Gatekeeping actually makes the autism community less of a safe place

autism community gatekeeping Essy Knopf
Reading time: 5 minutes

Living within an ableist society, autistic folk often experienced marginalization. But to experience it within the autism community is not something most of us would expect.

Consider the many young autistic individuals who go in search of others like themselves on social media.

Some reach out in the hopes of finding community, only to have a total stranger blast them for using terminology some have deemed inappropriate.

Any sense of belonging and acceptance this young person might have found is suddenly withdrawn the moment they express themselves.

This was my experience, and one I believe is shared by many. The policing of the autistic identity is a very real phenomenon, and one I think requires further discussion.

The people responsible for this behavior—I’m going to call them “gatekeepers”—have a tendency to treat our community as monolithic.

According to these gatekeepers, only their worldview is endorsed, while all others are incorrect and subject to harsh criticism.

Knowing that one could be punished by such folk for speaking “out of turn” creates a chilling effect in online discussions. And so it’s the voices of the gatekeepers that usually end up being the loudest—to the exclusion of all others.

Some disclaimers

I want to make it clear that many advocates within the autism community do important work. And I’d like to believe that most of them are motivated by genuine compassion. 

Yet the gatekeeping approach to advocacy raises a number of concerns, some of which I’ll touch upon shortly.

Full disclosure: I am speaking today as someone who is autistic. Any opinions I share here are entirely my own.

I acknowledge that my ability to speak out in the first place is a privilege. Not everyone in our community enjoys this privilege, for reasons I’ll go into later.

I also want to acknowledge that autistic folk as a group have been marginalized and oppressed throughout history.

Widespread ableism means that the status quo largely exists to serve the interests of neurotypicals. This is why challenging the status quo and fighting for autistic empowerment are so important. 

Gatekeeping in the autism community feeds toxic shame

That said, I believe gatekeepers often challenge for the sake of challenging in and of itself. What doesn’t help is that the manner in which such challenges are performed is usually dogmatic, if not militant

Gatekeepers thus appoint themselves the authority, defining what is “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong” for everyone else.

Typically, they take a very strong stand on hot-button topics, like the use of person-first language, the term “Asperger”, or the pathologizing of autism as a disorder.

Yes, these are important topics worthy of discussion. And yet discussion can’t happen so long as one party feels they have a monopoly on the truth, as gatekeepers so often do.

Believing in their own righteousness, many gatekeepers will label those who disagree with them as ignorant, ableist, and oppressive.

Demonizing people in this fashion creates shame. In the words of Brené Brown:

Shame is the fear of disconnection—it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, or connection.

Nobody likes to feel this way. Everyone—and I mean everyone—wants to feel worthy of love and belonging. 

Worse still, if the intention of gatekeepers is to create shape, when they shame others, they undermine their capacity for change. As Brown goes on to explain:

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better… In fact, shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.”

There is a history of neurotypicals weaponizing shame against autistic folk. So when autistic folk neurotypicals and other autistics, it is—to say the very least—problematic.

Gatekeeping drowns out other voices

Gatekeepers claim there is a consensus within the autism community, one again that usually aligns with their own personal beliefs. 

But in fact, no such consensus exists. The community comprises diverse individuals who identify and express themselves in a variety of ways.

No one has the right to speak for every member, just as no one has the right to silence those who don’t agree with their points of view.

One example of this is when gatekeepers whitewash autism, painting it exclusively as a positive while failing to acknowledge that it may be experienced by others with mixed feelings, or as a negative.

Similarly, many gatekeepers frame autism as a mere social challenge caused by systemic ableism. This social model of autism has been adopted as an alternative to the medical model, which has sometimes been used to oppress autistic folk.

But romanticizing autism in this fashion dismisses the reality of those individuals who experience autism as a debilitating disability. 

Likewise, gatekeepers who insist that autism is an intrinsic part of our identity fail to admit that this isn’t the case for everyone.

By dominating discussions about autism, gatekeepers fail to hold a space for other community members, and even compromise their right to self-expression.

Gatekeeping ignores privilege

What a lot of gatekeepers don’t realize is the ability to advocate is a privilege not all autistic folk get to enjoy.

For example, many individuals on the spectrum experience some form of intellectual disability and/or are nonspeaking. 

