Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Michfest cuts right through to your heart

The Michigan Womyn's Festival is calling it a day after 40 years.  For many, Michfest is the epitome of Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism.  The eviction of Nancy Burkholder in 1991 sparked protests which have continued to this day.
"She said that MWMF policy was that the festival was open to “natural, women-born-women” only. I replied that nowhere, in any festival literature or the program guide was that policy stated. I asked Chris to please verify that policy and she went to the office to contact the festival producers, Lisa Vogel and Boo Price.
Del stated that the reason the policy was not in any literature was because the issue of transsexuals had never come up as a problem before. Del added that the policy was for the benefit of the transsexuals’ safety and the safety of the women attending the festival. When I pointed out that there were other transsexuals on the land she acknowledged that this was true. Then she added, ‘We haven’t caught them yet, but we did catch you.”
I went to Michfest in the early 1990s in my early 20s, and it was beautiful.  Camping on forested wild land.  Music, workshops, arts, crafts.  Ten thousand women dancing under the stars.

I heard Melissa Ferrick and Phranc and Sweet Honey in the Rock.  Learnt salsa dancing with naked women.  Enjoyed workshops on racism, non-monogamy, writing and s/m.  Talked to women from all over the world about sexism and gender politics and queer life and violence.  Kissed some cute queer girls.  Asked Alison Bechdel to sign one of her books.  Watched sex toy demonstrations.  Realised for the first time that I "did" being queer like a bogan while listening to Dorothy Allison reading stories of working-class women-loving-women.  Went back to the tent and changed my flannel shirt.

There were separate spaces for women who experienced oppressions related to class, race, sexuality, disability, age.  Camping areas for disabled women and Women of Colour, caucus groups and workshops that were open only to specific groups.

I went to a Bisexual Caucus with about 150 women.  We spent an afternoon doing two things - hearing from every bi woman present what it was like being bi where she lived, and drafting a statement to Michfest opposing their exclusion of trans women. 

It's fair to say at that point I knew nothing about gender diversity.  I didn't know any trans people to my knowledge, I'd read one book talking about trans issues - the hateful Janice Raymond's "Transsexual Empire" - and I'd yet to consider that growing up comfortable in the gender I'd been assigned at birth was a privilege not available to many.  I'm grateful to the staunch bi women I met at Michfest for opening my eyes for the first time to what I'd call now cissexism.


The internet probably doesn't need another ode to the wonders of Michfest.  It's clear that for many cis women, particularly cis lesbians, Michfest has been an important safe space from sexism, misogyny and violence against women:
"Vogel was determined to have MichFest be as welcoming as possible for as many women as possible. Which demanded both that it be women-only and that it be accessible to women of all classes. Vogel also wanted to establish space for women of color to have the option of being in a space solely for them. One African-American lesbian told me that the WOC space was the only space her partner, a rape survivor, had ever felt safe. She said, “She knows no one will come for her in the night.” She said no one could imagine her own relief at being able to see her partner sleep soundly, free from nightmares. “That week–”she said."
Those women are angry Michfest has ended.  They say "only one" trans woman has been excluded in 40 years.  They quote key festival organiser Lisa Vogel saying she just wants respect for womyn-born womyn's experiences.  They describe as "McCarthy-like" the tactics of Michfest critics who call for boycotts of the festival.  They feel like their desire for safe space is not being respected.

But the truth is excluding trans women has made Michfest increasingly unpopular.  Even back in 1992, three quarters of women attending Michfest were happy for trans women to come.  These days just 3000 women attend, and artists are dropping like flies.
It’s in that spirit that in 2013, comedian/activist/writer Red Durkin called for a boycott of Michfest and its performers until the policy was changed.
Andrea Gibson dropped out in March. In April, The Indigo Girls announced that this would be their last year at the festival until the policy changes. The Indigo Girls are festival mainstays, and Amy Ray‘s partner is a longtime Michfest volunteer. By taking a stand, The Indigo Girls weren’t just standing up against political adversaries, they were severing decades-long friendships. I anticipated their withdrawal would be the ultimate catalyst for change, yet the festival’s intention lives on.
Nona Hendryx dropped out in June. JD Samson, who’d been attending the festival for half her life and was pulled from a number of queer events for playing it, announced in June that she remained confident “that the MWMF will one day become a place of safety, solidarity, and unconditional love for ALL Womyn,” but that “this will be my last year attending the festival until that day comes.”

Despite being a woman who loved Michfest myself, I'm not in that camp.  The consistency of founder Lisa Vogel's transmisogyny has been tracked by The Transadvocate, which is just as well, since it's been in serious danger of rewriting.  It's worth reading closely.

In 1971, Ms Vogel signed a letter outing a trans woman in an attempt to get her sacked.  "Men without penises" are compared to white women dying their skin to look like Black women. In 1991, Ms Vogel describes the eviction of Nancy Burkholder as necessary to ensure only "womyn born womyn" attend.  She describes Ms Burkholder as a "known transsexual man."  Again in 1999 Ms Vogel describes trans women as men.

By 2000, Michfest issues a pamphlet saying only womyn born womyn who live as womyn are welcome, and asks for this to be respected because it will not be policed.  The pacifist version of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.  Throughout the 2000s, on a number of occasions, Ms Vogel compares Michfest policy of cis only (though never calls it that) with Women of Colour asking for and needing separate space.  To call Michfest policy transphobic is equated with calling Women of Colour space racist.  She also begins to refer to trans women as women.

In 2014 in an open letter, Ms Vogel acknowledges "trans womyn and transmen have always attended this gathering" but again asks for cis only space to be respected because "being born female in this culture has meaning, it is an authentic experience, one that has actual lived consequences."

