The backstory: The infamous Michigan Womyn’s Musical Festival is a much beloved multi-day festival that has been held for decades in Hart, Michigan. It also has a controversial “womyn-born-womyn” (WBW) policy that often excludes transgender women from entering “the land.” Trans allies actively protest and many major acts, including Andrea Gibson and the Indigo Girls, have started distancing themselves from the event due to the policy. But festival founder Lisa Vogel claims that the exclusion of transwomen is not inherently transphobic and attendees are vocally divided on the issues. What do you think?
Our goal in sharing these perspectives is to encourage conversation within the community that might help heal our differences. The views expressed herein are that of the author and not necessarily that of Lesbian.com
BY BEVIN BRANLANDINGHAM
**The title of this post is a riff on the lyrics of the Michfest theme song written by Max Feldman.
A few weeks ago I was asked to emcee a community event that centers around inclusion of all bodies in a queer context. About a week later I was asked by one of the organizers not to emcee because they were afraid that publically aligning themselves with me would make trans women not feel welcome at the event. “You advocate for people to go to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival” they said to me.
I was surprised and hurt that this happened. An important part of my core value system is that I believe all bodies are good bodies. I feel especially moved to do work that celebrates people whose bodies are maligned in our culture–fat bodies, dis/abled bodies, bodies of color, sex worker bodies, older bodies, trans bodies and non-normative bodies of all permutations. Attacking one body is attacking all bodies. The events I produce I intend to be body positive for all. The writing I publish is meant to empower all bodies. It’s sad to think that anyone thinks that the spaces I’m in or create are not safe for trans womyn because I believe trans womyn should be welcome at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I believe it and I’m an outspoken proponent for inclusion, both in the intention around organizing as well as performers on stages and brought into the community fully. I think it will only make the Festival stronger and better and more wonderful.
I’m going to back up a little bit here, because not everyone knows the controversy surrounding the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. For some background about the controversy and how I feel about the intention around organizing, read Towards a Spiritual Definition of Wymhood, where I advocate for a non-medical definition of womyn. I also want to point folks to the Trans Womyn Belong Here Visioning Statement for an Inclusive Michfest, which was written collectively in May of this year following the letter from Lisa Vogel.
I’m actively part of organizing with TWBH, which includes several trans womyn. All members either attend, might attend or used to attend the Festival. A core value alignment is that we love and appreciate the Festival and believe trans womyn should be included in the organizing principle.
In March I published a post trying to get folks who want to work for trans inclusion to attend the Festival (which is I believe the post the folks who asked me not to emcee were referring to). There’s obvious activist burn-out in this community and we need more help and voices. The more people who no longer attend Festival because the intention around organizing doesn’t line up with their values, the more homogenous the voices at Festival and the more it loses the diversity that makes it stronger.
After I published my piece, there was a renewed call to performers of the Festival to boycott the Festival. A few performers backed out of the line-up, including Andrea Gibson and Nona Hendryx, who felt they couldn’t support the Festival by attending and chose to join the boycott. A small handful of performers, most notably the headliners Indigo Girls, released statements that spoke in support of trans inclusion at the Festival, but also noted support for the Festival itself. They will speak for trans inclusion from the stage and will decline to perform again after this year.
Additionally, many artists who were not called on in the petition to boycott declined to participate in the Festival because of the intention around organizing. Courtney Trouble declined an invitation to screen a film.
After these public statements by artists, Lisa Vogel, the founder and owner of the Festival released a letter to the community. (Because I couldn’t find the letter on the official Michfest website, I republished the letter as a static page on my site here as I received it in an email.) Her letter has been interpreted in a lot of different ways by a lot of different people. It’s interesting the more time that has gone on since Lisa published a Letter to the Community how many different perceptions about her words I’ve heard. Some people read it and hear “No way no how no trans womyn ever.” Some people, including myself, read it really differently.
I genuinely believe it was a step forward from her previous statement in 2006. I believe it was an invitation to continue this dialogue–the biggest we’ve ever gotten from Lisa directly. She said while we haven’t changed the intention yet we are still talking about it. And I want to point out the line where she says specifically, “The onus is on each individual to choose whether or how to respect that intention.” I don’t respect the intention, but I do love an appreciate what this Festival has done for me as a person in so many ways.
I mean, I know Lisa Vogel. I know her well enough to believe her best intentions and to believe that when she says she’s listening she is. I’ve been in meetings with her and seen her listening to all sides of the issue. I know she is working to protect a community that is important to her and she wants to feel that the community is ready to move forward. It’s a giant bummer to think that this community that she’s drawing from is becoming increasingly more homogenous as people who believe trans womyn should be included feel more burn-out and disillusionment and stop coming to be part of the community.
I also totally understand why people think that there’s absolutely no moving forward based on Lisa’s letter. I can see that perspective, though I don’t agree with it.
I’ve done a lot of soul-searching on this issue. I literally think about this every day. What it comes down to for me, as in all things, is whether or not what I am doing is in alignment with my values.
I believe trans womyn are womyn. Period. I also believe this Festival is an important part of our living herstory, there are so many things that are available through this gathering that don’t happen anywhere else. I’ve been part of this community for over a dozen years and I consider them my family. I don’t want to walk away from my family while we’re having this conflict, I want to make sure my voice is heard and I want to bring forward the voices of trans womyn.