These individuals may not have the opportunity to express how they feel. And so, their wishes go unheard, and their needs unmet. 

If the inclusion of all autistic individuals is our priority as a community, why then are so many of us assuming the right to speak for others? 

Again, by virtue of being the loudest, gatekeepers get to decide what issues receive the most attention.

Their advantages allow them to privilege their own voices, rather than elevating those of the underprivileged.

Gatekeeping undermines coalition-building

The final issue I want to address is the “us vs. them” attitude gatekeepers take towards the medical community and parents of autistic folk.

The history of autism at the hands of the establishment is a dark one indeed. One only needs to look at how horrifically neurodiverse individuals were treated during the Nazi regime to understand why suspicion of medical authorities endures even today.

Still, the sweeping narrative by gatekeepers claiming all researchers want to “cure” autism—an action compared to eugenics—is a smear campaign.

Consider those autistic individuals living in full-time care who are prone to frequent seizures, meltdowns, self-injury, and violence. They undoubtedly experience autism in a way that differs vastly from that of privileged gatekeepers.

Many researchers are working to enhance quality of life for such individuals, and yet gatekeepers continue to accuse these professionals of endorsing ableism.

Similarly, when desperate parents of autistic folk reach out to the community seeking understanding, insight, and support, often they are shut down and declared the enemy.

Instead of building coalitions with community allies, gatekeepers sideline them.

Gatekeeping is not social justice

Gatekeepers believe themselves to be part of a social justice movement. But there can be no justice so long as one party assumes the moral high ground, dominates the discourse, and bullies both allies and autistics alike.

I gave up my previous career to enter social work with the hope of serving my community. 

Yet I’m troubled by the knowledge that should I ever fail to measure up to the demands made by autism gatekeepers, I’ll be treated to judgment and shaming. 

This leads me to wonder, are these individuals truly invested in serving the autism community? Or are they just perpetuating the trauma that was done to them?

Yes, words such as those gatekeepers often take issue with can be oppressive. But when they themselves use words in oppressive ways, there is no mutual understanding, no dialogue, no positive change.

There is only a Twitter argument. And what, really, have we then accomplished?

Wrap up

Have you experienced some form of autism gatekeeping? Or do you completely disagree with my argument? Let me know in the comments.

Five alternatives to gay dating apps

Essy Knopf gay dating apps
Reading time: 8 minutes

During my time using gay dating apps, I’ve had several experiences that left me questioning my continued use.

Rarely do they involve something as dramatic as a blow-up or a betrayal. Rather, they usually are the culmination of a thousand cuts.

Many of the people I have interacted with seem paralyzed by choice, requests for emotional availability, and the possibility of commitment. Those lacking in self-awareness will often resort to sabotaging a possible relationship, if only to avoid decision or perceived danger.

The most common form of sabotage is the mixed message: a man claiming to want one thing while indulging in behaviors that ran counter to it. “Looking for dates”, the dating app bio will read, “but open to everything else”.

Should someone make an earnest attempt at courtship, that same man would sooner skirt complications altogether by embracing the easy and “safer” alternative of casual sex.

I first met Rayan* online during college. Years after our first date, he reemerged on Tinder, enthusiastically requesting we meet again.

While I had enjoyed Rayan’s company the first time, I’d felt that our lifestyles and interests were somewhat out of sync. Still, I figured there was no harm in giving it another shot.

We spent the first few minutes of our second date bringing each other up to speed on how our lives had changed in the intervening years, talking broadly about our dating experiences. Rayan expressed frustration about the difficulty of finding someone willing to take the time to get to know him.

About an hour into our conversation, he invited me back to his place for tea. But when we got there, Rayan’s initially chivalrous interest faltered. “Tea”, as it turned out, was a euphemism.

Feeling uncomfortable, I reiterated my intention to date, then noted it was getting late and that I really needed to get home. A conciliatory Rayan offered to walk me to my bus stop and I agreed.

While stopped at a pedestrian crossing, he raised the subject of arranged marriages. In what I can only guess was an appeal to our shared Middle Eastern heritage, Rayan spoke of relatives who would serve as matchmakers to heterosexual bachelors, and lamented the absence of equivalent services for gay men.

“Sometimes I wish I had an auntie who would find me a man to marry,” Rayan told me.

“I wouldn’t have any say in it. She’d choose and that would be it. We’d just have to make it work.”

