Gatekeeping at Black Rock City and Beyond

From Nexus: This piece was written before COVID-19 became a pandemic and the subsequent announcement about Black Rock City going virtual. In this perfect storm, we are also experiencing a moment and movement of protest and resistance against institutional and systemic oppression. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery might be the most recent, but they are not the only victims of white supremacy. Nevertheless, this period of radical disruption and change is a window that is asking us all to really dig deep into our values and, in our case, our 10 Principles.

Let’s make sure that in building a better world than the one we left behind before COVID-19, that the change IS radical and not simply slightly iterative. We have an opportunity to ask ourselves honestly: “What was working well? What could and should be working better?” When we say Radical Inclusion, it’s not enough to simply think about what we mean, but we also need to be honest if the impact matches the intent. It may not be easy, but for a community that regularly builds temporary cities and towns world-wide, I believe we’re capable of really showing the world what resiliency and inclusion could and should look like.

“Do you have any firearms or fireworks? Any drones or lasers? What about live animals or plants?”

If you’ve ever driven into Black Rock City, you are probably familiar with this line of inquiry as dusty black-clad figures scan tickets and vehicles passes. Last year I was more familiar with those questions than ever because I was one of the hundreds asking them.

It was the first time I worked Gate, which gave me insights into the important role that these “Gatekeepers” play in facilitating the safe entry of participants into Black Rock City and ensuring longer-term access to the desert we call home. It also made me reflect on the more unconscious “gatekeeping” that we sometimes do as a community.

Even as I write the word, I’m aware that “gatekeeping” is a loaded term. At its simplest, a gatekeeper explicitly controls and often limits access to something or somewhere, but gatekeeping also refers to implicit ways of policing a space or discussion, and excluding individuals or sub-communities.

My Gate Experiences

At my Gate volunteering orientation, New Blood Trainer Charlie Darling imparted the importance of our roles and responsibilities. This included caring for the event as a whole, adhering to the Special Event Permit issued by the Bureau of Land Management, and caring for each individual attendee’s experience as the first stop into Black Rock City.

The orientation focused not only on the importance of what we did but also on how we did it. Even though we aren’t Greeters, we were required to have a certain level of awareness and compassion.

As a Burner of color, I appreciated the explicit reminder that people of different identities have different experiences with similar situations: like being stopped in your car and having it searched. This is related to “the talk” that parents of color, especially Black parents, have with their young people about police encounters.

For white people, “the talk” usually refers to puberty and sex. For Black people, “the talk” has to do with being stopped by police, being instructed to be as obedient as possible and the least threatening as possible, but also knowing that even if you do everything right, there is a high risk you could still get arrested or killed.

In addition, we were asked to gauge how we interacted with arriving participants based on how our own perceived and actual identities may interact with the identities of those in the vehicles where we were digging around for items, from fireworks and firearms, to drones and lasers. This may not have changed what we said, but certainly informed HOW we said it.

For people who appeared to be white or passed for white, I played more of an authority figure part and used an in-charge tone at first, and then went from there. Not gonna lie, it was very disorienting to flip this script and to lean into the authority of Gate volunteers.

For people of color, I played more of a friend figure and used a collegial tone at first. I would generally stay there if it was their first time. And if it wasn’t their first time, I’d maybe lean into more of a “good cop” and authoritative personality because they knew what to expect.

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Explicit Gatekeeping Vs. Implicit Gatekeeping

If you read the Environmental Impact Statement, you would also know that one of the proposals from the Bureau of Land Management was for a private security firm to operate at the Gate (and at the airport). I mention this because it hadn’t really sunk in before: if Gate doesn’t do its job right, this could jeopardize the ability of Black Rock City to rise from the dust every year.

So gatekeeping, in this sense, is explicit control to ensure continued access to a space so that our city can return to it year after year.

But within our community there are often more implicit and unconscious forms of gatekeeping that restrict access to Black Rock City and jeopardize the city’s longer-term accessibility and inclusion of certain community groups.

