Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, looks at whether “Vegan Gatekeeping” is a necessary thing or something annoying we should avoid.
I had to do it, even if I did not want to.
In early 2000, I had to go to a Court hearing in the maritime city of Plymouth, southwest England, and present myself before a judge. At that time, it was a legal requirement. If you wanted to become a British citizen by the process known as naturalisation, you had to have spent at least five years as a UK resident, you had to speak English, have only been abroad no more than a specific number of days per year, and go before a judge to swear allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II.
I am an atheist, left-wing, and not a monarchist (I used to say I am a “republican” because this means being anti-monarchy in most parts of the world, but since the US conservatives appropriated the term, I don’t want to risk using it in case someone mistakenly thinks I am one of them). So, the idea of “swearing for Almighty God” allegiance to a monarch did not appeal to me at all. But if I wanted to become a British Citizen — and I really, really wanted it, as I always had felt kind of British, even when I grew up in Catalonia — I had to do it. There was no other way around it.
I am a British Citizen now — although because of one of those unfortunate turns of events, no longer an EU citizen — so I was privileged enough to be able to make it. I crossed the gate that was stopping me and everyone else, and I finally became a Brit. I could not have done it without someone opening the gate for me, though. In this case, it was the judge. He allowed me in because I had fulfilled all the requisites the law required of me — including uttering a specific string of sounds with conviction in front of him.
That judge was my British Citizenship Gatekeeper.
Was he necessary, or was he an annoying part of the system? What is the purpose of gatekeepers anyway? They keep the gate close for those who should not cross it, and they open it for those allowed through. What is Vegan Gatekeeping, then? Is it the “role” of allowing vegans into the metaphorical “vegan mansion”, and keeping everyone else out? It’s a bit more complicated than that. So complicated, that these days saying that someone is a vegan gatekeeper is almost an insult — at the very least, a criticism.
No month passes without someone “accusing” me to be a vegan gatekeeper. Am I really one? If so, is that bad? Is vegan gatekeeping an annoying thing to do, or is it necessary? Let’s look at this issue in more detail.
Gatekeeping is the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something. But in current slang, it now also means when people take it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity. For instance, someone saying, “She can’t be queer if she’s with a man” referring to a woman who identifies as queer but ends up dating a cisgender male.
This “taking upon themselves” often means without legitimate authority, as if they should not have said what they said. And denying access or rights to a community or identity to anyone is generally seen as a bad thing. Therefore, when looking at it from the perspective of the common usage of the term in slang, gatekeeping is frowned upon because it is done by people without the authority to do it and leads to other people feeling unwelcomed and excluded.
When people “accuse” others of doing “vegan gatekeeping” under the slang usage, it normally is a criticism saying that they illegitimately took it upon themselves to say that someone was not vegan, without the authority to do so. From that point of view, when interpreted as this kind of criticism, it looks like vegan gatekeeping is something we probably should avoid.
However, just because a term is commonly used as slang does not mean that it cannot be used in any other way — even a more accurate way. If we only use the slang interpretation, the judge that made me British was not one of these bad gatekeepers, as he did have the authority to open and close the gate. If some gatekeepers can legitimately decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity, the slang usage of the term is incomplete — and perhaps even unfair.
Those using it as criticism may have made some assumptions that could be challenged. They have assumed that the people they criticize as gatekeepers have no authority to close the gate, but they may be wrong about that. And they have assumed that those who have been left excluded have “the right” to cross the gate, and they may be wrong about that too. Or they may have assumed that veganism is just an identity one can identify with, rather than a fully formed philosophy and a growing social movement based on it.
Whether vegan gatekeeping is OK or wrong should not depend on who opens the metaphorical gate and who gets through, but on why there is a gate in the first place. And I suspect that those who accuse someone of gatekeeping are uncomfortable with the existence of the gate — and they lash against those opening and closing it.
Perhaps the problem is the gate.