Rayan laughed at the wistful impracticality of such an arrangement. Yet it seemed to me that for all his facetiousness, part of him meant what he had said.

Rayan’s desire for the implied simplicity of an arranged marriage was understandable, and yet both of us knew this was not something most gay men would ever realistically settle for. Accustomed to the sea of options offered by gay dating apps, to sacrifice those options for many would represent a considerable loss.

The fact Rayan had floated such an alternative to modern dating while on a date struck me as evidence enough of this. What on the surface it was a throwaway joke, it also felt like an offhanded dismissal of my attempts to get to know him.

Rayan over the span of our encounter had gone from stressing he wanted to date, to propositioning me for sex, to lamenting the difficulties of dating – a series of contradictory actions I suspect most people would struggle to decipher.

Like many men I have dated, Rayan either did not know what he truly really wanted, or feared admitting it and sticking to his guns.

When confronted with the emotional danger of being authentic, Rayan had resorted to humor as a defense mechanism, trying to create distance from that perceived danger.

The problem of gay dating apps

Those of us regularly exposed to the toxic environment of gay dating apps are intimately acquainted with the push-pull of wanting more, but fearing what that might entail.

We know it not only just by our own internal experience, but by the inconsistency of our dates who are hampered by the same contrary desires.

It is true that where it comes to building relationships, gay dating apps pose a number of fundamental challenges.

Previously I’ve noted how these apps can create an unhealthy dependence, asking us to engage in inauthentic behavior, while keeping us locked in a perpetual search and encouraging us to trivialize both ourselves and others.

At the heart of the current gay dating app crisis is a fundamental shift in our orientation from seeking connection and being focused and purpose-driven, to seeking entertainment, distraction and being opportunistic.

The gamified reward system used by these apps tempts many of us into adopting such a stance, thus undermining our search for wholesome, meaningful relationships.

The promise that gay dating apps will economize our time and effort may lead us down a downwards spiral of risk aversion, leaving us less willing to take a chance on others, even if all that involves is the price of a coffee and an hour of our time. 

The illusion of always being connected offered by text-based communication may also allow us to temporarily stave off loneliness while creating conditions that ironically feed that same isolation.

Text-based communication is also designed with personal convenience in mind, enabling us to effortlessly retouch our self-presentation, while avoiding situations that necessitate vulnerability, which is crucial to forming connections. 

gay dating apps

The antidote

Not that long ago, dating apps were seen as a somewhat unsavory fringe alternative to traditional dating. 

Now, in an uncanny inversion of roles, they have become the new norm, with real-life for many gay men assuming the title of “alternative” – for which we can find any number of excuses.

The bar and club scene? Not quite your jam. A matchmaking service? An unnecessary expense. Gay hobby groups? Too much of a commitment.

But to end our seemingly interminable search for an ideal partner, we must be willing to abandon the ease and comfort of text-based communication and truly invest in others.

In order to forge authentic relationships, we must give up the immediate gratification of texting and allow ourselves to risk vulnerability,

What I am advocating here is not a complete flight from text-based communication. Nor am I suggesting seeking out matchmakers or arranged relationships. Neither promise a true end to the crisis of choice that is modern dating.

What this crisis calls for, rather, is a return to basics. Namely, the crucial art of making and building friendships.

Don’t date. ‘Friend’

Friendship is the foundation of any sound romantic relationship. It does not carry the same emotional risks as gay dating, nor the ambiguity of app-based interactions. It facilitates not a dropping of boundaries and headlong plunge into sexual relations, but the slow and steady building of rapport and trust.

It stands to reason, therefore, that those of us seeking to date should make it our number one priority. We must be willing to shift our outlook from the limited confines of seeking a sex partner or significant other that ticks all the boxes, to the endless horizon of friendships.

How do we form friendships? Former FBI agent Jack Schafer offers the following formula in his book The Like Switch: Friendship = proximity x frequency x duration x intensity (PFDI)

Schafer defines proximity as being close to the subject in question. Frequency is relational to the number of times you’ve been in contact. Duration is the amount of time you spend together. Intensity measures how much you are able to satisfy others’ needs through your actions.

So, what are some settings that are conducive to PFDI?