It's clear Lisa Vogel's commitment to Michfest being for cis women only has not wavered, even if over time she has recognized trans women are women.  

What's curious to me is her justification - that an event open to cis women but not trans women is analogous to Women of Colour wanting separate space, and therefore, it's not transphobic.

This device only works if you believe trans women oppress cis women.  Only then is it possible to conceive of cis only space as necessary.  Because an oppressed group needing space to regroup from experiences of oppression, that's self-determination, that's resistance.  A group which experiences oppression, but not from the group they are trying to exclude, that's privilege.  

This is at the root of the Michfest controversy - and many other places where feminists who have established women-only havens have struggled to welcome trans women.  Instead of seeing trans women as other women needing safe space, trans women have been constructed as part of the oppressive forces, the oppressive patriarchal forces, which do not understand why women need a break from patriarchy.

Diverse experiences of women's lives should be part of any conversation about gender.  The fact is, working class girls get different messages about how to be female than middle class girls.  Race and ethnicity shape our understanding of ourselves as women.  Disabled women have experiences of female embodiment that bear little resemblance to non-disabled women.  And trans women and cis women have some things in common, and some experiences of femaleness that are profoundly different.

If we are scared of our diverse experiences, unable to name differences in women's experiences, we are never going to be able to change the social and material conditions that structure women's lives in ways which constrain us.  Our feminism will not be useful. 

I'm sorry Michfest is shutting it's gates, but not because I think I had an authentic experience of being a woman there.  Rather I'd like to think, after so many messages from other feminists and the surrounding queer community, that Lisa Vogel and Michfest could have acknowledged they were getting it wrong, and thrown the gates open to trans women.  Explicitly open.  They have been going for years anyway, and it's not made one cis woman any less safe.

There's perhaps a lesson here, for other feminist women's spaces that have been hard fought.  Trans women are not our oppressors.  Trans women as a group do not have power cis women as a group cannot access.  We have much in common, and many gendered experiences of lack of safety which may not be exactly the same, but nevertheless require mutual support and solidarity. 

I'm going to finish in the words of one trans woman attendee:
When people all around you are telling you directly that you have no claim to your womanhood, that there is no way you are welcome, and that by merely existing you are furthering the patriarchy, it cuts right through to your heart.


Anonymous said...

Its great to see inclusivity of transwomen as a topic in the context of NZ discussions of feminism. As the feminist mother of a young transwoman, I have become aware that there is much work to do here in NZ to fix things for the younger generation of trans-people growing up. There are many law and policy changes that need to happen before trans-people have the same rights as others. However, awareness is the first start, so many thanks for the article. cheers, Audrey

LudditeJourno said...

Thanks Audrey, yep, I agree with you, substantive equity as well as knowledge and awareness is important. All the best with supporting your daughter.

Anonymous said...

I'm lesbian raised as a girl and fit the stated MichFest criteria. I tend to prefer inclusive events because I find them more fun.

But yet, as I read this that MichFest is closing after years under siege from trans activists, I'm outraged. Yes, Lisa Vogel said a few transphobic things way back two decades ago. However, so did a lot of people, as trans awareness was pretty low in the 1990s. In recent years, Vogel has acknowledged trans women as women, and simply stated (in a way that seems non confrontational to me) that her 'intention' for the festival is for women born as women and raised as girls.

So are we not, now, down to a single issue: Does an oppressed group have the right to meet and include whatever subset of people the organizers would like to have there? Why is an event for people born women and raised as girls different from one of lesbians of color only? Or women raised in abusive households? Or women raised in the southern United States.?These are all subsets of the female experience, and women born girls is just as legitimate as all of those I mention--especially given that attendees are allowed to self define and there was no effort to police at the door, other than one 1991 incident which has been apologized for about a zillion times.

And that said, you ask, is there a good reason why a person might want to attend an event for others also raised as girls? Absolutely. While as I've said, in general I prefer inclusive space, I must say I have not yet bonded with a trans women on gender experience. I definitely have bonded with trans women--just not on gender. I tend to hang with people who watched Star Trek and were pariahs in high school because they were too smart; the trans folk in my life are no exception, and yes, there's a lot of common ground there.

But yet, not a single trans woman I know also experienced growing up being shoehorned into sewing and home economics when they would have preferred carpentry and metal works. They've never been told they can't do something because women are weak, or shouldn't climb trees or get dirty. Since they were raised as boys, they weren't told that little girls should be polite and not argue since women should be demure. And only in a group of other women born girls do I get a chorus of sympathetic agreement when I say that, in 2015, I went into a hardware store with a perfectly reasonable question and was assaulted with a comment along the lines of, 'well, little lady, don't you have a man to do this for you?"

Certainly my trans women friends empathize, since they are smart and aware and tend to view society with a critical eye. They've often had oppressive experiences of their own which may have some common points. But is it the same? Not really. The single biggest issue I hear from my trans friends is being upset at being mis-gendered in public, and sometimes, fear of being physically assaulted if their appearance doesn't fit society's view of what a particular gender should look like.

I can empathize with these issues, just like my trans friends can empathize with my issues. But they aren't the same. So why do trans activists need to erase my experience to have theirs validated? If a group of women want to meet for seven days and brave mosquitoes in order to bond with others also raised as girls, , they should be allowed to do so without being turned into Public Enemy No. 1 by trans activists.

There must be some other group to tackle where concerted efforts would have a more beneficial effect than besieging a rare weeklong refuge for one of the most invisible and oppressed groups in society. MichFest is ending after this August. So what's next on the protest agenda? I hope it's something that will advance our shared fight against the patriarchy.