Attacked from Within: Gatekeeping in the Queer Community

Mary Kate McAlpine
10 min readNov 13, 2017
(image source)

I realized recently that I alluded to gatekeeping in two separate pieces, but have yet to go fully in-depth about exactly what I mean. Let’s fix that.

The first thing to keep in mind is that “gatekeeping” itself is a neutral term. It describes an activity that can be used for either good or ill. “Chopping” can be innocuously done to vegetables or horrifically be done to human limbs, but the word “chop” is completely neutral without context.

Gatekeeping can be good, even necessary. Keeping registered child sex offenders away from places where children gather is a form of gatekeeping. Firing someone who punched their coworker in the face unprompted is a form of gatekeeping. Throwing someone out of the club because they forced the DJ to play “Aaron’s Party (Come Get It)” is a form of gatekeeping.

These are some obvious examples, but it shows us some good rules of thumb for “good” gatekeeping. First, all of these instances involved a group at large being in actual, physical danger because of one person, and that person needs to be removed for the continued safety and welfare of the group. And yes, being forced to listen to “Aaron’s Party (Come Get It)” at club volume is a form of actual, physical danger.

I’m linking a random lyric video instead of the music video because I’m not a monster.

And second, all of these gatekeeping measures were taken because of the ousted person’s direct actions — sexual assault of a minor, physical assault, and torture, respectively. Gatekeeping is sometimes necessary for setting boundaries and rules within a group, of any size. Showing members who endanger others that they will not be tolerated shows the rest of the group how to behave. In these cases, simply letting the offender be can set a dangerous precedent.

Ahem hem hem.

But, as I said, gatekeeping can also be used to the detriment of certain groups, even used to actively bring certain groups down. In these cases, usually what’s being attacked and shamed isn’t what the person has done, but who they are. We’ve seen this with the quizzing and disbelief of “fake geek girls”, with the preference of hiring managers towards resumes with more “white” names, and from within the LGBT+ community on many sides.

You Can’t Sit With Us

Gatekeeping from within the LGBT+ community is nothing new. It’s been happening since Stonewall, probably earlier. From the moment there was a queer community, there were people who thought they should be the ones to decide who is and isn’t a part of it.

And to be clear, we’re not talking about people wanting to let straight, cisgender people co-opt the movement. We’re not talking about accommodating all those “We should have a Straight Pride!” idiots.

We’re talking about macho gay men shaming gay men who do drag or wear pink or otherwise have feminine traits, calling them an embarrassment or a stereotype and blaming them for the way they are treated for not living up to society’s expectations of masculinity.

We’re talking about feminine gay men who shame “straight-passing” men, calling them self-hating traitors who don’t really belong here, who “don’t even need” a community of peers to fall back on.

We’re talking about gay men who tried to push lesbians out of the movement altogether, and fought against prioritizing them by changing GLBT to LGBT for about a decade.

We’re talking about lesbians who shame each other for being “too butch” or “too femme” or “basically straight”, for similar reasons to the ones I listed for gay men above.

We’re talking about the shunning and dismissal of the bi+ community from within, calling them “chameleons” and “only half gay”, and implying that they’re either gay people in the closet or straight people going through an experimental phase they’ll grow out of (givin’ a real hard look to you, Glee).

We’re talking about transgender people being constantly and systematically left out of discussions and activism, with people ranging from calling it a “similar but parallel struggle” to try and distance themselves from actually helping to actively rejecting any involvement with them as a whole. This despite the fact that the queer community as it currently stands wouldn’t exist without them.

We’re talking about the wholesale rejection of asexual and/or aromantic people, unless you happen to not be both and your non-a identity happens to be queer, or if you happen to be trans or non-binary. These people seem to be blissfully unaware that this sort of thinking is the dictionary defintion of erasure. Oh, you want a source? I once got into a discussion with an aphobe (mistake, I know) whose argument shifted from “shut up and stay out of OUR business” to “stop sticking up for straight people [note: I was sticking up for ace people, but they don’t see a difference], it won’t save you when the concentration camps get built” once I revealed I was panromantic.

You thought I was exaggerating, didn’t you.

We’re talking about only allowing in people who are questioning if they’re basically already sure they’re not straight and/or cis, which you may notice is counteractive.

We’re talking about rejecting the term queer, to the point of calling it a slur and thus literally erasing the history of its reclamation, in order to make things “less messy” and “harder for straight people to infiltrate” (at the cost of the visibility of people who don’t fit into that neat four-letter acronym).

And we’re talking about so, so much more, but I hope this gives you an idea about what gatekeeping in the community means.

The name that’s been coined for these kinds of people online is REG’s, or Reactionary Exclusionary Gatekeepers. It used to be TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists), which is still very much a thing, but a new name had to be created as people realized that the abuse wasn’t just targeted at the trans community. It’s a “not all REG’s are TERF’S, but all TERF’s are REG’s” sort of thing. The term helps distinguish this particular brand of gatekeeping from the kind that keeps children safe from pedophiles, so it’s the one we’ll be using.

Why This Sucks

This might seem obvious, but I think it’s worth pointing out the exact damage this sort of thing does.

REG behavior makes people feel unsafe in their own community. A space they used to occupy without question is suddenly ripped away, when the victim has done nothing that would justify being ousted. Or, in some cases, you’re allowed in, but only if you perform your identity in what they’ve deemed is the “correct” way.

It’s made many people give up on the queer community at large. You don’t have to look hard to find bi, trans, and ace people online saying, “Maybe they’re right. Maybe we should just form our own community.” And can you really blame them? What other choice seems available, when your so-called community is making you feel more alienated than you did before you came out?