1. Hobby groups

A hobby group or sporting group is the perfect PFDI nexus. They connect you to a community of like-minded people (proximity), and they give you an excuse to regularly gather with others (frequency, duration) to participate in a shared interest (intensity). 

You can find an array of options on Google, Meetup.com, or social media. If you’re feeling particularly intrepid, you could try establishing your own community. Setting up a group on Meetup.com, for example, is easy enough, although it does involve recurring fees.

2. Online communities

Online communities organized around a common interest can also provide regular relationship-building opportunities. This is presuming they are, again, gay-oriented and regularly organize in-person meetups in your town or city. 

One possible place to look for these is on Reddit.

3. Meditation or spiritual groups

Shared values are a great basis for connecting with other people. 

Whether you are dabbling in mindfulness, practicing yoga, or were raised with a religion that remains near and dear to your heart, chances are you’ll find there is already a gay community that shares your practices and is waiting to embrace you with open arms.

4. Talks, presentations or conferences

Find a talk or attend a conference that aligns with your interests. If it is gay-themed, all the better. 

You will stand a better chance of making friends if you attend after-event drinks, networking mixers and bar crawls.

5. Volunteering

If you’re not comfortable putting yourself out there, volunteering – particularly for an LGBT-related cause – is a great way to meet other mindful individuals just like yourself.

Not only will you be doing a valuable service for your local community, but you’ll also be putting your values into practice. This is an incredibly effective way to reinforce your sense of self-worth. 

People who are confident in this sense tend to be more attractive to others, thus further improving your chances of meeting someone.

Watch out for the toxic trio

Whatever you choose to do, remember to avoid gatherings that replicate the dynamic of gay dating apps.

Be on the lookout for what I call the toxic trio: objectification, judgmentalism, and competition.

These three things are to friendship what concrete is to grass, suffocating any possibility of growth.

Some sports leagues, for example, can produce an unhealthy atmosphere of competitiveness, in which you may feel compelled to constantly prove your athletic ability and in turn your personal worth. Should you fail to measure up, you may face subtle and even overt forms of exclusion and judgment. Hardly the kind of environment that is conducive to friendship.

Depending on the kind of social gathering, you may get the vibe that other attendees are less focused on connection than they are cruising. A common telltale of this is what I call the “wandering gayze”, in which the person you’re talking to looks over your shoulder, constantly scanning the room for better-looking prospects. 

The wandering gayze is the scourge of many an interaction between gay men. It sends a very clear message to one’s conversation partner that their value as a person is pending review.

Besides being a covert form of judgmentalism, the wandering gayze indicates that this person has an agenda, even if that agenda is simply to keep “trading up”. No one should ever feel forced to fight for another person’s attention or respect.

gay dating apps alternatives

Keep an open mind

Always being on the lookout for the next best thing is counterintuitive to the dating process. Should you find yourself falling prey to the wandering gayze, you should remember that your goal here is to build connections based on mutual interests and camaraderie.

For these to be possible, you should approach these groups and events with an open mind, rather than a specific motive. Of course, your end goal may be a romantic relationship, but being too fixated on the goal closes you off to possibilities.

Strict adherence to a nonnegotiable shopping list is one reason gay dating apps feel so sterile. By remaining open-minded, you will be avoiding squeezing every interaction into a predefined box.

Instead, you are granting yourself permission to freely engage in a sharing of self through conversation, laughter, and flirtation; to let down your guard and be vulnerable. And vulnerability is where the magic ultimately happens

In joining one of these groups, you may not find a life partner. But you will likely build rich, rewarding friendships that increase the possibility of further introductions. 

Remember that you are playing the long game. You are investing in other people in the hopes they will in turn invest in you.

This may feel like a somewhat inefficient, if not risky process. In abandoning the pretense we employ while texting, we may say or do the wrong thing. We will likely face pressures and discomforts we might have otherwise avoided, had we remained behind our phone screen.

What we won’t do, however, is leave these encounters empty-handed. Given the right company, we’ll instead walk away with the warm glow of a fun conversation, a shared joke, or an exchanged smile.

And after so much time spent in the gay dating apps wasteland, in the company of men apt to send conflicting messages, is that so bad?

Takeaways

  • Swap gay dating apps for in-person interactions.
  • Aim to find friends – not dates.
  • Consider attending events or groups that offer proximity, frequency, duration and intensity.
  • Embrace vulnerability by remaining open.

* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.