The Vegan Gate
Due to my upbringing under a Spanish fascist regime in the 1960s and 70s, the right to self-determination is important to me. Therefore, I am pro Catalonia’s independence from Spain, and although I am now British and have lived in the UK for almost 30 years, I am for Scotland’s independence too (if the Scottish people want it). But I am also pro-European and would like the UK to rejoin the EU. Some have said to me this is a contradiction (what I am for, union or separation?), but it is not.
The idea of wanting to be independent from one union to be able to join another union you prefer makes total sense to me — criticising this would be like criticising a divorcee for getting married again. You cannot have great hospitality if you do not have a place of your own to invite people in, so having control of the door of your own home does not mean that you want to isolate yourself from the world, but that you want to be able to invite in whoever you want to. The issues of calling for or denying political independence, or joining or leaving unions, are gatekeeping issues, and it is not contradictory to say you want to be the gatekeeper of your home while at the same time being open and welcoming to those who want to visit.
Equally, if we accept that there is such a thing as veganism — and in the 21st century who can deny it — and that it is both a philosophy and a transformative socio-political movement of people adhering to this philosophy, we must accept that those who identify as vegans could be equally happy in welcoming everyone in the movement who want to join it, and equally eager in not allowing the philosophy to be diluted and becoming something less.
Even though there is an official unambiguous definition of veganism created by the Vegan Society in 1944 (when it invented the term) that was perfectioned over the years until it got to its current form in 1988, some vegans may prefer to use a definition of their own. When they do that, they may attribute to themselves, or products and practices they use, the label ‘vegan’ even if the majority of vegans may not agree with such attribution. In essence, what this means is that although veganism has a very specific gateway to enter it, many people may not use it and jump the metaphorical fence. When that happens uncontrollably and often, you are at risk to lose what you were fencing in.
In veganism, it has been happening very often, and for a long time. So often, that the term “ethical vegan” has been needed since the 1980s to mean “true vegan” (one who follows the definition of veganism to the full), to differentiate it from “dietary vegans”, who only follow the definition when they eat or drink something, but still use the label “vegan” to describe themselves. The average member of the public thinks that a vegan is a person following a vegan diet (a dietary vegan) and does not really know what a true vegan (an ethical vegan) is, showing how bad the problem has become. I can tell you I have experienced this very vividly because when I managed to secure the legal protection of ethical vegans (full vegans) from discrimination in Great Britain after a two-year litigation process, the most common question most journalists asked me was “what is an ethical vegan?” as they thought veganism was only a diet.
The solution, though, is simple: gatekeeping. Any ideology, social movement, ethnic group, community, or nation that operates democratically through self-determinist policies are at risk of vanishing if it does not exercise a certain level of gatekeeping aimed to maintain its integrity. Gatekeeping is needed to prevent those opposed to a movement or community from “infiltrating” it with sabotaging intent, or to prevent those who do not share its values and principles from “diluting” it with unconsidered carelessness. And veganism needs gatekeeping for exactly the same reasons.
If we have something we value, something we want to preserve, we need to “fence it off” from those who threaten it or “shelter” it from the inclemency of an ever-eroding environment, but if we also want to use it and share it with others, and make it grow, we need a way to open the fence (a gate), and someone opening it and closing it when it is right (the gatekeeper). That’s why museums have protective glass displays, schools have lockable doors, professionals have enabling licences, and countries have official border crossings. They have them because they are needed.
The official definition of veganism has gatekeeping elements embedded in it: “Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” If “seeking to exclude” is something that vegans must do all the time, vegan gatekeepers must be very apt at their job.
The practicality clause is not a free pass, by the way. Often choosing a particular vegan alternative may be practicable for some while impractical for others, but sometimes a good vegan gatekeeper may be able to judge whether that is the case even without knowing the precise circumstances of each person. For instance, if you go to a restaurant with another “vegan”, and the other person chooses to eat a cow’s ice cream as dessert (while you choose the available vegan version), telling you that it was not practical to choose the vegan version for preferring a different flavour, you know that this person cannot really be a vegan — and if you point that out you may be accused of vegan gatekeeping but you will not be wrong. We cannot preserve veganism without seeking to exclude those who purposely exploit animals or deliberately enable their exploitation after being exposed, and they are happy to do it again. We need a gate that opens and shuts properly.
