Are All “Womyn” Welcome?: MichFest and the Struggle for Trans Inclusion

I was a lesbian once.

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.

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71 Responses to “Are All “Womyn” Welcome?: MichFest and the Struggle for Trans Inclusion


  1. Cora,

    “as a victim of rape, i find your statement somewhat disingenuous. TS/TG people often experience violence of this kind, but usually kill themselves or get killed before reporting it.”

    Yes, they experience rape, too–by MEN. It is men who overwhelming rape. That is why we are feminists, why we are trying to dismantle male power, why we desperately need woman-only space: because MEN are terrorizing women and girls on a global scale. And many women kill themselves, quickly or slowly, because of the sexual violence men have inflicted on us. Never mind the number of girls and women simply murdered by men. Globally, half the women alive will experience life-threatening violence at the hands of a man in her lifetime. Why do men who pretend to be women insist that they are somehow special because they have been raped? Rape is the basic condition for those of us born female. That is what turns young female human beings into women–the rape, abuse, violation, and constant threat of more. That is basic female socialization.

    So be a pro-feminist man and help us take down the gender caste system, instead of inserting yourself where you are not wanted.

    Posted by Jaye Jill | July 24, 2011, 9:19 pm
  2. You have misstated my comments and outright lied about what I said several times in your last post. You make some statement, attribute it to me, and put it in quotes. Quotes mean that’s what someone said. Stop it. Stop your manipulating and lying behavior. Stop wasting people’s time here. Stop playing with your navel. Go do something constructive with your life.

    Posted by lola | July 24, 2011, 9:57 pm
  3. >jaye jill
    again, i would not WANT to go to an event like this, it isnt for me due to my sexual orientation. i have no problem with that. i take issue with the transphobia. how many times do i have to say this? where im not wanted? heh… this is an article on the internet by someone trans who i found myself agreeing with. in the comments about the article, i noticed a bit of transphobia so i spoke against it, y’know, on the internet. i have no need to affiliate with or infiltrate an increasingly marginalized (by the more mainstream LGBT movement, y’know, for being bigoted) event such as michfest. you dont own this space (y’know, a comment thread?) any more than i do.

    the fact is, males are the perpetrators of rape in almost every case, mine included. i feel passionate about reforming the american legal and prison system, not special. do you have any idea how common this kind of thing is in prisons? how guards laugh about it and ignore, blame or even discipline victims? this kind of thing happens quite often, i hardly feel special for it. yes, i know the same kind of thing happens to females outside of prison, just substitute ‘police’ for ‘guard’ and you have an accurate description of american ‘justice’. im sure we agree that the whole system is awful.

    sorry, i dont consider myself a man, and i think global capital is a bigger threat than the gender-cast system which is one of the symptoms of the religio-corporate military-industrial complex, NOT the cause. we disagree on strategy, seemingly, and i wonder why you wont help the rest of the left fight against the CAUSES of gender-cast and patriarchy.

    hmm, we could do this forever, eh? no, im not quoting you, those were quotes by other transphobes whom i figured you would agree with, if you do not agree with them, i take it all back… tell me you disagree with anything i quoted, please. i really doubt you do. i never attributed any quotes to ANYONE. when i do, i use the following format: [“something, something”; -somebody@url]. telling me to conform to some particular writing style? i prefer not to conform, thanks all the same.

    you dont like my style of rhetoric, do you? rhetoric is art. i dont like your anti-scientific pro-transphobia attitude. it seems we are at an impasse. all discourse is manipulation and nobody is innocent of it. if you state that transwomen are pretending and not ‘really’ women, then i think YOU are lying. medical science states quite the opposite.

    you are a transphobe in the eyes of most TS/TG people.

    you believe that there is no biological justification for transsexuals.

    you think we transwomen are enemies of feminism and that we are a mockery of everything you believe.

    NONE of those statements is a lie, so tell me, what lies have i told?

    i view anything i do to contribute to the dialectic as constructive, it is the only way to resolve it.

    Posted by cora | July 24, 2011, 11:20 pm
  4. EDIT:
    [this is an article on the internet by someone pro-trans who i found myself agreeing with.]


    Posted by cora | July 24, 2011, 11:22 pm
  5. It’s breeders who are the real enemy, not trannies. This conversation is dumb.

    Posted by Temara Bobbitt | July 24, 2011, 11:46 pm
  6. >temara
    why are breeders the enemy? can you explain this? i havent heard this articulated as a major problem by anyone.

    Posted by cora | July 25, 2011, 2:38 am
  7. Fuck it. I’m very inclined to let people segregate however they want to. Shit’s bound for the backwaters anyway. Haters gonna hate. Seriously internets these peeps are the ass end of the joke by now.

    Why would a trans person want to hang out at an Aryan Nations camp for a week? Fucking beats me.

    There are plenty of people who are under the age of 30 who are down with transfolks out here in civilization. Shit gets better when bigots die off.

