Everyone wants to talk about MichFest

By , May 2, 2013 4:08 pm

TheMichfest PosterMichigan Women’s Music Festival (often called Michfest) describes itself thusly:

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if women ran the world? We think about it, but how often do we get to experience it? Imagine a town conceived, planned, structured and operated entirely by womyn.

First conceived in the hot feminist politics of the mid-70s, consciously developed through four decades of female ingenuity, feminist process, queer sensibility and dyke vision, the Festival has become an enduring and beloved incarnation of women’s imagination and spirit.

Michfest is known throughout queer, feminist, and women-empowered spaces as THE women’s-only cultural event. It’s almost 40 years old (founded in 1976 by Lisa Vogel, who still runs it today) and the Fest comes out of a culture of feminism, anti-racism, diversity, collectivism, and community experience. It’s certainly not an exclusively lesbian space, but (not surprisingly) it has a large lesbian culture and is often seen as part and parcel of the larger US lesbian experience or community. Sounds awesome, right? I’m a huge fan of intentional communities, and of coming together for artistic expression.

Oh, they also specifically forbid trans women from attending.

Forgive me for detouring into a history lesson before I get to my own thoughts on Michfest.

A Brief History Lesson

Camp Trans

Camp Trans

Attention to the “womyn-born-womyn” policy, as Michfest calls it, has ebbed and flowed over the years. On and off from the mid-90s until 2006, Camp Trans existed as a space outside of Michfest, a counter-camp, to highlight Michfest’s policies and allow a venue for trans artists, activists, and allies to come together in solidarity. Camp Trans mostly disolved in 2006, citing victory (even though Vogel maintained Michfest as a “womyn-born womyn” space) but continuing protests and counter protests have sprung up and died off since then.

Then, this past spring, awesome and amazing trans comedian Red Durkin posted a petition to Change.org. It called for the musicians who perform at Michfest to boycott the festival until its policies are changed. It called upon all musicians, but specifically mentioned the Indigo Girls and other major female groups as part of its effort. The petition reads, in part:

We are asking you, as a musician, and as a person who believes in the dignity and equality of all women, to stand in solidarity with transgender women and our allies and to not attend or perform at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival until Lisa Vogel and the other organizers fully and openly welcome all self-identified women.

Not surprisingly, this petition has reinvigorated both sides of the Michfest debate and, more broadly, how or if to include trans women in women’s-only spaces. Then, on April 5, the Indigo Girls released a letter on their Facebook page in support of Durkin’s efforts. The Indigo Girls will live up to their commitment to play at Michfest 2013, but:

“we honor the current protest against MWMF and hope that it will help move the community towards change. Any money that we make playing the Festival will go towards Trans Activism. We will make a statement from stage at the Festival in support of Trans Inclusion. We have made it clear that this will be our last time at the Festival until MWMF shows visible and concrete signs of changing their intention.”

Finally, Lisa Vogel weighed in. I’m including her full open letter at the bottom of this post, because I can only find it on people’s blogs and don’t want to link to a source that may disappear. A few excerpts:

I reject the assertion that creating a time and place for WBW to gather is inherently transphobic.  This is a false dichotomy and one that prevents progress and understanding.

I passionately believe the healing in our community will occur when we unconditionally accept transwomyn as womyn while not dismissing or disavowing the lived experience and realities of the WBW gender identity. Sadly, the extreme voices on this issue have driven much of the discussion, and the aggressive rhetoric leaves little room for building the alliances that are critical to everyone’s survival, growth and integrity.

We must find ways to be allies in this discussion.  I know that for some, WBW space seems flatly incompatible with honoring and supporting transwomyn within the larger womyn’s communities.  Regardless, we must listen to those who believe in the power of every womon’s voice, and commit to stay in a process with open hearts, open minds, and abiding respect even when that conversation gets incredibly hard.  Space for WBW and a true solidarity with the trans community can and does co-exist.

So now you’re caught up. Across the Internet, trans folks are weighing in, cis folks are weighing in, and everyone is arguing. The Advocate acknowledged the fight (while entirely dodging the question of how or if trans people should be incorporated into Michfest; way to actually be an advocate, Advocate), cis women have argued on both sides of the issues, and on and on. Now it’s my turn.

Trans Women Are Women. The end.

The fundamental debate comes down to this: are trans women “really” women, or not? Put another way, which of these is accurate:

Where "all women" and "all trans people" overlap, "trans women" exist

Where “all women” and “all trans people” overlap, “trans women” exist

Or is it this?

 

"All Women" is an entirely separate category from "All trans people," and there is no overlap

“All Women” is an entirely separate category from “All trans people,” and there is no overlap

Neither of these diagrams is perfect, but they show two distinct mindsets of how the trans community can and is viewed. Obviously (at least, I hope it’s obvious) I think the first diagram is mostly accurate. Again, it’s not perfect, but it reflects that people (myself, for example) can both be a trans person and a woman. Semantically, trans is an adjective modifier on my identity as a whole. So is woman. So is Jewish, and geek, and Chicagoan, and daughter, and sister, a whole host of other identities I wear. None of them are all of me, but each of them are a part of me.