Bad Vegan Gatekeeping
If the integrity of veganism must be preserved, and therefore we need to fence the vegan philosophy, movements, and community off and have a functioning gate to allow sustainable growth, we need someone to operate it. We need a gatekeeper. Who is the gatekeeper of veganism? Ah, that’s the problem. There isn’t one. Well, there is no one with the official role of gatekeeping. Not a particular person, and not a particular organisation either.
The closest thing we have to vegan gatekeepers are the several Vegan Societies that exist around the world, and the several Vegan Trademarks that there are. The problem, though, is in the word “several”. Although in 1994 the Vegan Society in England was the only one in the world, there have been many others since. The UK Vegan Society never tried to stop their proliferation or tried to control them in any way. So, although historically the society might have been the first vegan gatekeeper, it does not operate as an active gatekeeper anymore. However, it still tries to defend the integrity of the concept, and its definition is the one most of the other societies use, so it is certainly closest to the gatekeeper role than anyone else. The same happens with vegan trademarks. The Vegan Society created the first, but since then many others have been created, and operate in different jurisdictions. Most of the trademarks have similar definitions and criteria, which goes to show that although we may not have a specific vegan gatekeeper, the original vegan gate remains intact, and has not been replaced by several gates all over the place.
The lack of an official gatekeeper of veganism means that any vegan can choose to operate the gate, and doing so is considered perfectly legitimate. We have, somehow, decided that the entire vegan community can operate the vegan gate, and if any vegan happens to be close to it when someone tries to go through it, such person can open or close it according to what they know.
The result? Not very efficient gatekeeping. Lots of uncontrolled traffic in and out, and lots of people inside the vegan mansion not knowing where are they going and whether they should be there in the first place. Some may have gotten in because of very bad gatekeeping. For instance, allowing people in who say they only plan to use veganism for food and judge those who go beyond. Or allowing people in who still exploit animals (such as bees, horses, or oysters) and claim this does not contradict veganism. Or not stopping active racists and misogynist people who are speciesists and therefore in breach of essential vegan principles. Or allowing people in who just imitate the behaviour of vegans, but do not hold the philosophy or care to know about it. Even allowing people in who say they do not like the term vegan, what it represents, and the vegan “tribe” and they prefer to be called something else (such as plant-based people, flexitarians, or reducetarians).
But there is also another way to be a bad vegan gatekeeper. Keeping the gate close to anyone, even to those pre-vegans who genuinely want to try veganism and aim to become vegans for life. For instance, those gatekeepers saying that you are not vegan if you do not do activism. Or those who say you are not vegan if your main reason to try it is the environment, health, spirituality, or social justice. Or that you are not vegan if you are not antinatalist. Or that you are not vegan if you are intersectional. Or those who say you are not vegan if you do not change all your behaviour overnight. Or aggressive gatekeepers without proper consideration of people’s circumstances. Or tactless gatekeepers who put people off veganism because of their communication failures.
Being too elitist, using more restrictive definitions other than the official definition of veganism, being too intolerant of diversity of opinion, not accepting that veganisation is a process, and being too disparaging of those pre-vegans making mistakes and transitioning slowly, is bad vegan gatekeeping that is not only annoying but can also be counterproductive.
Because the role is open to every vegan, the criticism of gatekeeping being an unauthorised activity does not really apply to veganism as it could apply, for instance, to Judaism, citizenship, or academia. But also means that there is a lot of bad vegan gatekeeping happening.
