doesn’t automatically clear you to being aware of the issues affecting all its members, but most-of-all, a reminder that precarious attention must be paid to the subject of a discussion, especially within the realms of activism. Anything shy of the above is lazy, and quite honestly feels like a slap on the face for an entire community that has tried its best to candidly reach out to the other side, only to be met with verbal scold, and borderline immaturity.