I strongly suspect Vogel is somewhere in the second camp. Why? Because her open letter contained phrases like this (emphasis added):

The Festival, for a single precious week, is intended for womyn who at birth were deemed female, who were raised as girls, and who identify as womyn. I believe that womyn-born womyn (WBW) is a lived experience that constitutes its own distinct gender identity… Our intention has always been coupled with the radical commitment to never question any womon’s gender.

Alas, Lisa, your intention is ad odds with your “commitment to never question any woman’s gender.” Because, ultimately, what Vogel is saying seems to boil down to:

  1. Biology is destiny (being born as a biological woman means something above and beyond identity)
  2. Socialization is destiny (being raised as a woman means something above and beyond identity)
  3. Identity is a distant third

These combine into the following worldview: Biology, coupled with socialization, is destiny. Identity factors into it, but those two other components win when identity and biology/socialization are at odds.

Another quote (again, emphasis added):

I reject the assertion that creating a time and place for WBW to gather is inherently transphobic.  This is a false dichotomy and one that prevents progress and understanding.  I believe in the integrity of autonomous space used to gather and celebrate for any group, whether that autonomous space is defined by age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, gender, class or any other identity.

I reject that the earth orbits the sun. Alas, my rejection has little to do with the reality of the situation. In my mind, treating trans women as a fundamentally different and distinct gender than cis women is so clearly transphobia that I’m not sure what Vogel means when she uses the word.

Likewise, what does “raised as girls” (from the earlier passage) mean? I – as a trans woman – was subject to all the same magazines and commercials and movies and subtle societal messages about what it means to be a woman as any cis woman was. Yes, they were filtered differently because I was perceived to be male. I’m not going to pretend there isn’t a difference there. But I can’t understand how someone who presumably labels herself as a feminist can also claim that socialization is so fundamental to gender as to supersede identity itself.

This should be offensive to trans men, too. Trans men often get grandfathered (pun slightly intended) into inclusion in lesbian spaces. There are valid and understandable historical and social reasons for that. (Very broadly, the lesbian community has historically be accepting of butch/masculine presentations of women, and many trans men spent time within the lesbian community before transitioning.) But if a space is trying to label itself as “women only,” that should leave out trans men. And yet, Vogel’s argument about socialization and biology determining what a “real” woman is would seem to include trans men, whether or not they want to be labeled as part of the “womyn-born-womyn” community.

One last quote from Lisa:

We must find ways to be allies in this discussion.  I know that for some, WBW space seems flatly incompatible with honoring and supporting transwomyn within the larger womyn’s communities.  Regardless, we must listen to those who believe in the power of every womon’s voice, and commit to stay in a process with open hearts, open minds, and abiding respect even when that conversation gets incredibly hard.  Space for WBW and a true solidarity with the trans community can and does co-exist.

(At least Vogel is self-aware enough to acknowledge that some people will “flatly” disagree with her…)

I try to live my life assuming good intent on behalf of the people around me. I don’t think Vogel is running Michfest as a WBW space specifically to hurt trans people. But when she starts to say that true solidarity can exist while also attempting to hold “transwomyn” as separate-but-equal as womyn-born-womyn, I can no longer see ground for respectful disagreement. More specifically, Vogel is telling the trans community (and specifically trans women) who we are and what we need. I dont’ get to be an arbiter on racism, and Vogel doesn’t get to be an arbiter when it comes to transphobia. There can still be reasonable disagreements about what those terms mean, but when an entire community says “Hey, this is an act of bigotry,” it seems incredibly presumptuous, offensive, and disrespectful to response, “Nu uh!”

All of which is to say that, as far as I’m concerned, Lisa can take Michfest and go jump in the lake. Good riddance.

Lisa Vogel’s Letter to the Community

On March 28, an activist named Red Durkin posted a petition on Change.org asking artists and attendees to boycott the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival until organizers fully and openly welcome all self-identified women.  This petition has intensified a long-running debate about and within the Festival, a debate that has often included intense misrepresentations about the political heart of this gathering.  There is no doubt that complex political debate is healthy and necessary within our communities; however, a boycott, within this context, fails to advance resolution and only seeks to exact damage.  As the Festival’s producer for her full 38 years, I write today to clarify the festival’s herstory, intention and my desire for understanding within our communities, as well as to clarify where I stand on these issues.

I have listened, I have talked, I have struggled, and I will continue to do so. I do not fear our differences.  But I do fear the harm being done to the space held so dear by so many – the space known around the world as “Michigan” – by the way this conflict is playing out.  And thus I hope you will consider what I have to say with an open heart and open mind, as I pledge to continue to listen to the diversity of voices in this struggle.