Good Vegan Gatekeeping
When I first emigrated to the UK, I often approached police officers to ask them for directions. I sometimes did not need them as I already knew where to go, but I loved doing it, anyway. Why? If you have lived in a fascist regime that tried to eradicate your community and then move to a democratic nation where you are no longer directly threatened by the state, you know how different police will look to you. While I was in Catalonia, the thing I feared the most was the Spanish police…but in London, despite my broken English, they were so friendly and polite to me (in addition to being unarmed), that I could not believe it.
Equally, if you had a bad experience with the “vegan police” (a pejorative slang term referring to any vegan who uncovers if someone is truly vegan or something is truly suitable for vegans) telling you that you are not really vegan or that the product you consumed is not vegan, you may assume that all vegan police are equally “tyrannical”. However, like in real life, there are good vegan cops and bad vegan cops. If you have been vegan for many years, you know how useful are the good vegan cops. These would be vegans who help you to find out what is vegan and what is not. Vegans who have done the research that would take you ages to do, and give you the results for free. Vegans who teach new vegans about all the dimensions of veganism they did not know. Vegans who politely point out to you the relics of carnism you may still carry, and need help to get rid of. Vegans who identify new cognitive dissonances you may have, so you can become a better vegan every day. Vegans who teach you how to veganise others better, and build the vegan world together. And part of what “good vegan police” often do is good vegan gatekeeping.
Without them, reducetarians might have demolished all the fences that protect the integrity of the vegan philosophy and might have evicted anyone in the vegan mansion trying to abolish animal exploitation rather than regulate it. Or Plant-Based People might have already taken over the Vegan Society and changed the definition to make it all only about food. Or Vegetarian Societies might have absorbed the Vegan Societies to make veganism a marginalised fringed oddity.
Without good gatekeeping veganism would have become flexiterianism by now. Flexitarians, also known as casual vegetarians, follow a diet which highlights an increased intake of plant-based meals without completely eliminating meat, and they do not care about animal exploitation beyond food. They hate all “vegan police” and any type of “vegan keeping”, because they despise any rules that tell them what they cannot consume. So, if you are a vegan in a vegan group and heard someone repeatedly complaining about other vegans using the term “vegan police”, be aware because this may be a flexitarian who sneaked in.
Good vegan gatekeeping is not exclusive, but educational. It does not shut the gate onto pre-vegans’ faces but educates them by telling them what veganism is all about and helping them to follow this philosophy in all aspects of their lives. Good vegan gatekeepers are not like aggressive bouncers, they are more like helpful receptionists. They should be knowable, polite, informative, and considerate, but also attentive, protective, and firm. And the thing is that, as I said earlier, no vegan has been assigned to this role. It’s every vegan’s job — if they wish to accept it.
In the vegan movement, we are all teachers and pupils at the same time. We learn from more experienced vegans and pass the knowledge to the new ones. In doing so, we may be accused of vegan gatekeeping, but we don’t have to accept the common pejorative slang meaning of the term. We should embrace the positive meaning of good vegan gatekeeping, and help, like all the other experienced vegans, to keep intact the integrity of the vegan concept, while carefully expanding our communities into mainstream society.
Keeping the Integrity of Veganism is Necessary
We, vegans, experience the positive and negative effects of vegan gatekeeping all the time. In fact, for you to read this article, most likely a vegan gatekeeper has allowed you to do it. You may have found the article posted on a private vegan Facebook Group that has rules about who can join in and “admins” patrolling the gates.
I guarantee you that a considerable proportion of social media comments made on this article will come from people who have not read it, another substantial proportion from those who only read the first paragraphs, and a not insignificant proportion from those who haven’t even read the title properly. Many of the comments of this type of trigger-happy people would be accusing me of vegan gatekeeping. It happened when I wrote the articles “Why Vegans Don’t Use Wool”, “Why Vegans Should Not Support Zoos”, and “Why Vegans Don’t Have Pets” (before you prejudge this one, read the article). They would still probably do it if I ever wrote an article titled Why Vegans Don’t Eat Meat.
