I recently ran across the fascinating ‘Gatekeeping’ subreddit . Gatekeepers are individuals (in this case, ones usually creating image macros or commenting on the internet) who are wedded to the notion that -if you fail to meet such and such criteria- you can not claim an identity, a problem, hardship, or so on. Even if you’re not familiar with the term, you’re familiar with the trope. Here’s some telling examples:

Real men can change their own car tires.

If you were actually a Prince fan, you could name songs beyond Purple Rain.

Real americans oppose Obamacare.

You don’t know what tired truly is until you have children.

Some choice words that typify this behavior is ‘real’ ‘actual’ ‘can’t claim’ or ‘don’t know.’

Once pointed out, I can only assume that this is an incredibly basic human behavior (at least in our culture but it feels more universal than that) because now I’ve started seeing it everywhere. I relate this phenomenon back to some of my thoughts about ‘identity maintenance’ – at best, it seems like a lot of this is based on people wanting to ensure the parts of their identity ‘mean’ something and will be recognized (and possibly rewarded) as having worth derived from a price paid or other special qualities. At worst, this sort of behavior is yet another way humans are cruel to one another; a way we resist recognizing someone else’s humanity.

The first problem is in setting standards is that for most things there is a complicated, contradictory tangle of ‘standards’ for any aspect of our identity that will -inevitably- change drastically over time (both in a personal and social level). But there are other issues.

People in closed groups are welcome to establish terms that denote something with specific standards attached. For instance, if a martial arts school wants to set a standard that ‘to be a black belt means you can break a brick with a punch’ then they are welcome to set that standard and enforce it (ie, it would be a lie to claim to be black belt in that school if you hadn’t reached that benchmark). Likewise, if your church conceives of marriage as a ceremonial rite between a man and a woman, you’re welcome to claim that the marriages of those outside your congregation aren’t recognized by your church. But most of us do not spend much time in closed groups like these; we’re mostly part of big, fluid, evolving groups (many of which we never opted into but were lumped into as an accident of the particularities of our birth). These groups (our city, our state, our country, our families, all the designations we’re given, etc.) can and should work to make themselves more inclusive and accommodating. The hassle comes in where closed groups don’t realize that they are idiosyncratic, when they try to claim semantic privileges that are bigger than them; like a group of weight lifters deciding what it means to be a ‘real man’ based on how much you bench or a small group of video game players deciding what being a ‘true gamer’ or a clade of geeks setting a standard of what being a ‘true fan’ means and so on. This is both due to the fact that people confuse their ingroup with society as well as the fact that they often don’t see the outgroup as truly ‘real’… not truly people.

If we start a club we get to set standards for what club membership means and craft endless subdivisions of identity therefrom with all manner of ranks, titles, and forfeits. For issues like our gender, our government, our society writ large; for these terms and claims multiple individuals and groups can and do claim; none of us wholly ‘own’ the concepts and identities herein and the instinct to lay claim to such terms – to play ‘gatekeeper’ always leads to ill ends. Definitions of words matter, but definitions always stretch, always change, and -ultimately- I think so much posturing, so much frustration and argument comes from people not understanding a definition or concept nearly as much as they think they do and papering over this gulf of understanding with bluster.

On a personal level, I think I deal with issues of gatekeeping most strenuously around the concept of manhood. I so despise the concept of ‘real man.’ It’s hard; sometimes people I care about try to compliment me on my strength, or my facial hair, or my fathering by talking about how I’m a real man and I need to do a better job refuting that. On a societal level, the best working definition I have, is to be a man simply means that you see yourself as a man. On a personal level, I have a set of standards, expectations, and responsibilities I set for myself related to considering myself a man; though this is a personal definition which I don’t expect or even want others to abide by… hell, I’m not even sure I could or would want to communicate these, as most of the personal conceits I have around manhood were inherited notions fraught with problematic threads that I’m working to disentangle so I can keep what’s worthy and discard everything that doesn’t serve me.

To understand that identity is not this pristine, platonic form descending down from on high but rather something that you can, that you must co-create (or suffer from someone using the framing of identity to serve their ends rather than yours) is disorienting, difficult, but oh so worth pursuing.

For myself, when I feel that gatekeeper instinct rising in my gut I try to temper it with the knowledge that for most things, I’m not the arbiter, I’m not the decider. If people claim to feel something, I believe them. When people claim an identity, I accept that. And -when in doubt or all things being equal- I’ll try to work a little harder to enlarge my groups, invite more people to participate/play inside my walled garden rather than use my faculty with language to express why they don’t, can’t possibly belong.

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