    Posted by Summer | July 25, 2011, 4:09 am
  8. “The “blowjobs” comment says it all. When are the women who support these men going to wake up and smell the rape? They are men. They feel entitled to women’s space, women’s bodies, women’s lives. They refuse to hear no just like men everywhere. Goddess forbid women draw a boundary and say no to men. Gender is not a binary and it’s not biological–it’s profoundly political and also known as patriarchy. The whole point of women’s liberation was to dismantle the gender-caste system–NOT to better to conform to it via drugs and mutilating surgeries. Wse your brains, people.

    Posted by Jaye Jill | July 24, 2011, 11:31 am ”


    Posted by Summer | July 25, 2011, 4:24 am
  9. Isn’t Michfest the ONLY event that is NOT trans* inclusive?

    I just don’t understand why it isn’t okay for women and girls who were born FEMALE and continue to *identify* as female to have one damn week to themselves without ANY concern for/about people with penises who may or MAY NOT be attending.

    Seriously, you men can’t even just let us have THAT? Selfish dicks.

    Posted by LaurieA | July 25, 2011, 12:18 pm
  10. >lauriea
    we arent men, and you are being transphobic calling us that. like i said several times, i am not a lesbian and wouldnt go to an event of this kind, even if it wasnt full of bigots and instead accepted transsexual attendees. i am commenting here for the express purpose of decrying the transphobia articulated by other commentators. since you bring up the subject of people who may or may not be attending who may or may not have some male anatomy, let me inform you that some of us who transitioned before puberty are pretty much indistinguishable without a strip search. some of us who have had surgery would pass a strip search, as a matter of fact. maybe you can have a genetic scientist as a gatekeeper? good luck finding a sympathetic one, i hear they are generally scientifically minded.

    Posted by cora | July 25, 2011, 7:55 pm
  11. I have been married to my wife (a transwoman who I was with before her operations) for almost a decade now, and I can guarantee you we know what oppression feels like. (Lost jobs, very serious death threats, people acting as if we are evil personified, and discrimination of all kinds. I would actually say being a male gay couple where I came from was worse then the discrimination women face, my wife agrees and she has a bit of a unique perspective since she passes very well. I at least took a dozen beating growing up just for being who I was, I even had people throw things at me from cars when I was eating once.)

    I’m saddened by how much sexism and bigotry is perpetrated against men and transwomen by certain elements in the feminist community. How about transcending the hate, instead of being yet again another part of it? It really doesn’t do much for your arguments regarding equality when my wife is one of the first people to be thrown under a bus and treated as a second class citizen for who she is.

    Imagine 50 years ago and an illustrator (with a male sounding name) sends her work into Disney. Everything goes well, several letters are exchanged, they are impressed with her work and pay for her travel to the studio. Upon learning she is a woman, not only is she treated like a second class citizen, but they are ANGRY. How dare she trick them into spending money on someone so obviously unable to work because of her ‘condition’.

    Now think how little difference there is between that and a group of ‘womyn’ respecting my wife until they learn she was born a man. Then it’s all resentment, disdain, and hatred…

    If your answer to bigotry is just more bigotry, you have proven yourself to be no better then the people oppressing you.

    Posted by Mywifeisawomantoo | July 31, 2011, 9:28 am
  12. Thank you for post. Your are dead on. I agree with you.
    Any way you slice it prejudice is prejudice. I’ve read long boring rambling WBW essays about this topic and frankly to me its nothing more than intellectualizing and rationalizing trans-phobia and hatred. The thing that kills me is it is coming from the left. To me, these WBW fanatics are no different than their offensive Christian right counterparts. I also believe it is pointless to argue this WBW entrance policy because it is nothing but hot hair. It cannot be enforced because the day MichFest starts panty checking its guests is the day it will be shut down. That might not be a bad thing.

    Posted by Never Camping There Again | August 9, 2011, 7:19 pm
  13. I’m sorry. I don’t agree that “transwomen” are my “sisters”. I’m sorry women are being FORCED to see trans “women” as their “sisters”. I’m so tired of the post-modern Queer Theory agenda. My support is for a women’s only space. A womyn born womyn’s only space. Slag all you want. Womyn deserve that space. Camp Trans can have their own darn music fest.

    Posted by JustLilOlMe | August 29, 2011, 3:52 pm
  14. Transsexuality has not a thing to do with ‘queer theory’. You are confusing transsexual (a medical condition) with the transgender community (a *supposed* collective political agenda that likes to pretend it is the same thing).

    Why don’t you get a clue before you start discriminating people rather than stubbornly insisting on the same hate that has been fostered since the early 1970’s. We didn’t start this, YOUR side did.

    Now you want to pretend like we’re ‘forcing’ you to do anything. Please! You are no victim when you are busy victimizing others at the expense of your personal comfort. Much of this started based upon your end victimizing transsexuals.

    I’m so tired of lesbian feminists playing at being an oppressor of others while they piss and moan about being oppressed.

    Posted by Amberdextrix | September 1, 2011, 5:10 am
  15. Side note: What *would* be fair is asking somebody if they agree or identify with the transgender community. That would be exclusion based on disagreement with their political grounds, not because the person themselves is different in a way that they cannot help. When you do the former, it is a justified disagreement with their conflicting ideology; the latter could only be called discrimination.

    Posted by Amberdextrix | September 1, 2011, 5:20 am


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