When I first learned about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, I was into it. I wanted to go bare-chested in the woods with my Sisters, attend drum circles, process my oppression, and meet some hot dykes. Though the sound of Holly Near’s guitar strings still makes me weak, I’ve changed my tune.
In two weeks, thousands of women will convene in Hart, Michigan for the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Coinciding with the full moon every August, this week-long feminist music fest is fully organized and staffed by women with the promise of providing a healing environment “where we can feel most whole and most truly ourselves.” This year’s festival goers will witness performances by the likes of C.C. Carter and Melissa Ferrick, eat communally-prepared vegetarian meals, and attend workshops on everything from Butch yoga to breast-casting. Festival organizers will take great care to ensure that all kinds of “womyn” feel welcome by providing a “Womyn of Color-only” space, a Disabled Access Resource Team, and “chemical-free/ scent-free” camping areas for festival goers with allergies.
But if you’re looking for a sign that reads, “Transgender Women Are Welcome Here,” you won’t find one.
In 1991 a transgender woman named Nancy Jean Burkholder was forcibly removed from “the Land” by MichFest security. For readers who need a quick Gender 101, “transgender” is an umbrella term encompassing those who do not conform to the gender they were assigned at birth. Nancy Jean, assigned male at birth, identified as a woman (or in this case, as a “womYn”), and her removal from the “womyn’s” festival sparked an ongoing debate about the boundaries of “womyn-only” spaces.
For a while, festival organizers and some MichFest attendees wanted to keep womyn like Nancy Jean out. They argued that “men in dresses” were offensive to the feminist movement. Some even argued that potential presence of a penis might be triggering for women who were expecting a “vaginas-only” kind of event. Eventually, festival organizers issued a statement regarding a “womyn-born-womyn” policy that made MichFest open only to those assigned female at birth and raised as women. Since the adoption of the policy, an active protest movement has sprung up around the festival. Opposition has included festival-goers wearing yellow armbands to show their support for trans inclusion and Camp Trans, an annual trans-inclusive protest camp that takes place across the road from MichFest.
Some MichFest performers have come out against the policy, stating their support for trans inclusion on stage or on their websites or refusing to play at the festival altogether. Before the 2004 MichFest, slam poet Alix Olson, who has performed at the festival for the past several years, issued a statement about her complicated feelings around the policy:
And, what then, is the category of ‘womyn,’ in general, if not simply ‘the mass political/sociological group identification result of past and present enforced biological determinism regarding vagina-ism?’ If not based on enforced treatment of ‘vagina’d people,’ would there even be such a thing as ‘woman?’ If so/ if not, what does it mean to be a trans-woman? To call myself a woman?
Olson asks an important question about how we define the experience of being a woman. Supporters of the “womyn-born-womyn” policy have argued that the policy aims to bring together those who have grown up experiencing misogyny, who says that transwomen don’t experience misogyny too? I have seen transwomen talked over and harassed on the street. I know transwomen who face unemployment and economic disadvantage because of their gender. I have heard transwomen called the very same names that are thrown at cisgender (non-transgender) women every day and more.
By questioning how some folks might be excluded from a politically identified group, Olson hits a sore spot that has troubled women in the feminist movement for decades. Remember the Lavender Menace? In 1969, Betty Freidan, author of The Feminine Mystique and president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), argued that lesbians were a threat to the feminist movement. Freidan and other straight women involved in NOW attempted to distance themselves from lesbian causes – including omitting the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian feminist group, from the list of sponsors of the First Congress to Unite Women. Ouch.
So have the predominantly lesbian-identified women behind MichFest looked back on women’s history and changed their tune? The current policy seems to be a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. In 2006, organizer Lisa Vogel asked transwomen to “respect the womyn-only space” and stay away from the festival, yet I’ve heard about transwomen who “pass” purchasing tickets without a problem. But what about transfolk who don’t “pass” as women? Shouldn’t anyone who identifies with the experience of being a woman be able to attend MichFest? What about transmen who were born as socialized as female? And what about the non-binary transgender and genderqueer folks who feel connected to the womyn’s struggle?
The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is not the only case in which gender self-determination has been ignored, but it provides a glaring example of how marginalized communities can alienate their own. For those of you who plan to attend MichFest this year, I’m not asking you to stay home and mope in your sweltering Chicago apartments. But if you go, I ask you to be vocal about trans inclusion. Tell the women you meet that you don’t support the “womyn-born-womyn” policy. Attend the workshop discussion about trans allies. Pay a visit to Camp Trans.
Most importantly, while you’re learning Amazon archery or getting some action in a fern grove, don’t forget that transwomen are your Sisters in the struggle.