We can bring all the intentions we want to a space, to our Burns, to Black Rock City, but unless we’re also unpacking our unconscious biases, there’s often a lot that we are unintentionally bringing as well. We often think of these Temporary Autonomous Zones as starting from a blank slate, but there is a foundation that we bring from the default world that we have to intentionally stop bringing.

Read more on diversity, Radical Inclusion and differences in the global Burning Man community in this long-form series.

When I hear some people talk about Radical Inclusion and the perceived and/or actual lack of diversity and representation, they often make the point that anyone can buy a ticket, so “all are welcome”. This is a relatively passive way to think about one of our 10 Principles. The active way of thinking about it would be “We welcome all.”

And what do we mean when we say “welcome?” I’d say that oftentimes welcome refers to an invitation that anyone is welcome to join. But being welcoming and feeling welcome means thinking about how people are welcomed to stay once they are there. Or when they leave, consider how they are welcomed to return.

What does this have to do with gatekeeping? Because if we don’t address the things that might impact people and keep them from staying, much less coming back, then saying anyone is welcome to show up will never be enough.

For example, one only has to look at the 2018 Black Rock City Census results to see the number of people who identify as and/or identified by genderfluid, both male and female, neither of the two [1.7%]; gender non-conforming [3.8%], genderqueer [2.5%], gender questioning [1.5%], two-spirit [1.3%], transperson (e.g., transgender, transexual) [0.9%]l, and/or someone with an intersex condition [0.6%].

But as gender expression and gender identity are not the same things, it was delightful to be on playa this year and hear folx share their pronouns when meeting people and introducing themselves.

When I was working Gate during one of my first shifts, I talked to two people who otherwise I would’ve identified as male and female. When I shared my name and pronouns, the latter shared her name and pronouns, the former then shared their name and THEIR pronouns.

What does sharing pronouns have to do with gatekeeping? Not sharing your pronouns reinforces a cisnormative environment that society and the media define and portray as male and female.

This implies that anyone in between, or who doesn’t fit these definitions, is invalid or not included. So if you want to practice Radical Inclusion, sharing your pronoun indicates a space and a community is inclusive for trans, gender nonconforming and non-binary people.

Leadership Can Be a Gated Community

Leadership in the nonprofit sector can be especially tricky when it comes to inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. Why is this relevant? Because we are now in the eighth year since the Burning Man organization became a  501(c)(3) nonprofit. There is a whole community of practice that is now uniquely relevant to the work of the organization and the global community it serves.

Board recruitment was something I managed for three years as a board member for a storytelling organization here in the District. This is the same nonprofit that got me hooked on the art form and inspired me to bring Burner stories to stages from DC to BRC.

We made sure to open up our recruitment process to anyone who wanted to self-nominate in our community. One major reason we did this was because we knew we’d be limiting the diversity of the candidate pool if we only recruited from those we knew directly.

The Washington DC Burner-inspired event Catharsis on the Mall has a similar public self-nomination process for the Trunk, or working board, which they instituted in the past year of its five-year history. They also have a public voting step that ensures the board is not just of the community but for the community. And I was humbled and honored to be one of the 11 members (eight of whom were new) to join the Trunk for our 2020 event.

But like I said, it’s not just the invitation to join and initial welcome that are important. The environment needs to welcome people to stay. And over the past year I’ve stepped down from two different Burner-related boards because of varying degrees of microaggressions, some subtle and some very overt. One definition of microaggressions is:

“Brief and common daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental communications, whether intentional or unintentional, that transmit hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to a target person because they belong to a stigmatized group.”

How do I know that’s what they were? As a Filipino-American and Black man, I have a lifetime of experience.

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Radical Inclusion Must Mean Racial Inclusion

So I was thrilled when I saw the petition “Radical Inclusion Must Mean Racial Inclusion launched by Que Via theme camp,” and particularly these three items:

  • Institute comprehensive anti-racism training for the entire board and staff [of Burning Man Project].
  • Make an explicit commitment to increase the attendance of people of color at the Burning Man event and develop a short and long-term implementation plan.
  • Recruit people of color to join their Board of Directors.