There are still trans womyn who attend the Festival and Trans Womyn Belong Here provides scholarships to trans womyn to attend Festival to ensure their voices are not silenced in the conflict. There are still trans womyn who want to attend the Festival. (There are also lots of trans womyn who don’t want to attend and who are tired of hearing about this issue.) I want to continue the work until I no longer believe that change is possible. I want to stand in solidarity with the trans womyn who are at the Festival and want to come. That’s what my value system leads me to.
Change comes from a lot of places, it comes from people choosing not to attend the Festival. It comes from people choosing to attend and have dialogues. It comes from people doing what is right for them and there isn’t just one way to go about changing something. I support people who want to boycott the Festival if that is what makes sense to them. There are people who have attended for many years who can’t participate any longer because the conflict itself is too much to bear.
People call Festival a healing place. For me it’s a place of growth and centering. I am challenged to do new things and I’m confronted with a huge conflict. I hate conflict! I want to run and hide from it. But I know I’m not on this earth to hide. I know I’m not here to run from things that are uncomfortable. I believe in the transformative power of connection.
I think this conflict is solvable because I know how similar both sides on this issue are. If there are thirty dominant political beliefs that we all agree on but it’s one that we don’t, I think it’s something that can be resolved. I think the conflict is particularly uncomfortable for everyone right now because it’s coming to a head–this is what change feels like.
Marianne Williamson said on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday “Younger people know more about things that change, older people know more about things that don’t change.” I’ve learned so much from the intergenerational aspects of the Festival, but this conflict seems to drive our lesbian elders farther and farther from the younger queer community. Festival is an amazing space that fosters this intergenerational interaction like nowhere else I’ve been and I think it’s crucial to maintain a space that has so much herstory and to continue to grow and adapt to further generations.
Separatist space is an important part of my life. I feel like this place is particularly centering for me because it is a womyn-centered space. I grew up going to Girl Scout camp, it’s empowering to be in a space that is only womyn. It’s a wonderful, positive, caring community. I want this space to be as loving and welcoming to all womyn. Honestly, I have more in common with most of the trans womyn I know than someone who has always felt entitled to her womanhood–especially folks who were raised middle class or wealthy or thin. I spent most of my adolescence beating back huge parts of my personality and self-expression because I didn’t feel like I had agency over my femininity or womanhood. Michfest helped me learn how to step into who I am as an empowered woman, but I have that battle for womanhood in common with many trans womyn and we got here in different ways. They are an important part of the diaspora of womynhood that should be represented on the land.
And because I didn’t feel born into womanhood, because I feel I had to fight my way into it, I don’t identify as a woman born woman. I don’t attend the festival as a woman born woman, I attend it as a woman who fought to get into her body and does hard work every day to step into her power.
It has bothered me for quite some time that the festival advertising and materials do not include the intention clearly stated. When I was 22 and considering my attendance at the Festival, I was post-Women and Gender Studies degree and was lucky enough to have professors who taught the Kate Bornstein school of gender. I knew that trans women were women at that time and I still believe without a shred of doubt that their womanhood is just as legitimate as mine is.
It’s not the Michigan Womyn Born Womyn’s Music Festival. It’s a womyn’s festival. And the intention around organizing isn’t clear from the festival advertising. If I had realized in 2001 that the Festival excluded trans womyn, I probably would not have chosen to attend. I wouldn’t have gone and wouldn’t have learned how much that space could do for me, fuel me and feed me so that I could go back out into the world and do the work I do. But I did go. It continues to fuel me. And I don’t want to walk away from it while I believe there is work to be done to expand the intention around womynhood.
I wanted to write this piece because I want to clarify that I believe all bodies are good bodies. It was hard to be asked not to emcee a show because people understand my politics in a way I don’t intend. But it helped me remember that people just see black and white about this issue–I attend Festival and therefore they don’t wait to hear my politics about it. I wanted to make sure people who read this know why I continue to choose to attend, continuing to work towards a goal I know a lot of folks have given up on.
I was asked by Lisa Vogel to help facilitate a workshop over several days of the Festival talking about the conflict. I’m looking forward to working with people who have different views than I do about trans womyn’s inclusion. I’m looking forward to working towards healing and resolution because I still believe it is possible.
If you are at the Festival this summer, please attend the workshop series “Loving Allies in Understanding.” I will also likely have some TWBH schwag on my person (or know where to get some) so please come see me! I work at the Box Office by the front gate and when not at work am found roaming downtown.
If you’re not attending Michigan this summer because you have decided to participate in the boycott, here is a tumblr for folks who are homesick for Michfest.
Here are some more writings I’ve done on the issue of trans womyn’s inclusion at Michfest and Michfest itself:
Originally published by QueerFatFemme.com
Bevin Branlandingham is your femmecee at QueerFatFemme.com where she chronicles the relentless pursuit of her joy.
In considering the amount of vitriol seen on discussion boards about MichFest, Lesbian.com is moderating comments in hopes of enabling dialogue without attacks. Hate speech of any kind, including misgendering of transwomen, will not be tolerated. Please civilly discuss your ideas, freely but kindly, in the comments below or on our message boards.