Rick Moranis’s character in the 1984 Ghostbusters movie asks everyone, “Are you the Gatekeeper?” When I first watched it in the theatre, for a measly $2.50 (and even that was free because my friend and I found a $5 bill outside the Sheraton Centre theatre), it was a fun plot piece. Now, 35 years later, asking if someone is the gatekeeper has a whole new meaning for me as a trans woman and as an autistic, disabled woman. The parallels to the trans, Autistic, and disabled experiences are striking. Plus, they carry over into the writing and publishing world. Often, the gatekeepers are in the very communities that are supposed to provide support.
Some of you are probably reading this and nodding in agreement without further explanation. Others are likely scratching their heads, so I’ll explain further. Those who grok this can stop reading here if they wish, pick up your keys from the Keymaster at the souvenir stand.
Most of us who are disabled, trans, and/or Autistic have encountered the gatekeeping from various “official” organizations and people. These are doctors, disability supports, editors, and so on. They have the power to decide one isn’t trans enough, isn’t Autistic enough, isn’t disabled enough. In the case of editors, they shut down own-voices characters, saying the characters just need to get over themselves. Or, as in the case of one #ActuallyAutistic author, being told that the character wasn’t really autistic because they didn’t act like the main characters in shows and stories that are on/in mainstream media. These acts of gatekeeping hurt, but most of us have developed armour against it. What is worse is when the gatekeeping comes from within what should be our own communities.
There are trans people who claim that unless one is trans in a certain way, one isn’t really trans. Or, if one is not gay or lesbian in the acceptable ways, one isn’t really gay or lesbian. These people often intentionally erase bisexuals, asexuals, and genderqueer folk. In Autistic circles it’s not uncommon to hear that just because one does not have a formal diagnosis, one isn’t really Autistic. Constantly having to push back against these things is exhausting, draining, and consumes way too many spoons in a day, week, month, year, decade…it never seems to end. For self-preservation, many just stop trying to be involved in communities where this gatekeeping is happening. We ask, before going to something or joining a group, “Are you a gatekeeper?”
So, what can be done about this?
1. Each of us needs to be aware of the biases we have when someone is joining a group, participating in an event, or doing activist work. “They don’t look Autistic” is not a good start. Instead, be open and learn from the person if/when they choose to disclose whatever their status is.
2. Actively seek own-voices when compiling anthologies, magazines, and other publications, and support anthologies like Nothing Without Us. Support own-voices writing. There is a lot of it, and it is good!
3. Intervene when people are being gatekeepers; don’t leave it up to the person being judged as not really <thing>. We’re tired of it and need others to be proactive and take some of the load off.
4. Work to dismantle the systems of oppression that lead to the gatekeeping at institutional and individual levels. Find a way to do this work that is manageable for you. Not everyone is good at writing letters to politicians or organizations. Others are not good with going to protests. Find what works and does not suck all the spoons.
5. Continue to work to do better, to BE better, so when someone asks, “Are you a gatekeeper?” you can answer with a resounding, “NO.”
Talia Johnson is a multi-faceted woman who is transgender, autistic, Jewish, queer, and more than the sum of her parts. Her work centres on bridging faith and queer communities, facilitating workshops, educating, speaking, writing, one-on-one coaching, counselling, and mentoring. She is a queer and trans sensitivity editor for writers and publishers. Talia’s most recent poem, Holy Love, appears in the Resilience anthology from Heartspark Press. She is currently studying in Kohenet towards becoming a Hebrew Priestess, and working toward entering graduate school at the Master’s level. Her studies bridge faith, queer, and psychology using queer and feminist intersectional approaches. Talia is also co-editor of the Nothing Without Us anthology, which stars protagonists who identify as disabled, Deaf, neurodiverse, Spoonie, and/or who manage mental illness. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.