I found this exciting because as someone involved in the arts sector, nonprofit organizations and funding decisions, I am regularly submerged in talking about inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. The nonprofit and arts sectors nationwide have been discussing these topics for years.

When I worked at the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, I was part of the Arts Affinity Group for the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG), which produced a series of events called Putting Racism on the Table.

I’m also currently on the Grants Committee for the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, where we spent most of our day-long retreat over the summer talking about diversity, equity, access and inclusion as a granting organization and how we can look at decolonizing wealth.

Then there’s work I do on the Steering Committee for Any Given Child DC, a collective impact program led by the DC Arts and Humanities Education Collaborative, the Kennedy Center and DC Public Schools. We’ve got a pretty kick-ass Diversity, Equity and Inclusion statement I recommend folx read.

Last, I’m part of a team that’s steering the playwriting organization Welders for next three years. Here’s what we said when we were selected:

“We are excited to take on leadership and make work that they see as expanding the tapestry of DC theatre to include voices that currently are missing at most, co-opted at worst, diluted at best; and those voices are black and femme and queer and triumphant and joyful.”

So I didn’t hesitate to participate in the march/parade to take the Radical Inclusion petition from Que Viva to Everywhere, and as we approached I instigated my very first call and response, “Everywhere for Everyone.”

Because here’s what’s especially great about the petition items I highlighted above: they are great action items that leadership groups of all sizes everywhere could consider as relevant for their part in this conversation and work.

This work needs to happen not only at Burning Man Project but on the Regional level as well, particularly in terms of how much the local Burner community does or doesn’t reflect the local community itself.

In December, Burning Man Project took steps in the right direction when it brought on new board members: three out of the four appointments were people of color. This doesn’t mean the work is done but that it’s just getting started. We need to make sure that the things we bring unintentionally to spaces don’t interfere with the ability of these individuals to contribute and participate in their new leadership roles.

And just like the 10 Principles, these aren’t mandates and are not meant to be interpreted as any kind of quota. That focuses on diversity as a product and not an ongoing process, or put another way: as a goal and not a value.

Click on gallery to see photo details

Inner Gates Versus Outer Gates

This brings me back to the way we interpret Radical Inclusion itself: “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.”

We can’t truly live this Principle if we (individually and/or collectively) believe that we’re only bringing our intentions into the spaces we create, and not all the behaviors and beliefs and social programming the rest of the world is bombarding us with.

These unconscious biases that manifest through our actions and words might communicate prerequisites we don’t even realize we’re communicating: to be able to see and/or hear, to speak English, to identify as male or female and nothing else, to be white, etc.

This is why it’s not enough to simply “not be” racist; one must be actively “anti-racist.” Because no matter how much we welcome people to come into and through the physical gates, the impact of the things we do and say, regardless of our intent, is the actual gate and the ultimate barrier to Participation in our community.

Top photo by Kate Beale. 

About the author: JR "Nexus" Russ


Nexus (he/him/his) was born and raised in the traditional territory of the Pamunkey and the Piscataway, part of which many of us now call Washington, DC. He is a queer cisgender man, who practices ethical non-monogamy. He received his B.A. in dance from the University of Maryland, College Park, and went on to American University for his M.A. in Arts Management. He is devoted to the District’s creative community, including volunteering as a board member on local performing arts organizations. He is passionate about building community through the arts, and unpacking issues around diversity and equity. One way in which this has manifested has been an ongoing storytelling project, providing DC Burners opportunities to tell true stories on stage throughout Washington. Beginning in 2014, this project now has a year round presence with seasonal performances and workshops at local and regional events. Nexus is particularly dedicated to naming whiteness and dismantling white supremacy in all his endeavors. He currently also volunteers with Burning Man as one of the five Regional Contacts for Washington, DC.