Why We Gather
The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is a soulful gathering of womyn from all over the world, created 38 years ago during the height of feminist organizing.  Built from the ground up by womyn’s innovation and womyn’s labor, filled with art, performance, play and discourse – we live together for a week in the woods and create community as we know it in no other form.  There’s freedom on that land that womyn living under patriarchy rarely touch; freedom to walk in the woods at night alone without fear; to be clothed or not clothed depending solely on comfort and personal style and without judgment; to move and work and play and love without the socio-cultural constraints that uniquely push down on all womyn, all the time.  For these reasons, Michigan remains vital and vibrant even though countless other institutions from that burst of consciousness are gone.  For these reasons, there’s no real debate about the value of the Festival – it is precisely why passions run so strong on all sides of this issue.

When we started Festival 38 years ago, we did so to make a home and a space where we could grow our own definition of female identity.  At the time, the mere idea of a female identity autonomous of male identity was revolutionary.  Over the course of nearly four decades, we have continued to discover, (re)define and live out what it means to be womon-identified and to recognize and honor diverse gender expression among womyn.  Every August we do the work of growing into a community inclusive and meaningful for womyn from diverse class and cultural experiences, different abilities and ages – a community alive with a value system grown from the core of radical feminism.  Over time, some clear collective values have emerged:  communal cooperation; a willingness to show up and listen; an ethos of love, compassion, and active care for others; an undercurrent of strength and fierce resiliency; and a commitment to remain teachable.  These values are the foundation of the Michigan community.  These values reflect the intention of the space.

About the Intention
The Festival, for a single precious week, is intended for womyn who at birth were deemed female, who were raised as girls, and who identify as womyn. I believe that womyn-born womyn (WBW) is a lived experience that constitutes its own distinct gender identity.

As we struggle around the question of inclusion of transwomyn at the festival, we use the word intention very deliberately.  Michigan holds this particular lived experience of womanhood as honorable, meaningful, unique and rich.  Our intention has always been coupled with the radical commitment to never question any womon’s gender.  We ask the greater community to respect this intention, and to value the complexity and validity of every gender identity, including that of WBW.  The onus is on each individual to choose whether or how to respect that intention.

Rejecting Transphobia
I reject the assertion that creating a time and place for WBW to gather is inherently transphobic.  This is a false dichotomy and one that prevents progress and understanding.  I believe in the integrity of autonomous space used to gather and celebrate for any group, whether that autonomous space is defined by age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, gender, class or any other identity.  Whatever spaces we carve out in our community to encourage healing and rejuvenation should be accepted, and we should support each other in this endeavor.  Nobody should be asked to erase the need for autonomous spaces to demonstrate that they are sisters in struggle.

Clearly, our community struggles with the wide-ranging opinions that have formed around this question.  Womyn who love the Festival deeply have intense feelings on all sides of this issue.  There have been a great many good, loving and smart discussions between womyn who profoundly disagree, and there have been disrespectful and dehumanizing behaviors on both sides of the debate that demean all of our feminist political ideals. We all must stand up against hate speech, harassment and threats in any form, against any individual and against all of our communities.

I passionately believe the healing in our community will occur when we unconditionally accept transwomyn as womyn while not dismissing or disavowing the lived experience and realities of the WBW gender identity. Sadly, the extreme voices on this issue have driven much of the discussion, and the aggressive rhetoric leaves little room for building the alliances that are critical to everyone’s survival, growth and integrity.

We must find ways to be allies in this discussion.  I know that for some, WBW space seems flatly incompatible with honoring and supporting transwomyn within the larger womyn’s communities.  Regardless, we must listen to those who believe in the power of every womon’s voice, and commit to stay in a process with open hearts, open minds, and abiding respect even when that conversation gets incredibly hard.  Space for WBW and a true solidarity with the trans community can and does co-exist.

Our Commitment to Each Other, My Commitment to You 

The extreme positions being repeated, stoked, and disseminated on the internet do not represent the complex wholeness of the Festival voice, and they overshadow the more measured communication that will heal this divide.  I call to each one of us to approach this issue in the purest example of sisterhood, to wrestle with the extremely difficult questions of our relationships with one another, and to do so always with compassion and abiding respect.

I commit to promote, foster and participate in continuing discussion on and off the land in hopes that we can all move towards greater understanding of each other’s perspectives.  I will, however, turn my focus away from the destructive voices that do not seek progress, but only stoke division.  As Festival works to survive and thrive into her fifth decade, I will do everything in my power to ensure that she continues as something beautiful, more complex than ever and yet true to the principles that spurred me to start this celebration in the first place.  

I invite you to join me on this ongoing journey.

Lisa Vogel
MWMF founder

3 Responses to “Everyone wants to talk about MichFest”

  1. […] have continued to tell us that supporting Michfest is hurtful. Chicago performer Rebecca Kling wrote a brilliant piece on the issue last month. Miranda Bellwether, creator of the zine Fucking Trans Women, has also […]

  2. […] have continued to tell us that supporting Michfest is hurtful. Chicago performer Rebecca Kling wrote a brilliant piece on the issue last month. Miranda Bellwether, creator of the zine Fucking Trans Women, has also […]

Leave a Reply

Panorama Theme by Themocracy