If I am a vegan gatekeeper, I hope I am a good one. If anything, what many of my “vegan gatekeeping” type articles often do is unearth social media group members that perhaps a good gatekeeper should have detected earlier. It reveals that joining an identity-based group is meaningless if there is no gatekeeping happening that checks for the correct identity. But it also exposes the weakness of already established gatekeeping procedures when they just say the group is for vegans, but do not properly define what they interpret a vegan is.
Interestingly, some vegan Facebook groups have almost anti-gatekeeping gatekeeping. In them, topics that may be controversial to some because expose carnist trolls or people who do not wish to become fully vegan cannot be discussed. For instance, one of the vegan Facebook groups I am part of has this rule: “There are some topics that cause an all-out-war so we are no longer allowing any posts about… pet food, eggs from rescued hens, palm oil, honey/beekeeping, horse riding, service animals…” There is bad and good vegan gatekeeping everywhere.
When I became a British citizen, I had to follow the rules, like it or not. I was an economic migrant from the EU, not someone in a desperate situation who deserved refugee status and might have been forced to bend the rules to get it, so if I wanted to be recognised as British it would not have been good if I just set the rules myself and make my own passport out of cardboard and notebook paper. If I wanted to join a community, and get all the benefits this entails, I had to abide by the rules, and share its values, so this is what I did (even if some of them might have felt inconvenient, strange or uncomfortable at first).
Veganism, with all its health, environmental, moral, spiritual, psychological, cultural, and even legal benefits — for those adhering to the philosophy but also the rest of the living beings on the planet — is also a kind of community with “rules”. Not a list of specific written rules to tell you what to do (veganism is a philosophy, not a doctrine, a code of conduct, or a set of policies), but rules to tell you what ‘veganism’ and ‘vegan’ mean, that tells you which activities are in alignment with the philosophy and which are not, that tells you which products are compatible with the lifestyle and which are not. Core “rules” that have very well-defined boundaries, and then grey areas that allow for more flexible interpretation. Rules that are more simple, coherent, organic, and inclusive than those to become a citizen of a nation, for instance, because they are based on following one very specific ancient principle: ahimsa. This is the Sanskrit term for “nonviolence” or “do no harm”, meaning no harming anyone who can be harmed (no matter who they are, no matter which species they belong to, no matter how much harm). A universal principle anyone can follow.
Good vegan gatekeeping is not about stopping people to try veganism — or scaring them off — but about preventing people who are trying it from watering it down for everyone — and in doing so losing its integrity and potency — while expanding the vegan community and making it more mainstream and accessible.
It should be better named “Vegan Integrity Keeping” because the vegan gatekeeper opening and closing the vegan gate of the vegan mansion is just a metaphor (one we did not choose, but those who criticised us did). No vegan is stopping anyone to try veganism or interpreting it in any way they like. No vegan is stopping any vegan to manifest their veganism as circumstances allow in each case. There is no membership card that can be revoked. There is no key or password that can be cancelled. There is no title or licence that can be nullified. Veganism is a free and accessible philosophy, lifestyle, and social movement anyone can try as they please, so nobody is really excluded from it because the fence we have been talking about is not real, just a metaphor. But ethical vegans have the right to try to keep the integrity of the concept and point out when it has been weakened or misappropriated, without fear of being criticised for standing up for veganism. This is what this article was about.
We are in the pre-vegan world. In the past, there was a carnist world where the exploitation of others was the norm, now we live in the pre-vegan world where the ahimsa principle is being spread, and in the future, we will live in the vegan world where all the current global crises will have been averted an all forms of exploitation of any sentient being will have been abolished. In this pre-vegan phase, we need to gatekeep veganism because carnism dominates, and it is trying to dilute the concept, so the vegan world does not come. But once we get to the vegan world, we would not need to do it anymore.
Good vegan gatekeeping is necessary now, but hopefully not in the future.
We all may have to do it until then, even if some find it annoying.