13 Comments on “Gatekeeping at Black Rock City and Beyond

  • Jamal says:

    Treating white people at the gate poorly isn’t racist. It’s payback for 10,000 years of slavery and their wholesale daily slaughter of POC that they are directly responsible for. Treat white people like crap for being born racist. They all deserved to be punished at all times.

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    • RocketChair says:

      White people haven’t had slaves for almost 200 years. White people ended slavery in America. There’s Arabs buying and selling black men, as property, as slaves today, not 200 years ago, today in Libya. Wanna cry about slavery go do it in Libya.

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      • Butterscotch Bear says:

        Let’s get this out of the way first. Your definition of America’s slavery is in dire need of a refresh. Research the “school to prison pipeline,” then research “companies that use prison labor,” and get the dust out your goggles to update your definition of slavery in America.

        Then take a moment to watch Kimberly Jones’ “How Can We Win” on YouTube.

        We are lucky that black people are seek equality and not revenge.

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    • Dan Alroy - Pebble says:

      Beautiful Nexus, thank you so much for sharing your experience.

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  • Just me says:

    Payback is a loaded word. At what point does payback turn to pay it forward with out ill intent?

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  • Joseph Wisgirda says:

    And let me ask you, if you searched someone and fund entheogens -lsd, musdhrooms, dmt, etc ….. but no firearms or fireworks or anything else illegal ……. what did you do then?
    Did you march right up to the cops and turn them in, as is your “official” duty as gatekeeper.
    I saw this happen when I returned to BM in 2015 after not having been there since 2004. The two wooks in the car next to me got searched by zealous gatekeeper volunteers, what loked like a pound of mushrooms appeared and was immediately turned over to the Gerlach Sheriffs, who promptly busted and booked the wooks. I was terrified because i had a small quantity of medical cannabis with me, and thought that I would be next.
    Since when did the gatekeepers start doing the cops dirty work?
    I don’t really feel safe going back there. It’s enough to have to worry about cops and BLM, but fellow burners too?

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    • Joseph Wisgirda says:

      I won’t ever forget, it was a young girl half my age, blonde hair and glasses, could have been my daughter, who told me “Welcome Home!!” and then promptly put her grille right up in mine and told me with not just a tiny bit of smarm told me in no uncertain terms :

      “And now we are going to Search You”

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      • Xen says:

        Gate is where they send the DPW rejects. When there’s nothing else you can do effectively, they put you in charge of searching Burners’ personal property. What could go wrong? Free labor is free labor. You get what you pay for.

        I remember 2006 the Gate team I encountered were running game. Two of them had me open the gate on my boxtruck. The guysearched while the woman asked me to follow her up to the cab of the truck where she asked me a bunch senseless questions. By the time I finally got suspicious the guy came up after closing the gate on my rig. I foolishly didn’t lift it to check, and I just locked it and drove off. When I got to camp I saw that the booze was rifled and my 2 bottles of Patron were gone.

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  • Steve Truss says:

    Excellently done. As a long term gate person, I appreciate the comparison to real life.
    Thank You for sharing

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  • Douglas Habersaat says:

    I work Gates and Greeters, Airport Greeter and many other volunteer groups. When I search vehicles, every burner has a cheerful attitude. I also work in the default world as airport security and get occasional grumpy people who get annoyed that they can’t bring their chainsaw or machete as carry-on luggage. (seriously)

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  • peter durand says:

    Nexus, I appreciate the insights that my own experiences would never provide me. Good words, thoughts and threads here for me to listen to, learn from and follow. Thanks you.

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  • Dan Alroy - Pebble says:

    Beautiful Nexus, thank you so much for sharing your experience.

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  • Artifex Felix says:

    June is when I normally would be getting ready, scheduling shifts, making camp arrangements, etc. I miss the playa so much I would happily submit to a 3 hour Gate search right now. And if a bottle or two of sake went missing – whatever. Keep up the good work, Gate-keepers and all other burners. Best wishes everyone; see you in 2021.

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