It also reinforces heteronormative gender roles and expectations. As you’ve probably noticed, many of the criteria for being queer “the right way” involves how well you fit into these predetermined roles. Masculine gay men, feminine lesbians, trans people who clearly put lots of money and effort into “passing” as either a masculine man or a feminine woman — these are the voices that are deemed “good”, and anyone who’s sexuality or gender is more complicated than that, and expresses it accordingly, is “bad”, or at best, “embarrassing” or “cringey”.

This didn’t just come about with the age of the Internet, of course. Debating the pros and cons of “People in the LGBT+ community are just like everyone else!” and “People in the LGBT+ community are actually different from everyone else, and that’s worth celebrating!” have been going on since at least Stonewall here in the US. It’s a complex issue worthy of its own piece, but “Queer people need to fit cisgender-heteromantic-heterosexual society’s definition of normal to be deemed acceptable” isn’t complex. It’s harmful, and the fact that people within our community are spouting it isn’t surprising, but it still cannot be tolerated.

For people who don’t fit into that box (read: most people), this sort of rhetoric can be devastating, even when we know it’s coming from a small minority.

I will repeat that: The fact that these opinions are not shared by the vast majority of the LGBT+ community does next to nothing to negate the real and lasting harm the proliferation of these ideas does to people.

I can’t speak for communities I’m not a part of, but I can speak to the fact that these ideas have led many ace people online to further isolation, gaslighting-induced self-doubt, and serious thoughts of or attempts at suicide, and I have to imagine it’s similar for other groups. This isn’t harmless trolling. It is an active attempt to push members who belong here not only out of this group and away from resources they desperately need, but also directly and often purposely into harm’s way.

How To Stop It

If you’ve gotten this far, hopefully it means you’re deeply concerned and want to know what you can do to stop it. I’m hardly an expert, but these past few years, I’ve learned a lot about what extremist groups do and do not respond to, and I think I have some good tips.

The first one should be obvious. Don’t put up with this shit. If you see someone spewing the talking points, even if you don’t know them that well or at all, don’t let it go unchecked. Worldviews like these are only able to get this point because the people holding it assume everyone secretly agrees with them. Pop that bubble. Say something. Others will follow.

However, just looking for “aces aren’t really oppressed” or “bi people are basically straight” will only get you so far. As REG’s get more blowback from tip 1, they often don’t just completely change perspectives, as nice as that would be. They go back maybe a half-step at a time, or start to hide their true feelings in seemingly-innocent dogwhistle phrases. Here’s some general and ace-specific ones to look out for:

  • “cishet ace/cishet aro” (makes the argument that ace identity is secondary and “basically straight” without saying it outright)
  • “[X identity] people want to be oppressed so bad” (often used to minimize microaggressions as “not really oppression”)
  • “That was due to [other type of oppression], not [oppression you’re describing]!” (Ex. “I was sexually assaulted after I told a coworker I was ace, he said he could fix that.” “That’s awful and I’m so sorry. However, that was due to misogyny and rape culture, not aphobia, jsyk :)”)
  • “You can pass, you have no idea what it’s really like for the rest of us.” (I’ll just leave this here)
  • “[X identity] people who do/are _____ are fine, but [X identity] people who don’t/aren’t seems WEIRD to me.” (Ex. “I get being bi if you’re polyamorous, but if you want a committed, monogamous relationship, it’s going to make things difficult.” “Why would you come out as trans if you’re not dysphoric? Like, what’s even the point, then?”, and the following picture)
Qualifying, thy name is [REDACTED].

This not only divides the groups being attacked into “good ones” and “bad ones”, but expects the group being questioned to conform to one single, shared experience with absolutely no deviations in order to be accepted, which is obviously impossible.

  • ”SGA (same-gender attracted)-men/women/people” (This one’s not hard and fast — some people genuinely use it to be more inclusive when talking about attraction to a specific gender, but the term also seems to be a pattern among REG’s and has its roots in Mormon homphobia)
(full source)
  • ”I just think LGBT+ nonprofit resources should go to the people who really need them.” (You’ll find this across the board, but I’ve personally heard it most often used against bi, nonbinary, and ace people, implying they are being selfish or outright criminal for needing a bed at a homeless shelter, an answer from a suicide hotline, or even a space to gather)
  • “No one’s going to kill you for being [X identity].” (Once again downplaying microaggressions and ignoring or misdirecting reasons for assault or abuse as a result of the identity)

I’m sure there are more, but you get the idea. Learn to look for the gatekeeping hiding behind “I’m just confused” or “This is just, like, my opinion, man”. If they were really confused, they’d use that tab to open up Google instead of their social media, and their “opinion”, whether they realize it or not, whether it’s their intent or not, is being used as a weapon against fellow members of the community.

There are plenty of people within the LGBT+ community who are actively working against the interests of at least 99% of its members.

Like this guy!
And this lady!
And don’t even get me started on this lad!

Putting people you “just don’t get” on the same level as sexual assailants, bigots, and proto-fascists is so ridiculous I can barely comment. If you have to push other people down to raise yourself up, you’re doing it wrong. You’re being the bully that made you miserable once upon a time, or even right now.

This community is gigantic and diverse. It spans so many countries, so many cultures, so many generations, so many kinds of experiences and worldviews and relationships and families and preferred types of pizza.

Shame on anyone who tries to limit that, to limit us. Shame on anyone who positions themselves as the bouncer of this community, the one who can determine who is and is not queer enough to come in out of the cold.

Shame on anyone who dares to mute or erase any color of this beautiful, messy, strange, perfect rainbow.

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Mary Kate McAlpine

An asexual writer with lots of opinions and a half-played Steam library. Play my first game here: http://philome.la/themarykatemca/an-asexual-experience