Why It’s Important To Challenge The Power Of Gatekeepers

This past weekend, Pride Toronto saw their parade stalled by their own honored guests — Black Lives Matter Toronto. The activists, clad in black and holding up a simple purple Black Lives Matter banner, held a 30-minute sit-in to make demands, including: better inclusion of people of color in LGBT organizations and pride events, the discontinuation of police floats in the parade, and better acknowledgement and efforts on behalf of the special challenges LGBT people of color face and the disproportionate threat of violence facing LGBT black people.

Many were outraged by the actions of BLM Toronto. Many more were outraged when Pride Toronto agreed to many of their demands. Journalist Sue-Ann Levy complained on Twitter that “this parade is about gay rights not BLM” and has spent the days since explaining that if BLM wants to have their demands met, they have to ask more respectfully.

Sue-Ann Levy is a gatekeeper.

The overwhelming majority of comments made in response to an article on The Huffington Post defending BLM Toronto argued that BLM was a blight on social justice movements, that they were too loud, too demanding, too rude, too disruptive.

These commenters are gatekeepers.

I witnessed a similar phenomenon firsthand when Black Lives Matter protesters in Seattle disrupted a Bernie Sanders rally last year. The outrage I saw from many of my very liberal white friends and community members was shocking. They were appalled that such “violent” rhetoric as “white supremacist” and “racist” would be shouted at them. They were dismayed by how “disrespectful” the protesters had been and that they would disrupt a rally of those who had “done so much” for them.

They, too, are gatekeepers.

Gatekeepers rarely challenge their own position as gatekeepers. They are simply right. They are more knowledgeable, more level-headed, more experienced, and more invested in the future of whatever movements they belong to. They know what is best and will enforce it for the greater good. They find themselves saying, “That is not appropriate,” or “That is counterproductive,” or “Why do you have to make this about you when it’s about us?

They say this because their need to be inappropriate has passed, because their productivity is now in line with the majority, because they have long won the right to make things about them.

The role of the gatekeeper should be to protect those inside, and to ensure that those who would be deemed a threat are kept out. But who defines that threat? To the powerless, the obvious threat is always the powerful — but what about those with even less power who want some of the little power you have? Yes, they fought right along with you for that power, but there simply isn’t enough to go to them, too. If they dare demand their share instead of being grateful for your benevolent leadership and protection, aren’t they the biggest threat of all?

We see this in every social movement and group. We start as one fighting for all, but a select few (usually those who closest resemble the people in power) benefit disproportionately. Those who’ve been deemed leaders, who have crossed their own finish line, are still very aware of reality; they know that those below want what the leaders themselves had once wanted — the revolution or even destruction of the system that the leaders now find themselves benefiting from.

Many in my social group talk about the New Black — the Pharrells, the Whoopis, the Stacey Dashes — those who now own stock in The Way Things Are and have gone about redefining blackness without the struggle, without the urgency, without the pain and anger and need. Because such things are not profitable for them.

But gatekeeping can be much more subtle, too. A few years ago, an online space was created for women. A space where they could safely network, communicate, find advice and mentorship. It was a place dedicated to intersectional feminism — where women of every color, faith, and sexual orientation could feel safe and advance their writing careers. Cheekily called Binders Full of Women Writers, the group quickly grew to thousands of members and spawned smaller, yet equally vital, subgroups. Poetry binders gave female poets a chance to share their work and expand their craft. The freelance binder gave women writers access to the editors and assignments they need to make a living. My short time as a member of one of the sub-binders was very productive, very frustrating, and very short-lived. As with many large groups, these groups are all moderated to ensure that the focus stays on writing and that the environment remains safe for as many people as possible.

But in many of these groups, “safe” has been determined by the gatekeepers to be that which makes their majority (in this case, white, straight, cis women) most comfortable. Complaints about racism, transphobia, fatphobia, whorephobia, or ableism have been deemed distracting. This is a place for and about writing, not race. Yes, you may be Latina and a writer, but here, you must only be a writer — let your other identities go. When those who have the gall to believe that a “safe” space should be safest for those most at risk voice this publicly — the belief that they should not have to swallow ableism or classism in order to further their writing careers — they find themselves summarily cast out of the group. They are cut off from the contacts and commissions they need for their livelihood. Play nice or don’t play at all, they are told.

People of color are told that criticism of Hillary Clinton’s views on the Middle East are a distraction from what should be everyone’s major focus — defeating Donald Trump. Myself and many other black and brown people have been told that our concern for policies over Israel or support of drone strikes or South American dictatorships is “beside the point.”

Women are told that they are letting their feminism blind them to the true superiority of Bernie Sanders, that “truly liberal” people would support him. We have been told that if it weren’t for the ignorance of black people so enamored with the Clintons against their best interests (best interests often defined, coincidentally, by white men supporting Sanders), the truly worthy candidate would win the nomination.

To all those less empowered, the message is the same: Stay in line or get out. Wait your turn.

But the gatekeepers of the LGBT movement forget that pride started with bricks often thrown from brown queer hands, with shouts, disruption, arrests, and chaos. The gatekeepers of the progressive movements forget the labor strikes that started with rocks and police batons, arrests and even death. The gatekeepers of the feminist movement forget that their movement saw many of them accused of the destruction of families, saw them locked away in asylums or prisons.

As time progresses, and as your needs in a new majority that has expanded to accommodate you are met, it is easy to forget that at one time you, too, were fighting the gatekeepers who wanted to keep you in line. It’s easy to forget that all you have now was born from the very same disruption that you now decry. You were once angry, you were once demanding, you were once uncompromising — and it worked. But now, you are a gatekeeper, determined to let progress end with you, determined to shape all movements in your image and only your image.

This is not because gatekeepers are evil; this is because we are all programmed to protect what we have while we fight for more — and we are all susceptible to a system that likes to distract us by insisting that it is those with less who threaten what we have, instead of those with more who determine how little we get. But it is this instinct, the one that tells us to hold onto our gains and swat away needy hands instead of demanding more for all of us, that will undo us in the end.

Are you speaking with the less powerful — or for them? Are you protecting yourself from those whose greater need might make your efforts more complicated, or are you protecting them from your own tendency to cast them aside for a speedier, more comfortable journey? When you get to the end of the road, how many people will you have left behind?

If you are at times a gatekeeper, it is because you care and in that care, you forgot that your definition of progress is not universal, that there are many whose needs will never be met by your demands. We forget that we are just as capable of the same bigotry and oppression as those who oppress us. We forget that when we build new power structures, we need to start with new blueprints, lest we simply replicate the same design. When you find yourself defining and defending rules for your movement, stop and ask yourself, “Who am I defining them for?” and then: “Do I have the right?”

Your efforts should be a shield that keeps larger forces at bay, or a spear that brings larger armies down — not a sieve that sifts smaller voices out.


Lead image: flickr/melanie innis

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