The 2011 Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival brought forward more open conversation about Trans Womyn’s inclusion at the Festival than I have experienced in my 11 years of attendance. It was also the first festival where I saw so much open conflict and such an intense backlash of folks who oppose Trans Wym’s inclusion.
Regular readers will recall that I love the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and am a vocal supporter of expanding the intention of organizing the Festival to include Trans Womyn. My desire for this intention to change comes from a place of loving the Festival and what it can do for people of all bodies who experience the world as a woman. For me and many others, Women of all origins and paths are part of the term “Women” and my communities at home that are created around Femme or Woman or Dyke identity are explicitly inclusive of Trans Women and we participate in that ongoing process of unlearning cissexism in order for that inclusion to be true in practice. I want this to be true of the Festival I love so much.
Photo by Julia Cameron Damon
During the Opening Ceremonies this year I had a spiritual awakening. These happen for me in a subtle flash, sometimes suddenly, sometimes slowly there is a shift and I have clarity about something that previously troubled me. The opening poem spoke of Artemis and her tribe of womyn hunters. On the stage appeared dancers, many topless, dancing with bows. The ceremony continued with music and the shooting of three flaming arrows from the stage. It was visually stunning. I was stirred in a very deep part of myself.
Photo by Julia Cameron Damon
All of this talk about wyms called to be part of a tribe churned up the gender trouble I have been feeling for many years about the intention of the Festival. The intention of the Festival has never sat right with me, not just because I am an ally to trans womyn and see it as transphobic, but something about the very intention itself seems contrary to what the Festival is all about.
Photo by Julia Cameron Damon
There is a lot of fear-based rhetoric from the side of the Womyn Born Womyn (henceforth the WBWs). These wyms believe that people not born into a female check mark on a birth certificate from a (usually male) doctor do not belong at the Festival. This is the current intention of the Festival and the intention that many of the wyms (like myself) who attend the Festival have been working for years to change.
The WBWs have many different arguments to support their position that the intention should remain in place. That somehow the presence of trans womyn might change what the Festival is and the tenor of it. That somehow there would be an influx of “dicks” on the Land. That their safety would be compromised. That we would invite a rape culture from outside the Land into the land. That they support a transgender festival and the right of Trans Womyn to create their own Festival and ask to be left alone for their own space.
These arguments are projections of what might happen. They are fear-based. I’ve been attending the Festival for a decade now and relish hearing about the old days. In the earliest days of the Festival they served a giant wheel of cheese with a community knife to cut it as a meal. The workers shared a common “shitter” that they had to dig in the ground every year. They served beer in big coolers but you couldn’t get orange juice in the mornings. It took many years of wyms doing consciousness raising around the “differently pleasured” to have space for their BDSM pursuits, which many opponents (who were the majority for quite some time) offered fear-based reasons why they shouldn’t be allowed at the Festival.
Now there are three square vegetarian meals a day cooked over a wooden fire pit. There are fairy lights at the community center at night and incredible infrastructure to enable dis/abled wyms to have access to Festival resources. And there is a designated camping area for the “differently pleasured” and folks regularly plan demos and play parties. I am fond of calling it the S&M cul-de-sac as this camping area forms a great semi-circle around a common fire pit and you can sort of wander in at night to watch someone being “differently pleasured” against a tree while other folks share a beer in a camping chair they bought at Meijer. It’s like a subdivision in the woods.
I went on a “Land Walk” with Flowing this summer. She took a group of workers (she also offers this workshop in the program to Festival attendees) through a short hike from our worker living area (the Belly Bowl) up through some of the walking trails and back around. She taught us about the trees and their signs of aging, how the forest used to be a pine forest and was clear-cut to rebuild Chicago after the great fire, and what has replaced it is an aging deciduous forest. She showed us areas of erosion, how immediately the Land reacts to being walked on, and how certain summers birds appear or certain insects and other years they don’t.
I’ve noticed just as an attendee sometimes I see different flora and fauna from one year to the next. In 2002 I woke up everyday with little tree frogs on my tent, but I haven’t had that experience since.
Change, in these woods and on this Land, is inevitable. Regardless of any change that might happen with the intention of the Festival, things about the Festival and within the Festival will change. In another decade this Festival will be remarkably different, no matter what is decided about the intention.
The opening ceremony reminded me that Artemis (or choose your own deity/higher power and insert it here) drawing together her tribe to gather in the woods of Michigan is a lot stronger than an intention around organizing or a sex assignment at birth. The spiritual call to womanhood and, specifically, Festival Wymhood is stronger and more important.
I think all girlhoods are important. All girlhoods do not take place embodied or recognized. A lot of womyn who were female assigned know what it is like to feel disembodied for a lot of reasons. I felt terribly disembodied throughout my girlhood and I can point to Festival as a place that helped me heal. Our trans sisters were raised, by an large, in environments that did not recognize their bodies as legitimate. I think the call to womanhood is a spiritual one, and comes from a much higher and more powerful space than Western medicine. Western medicine is what the present intention of the Festival–Womyn Born Womyn–bases their organizing around.
Why, in a space so inherently Womyn-centric, lovingly built from scratch by Wym hands, where we worship the Feminine divine either explicitly or implicitly, are we dependent on a patriarchal medical definition of sex to define who we bring together to celebrate wymhood and all it can be?
It is an incredible effort physically, mentally, financially and emotionally to attend the Festival. The wyms who are drawn to it are drawn for a reason. I can remember the exact moment I realize I must attend the Festival. Obviously, since I’ve been going for a decade, it is drawing me again and again because I need to go. I think this is true for most who do come and would come were the intention changed.
2011, the year I had that spiritual awakening at opening ceremonies, was an intense summer. I am a big believer in the power of conversation and one on one interaction to raise consciousness. I don’t think it works well for folks who aren’t in the Festival to barrage folks who go to the Festival for activism. It’s a discussion that, when it happens face to face, on the Land, can have an incredibly productive spirit.
Prior to the Festival, a CraftsWym offered in a Forum to make a transphobic tee shirt for sale. She was met with an onslaught of over 6,000 emails, some death threats. There aren’t even 6,000 wyms on the Land during an anniversary year. It’s a small community. So this onslaiught inspired a pretty big backlash and organizing of WBWs, claiming red as their official color and causing a fashion crisis in the life of fashionable folks in support of Trans Womyn Belong Here–no one wanted to wear red and be mistaken for supporting the WBW intention of the Festival.
TWBH is “[A]n informal organization of past, present, and future attendees of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF) who are taking active steps towards welcoming all woman-identified women to the festival.” Spurred by a gentle and beautiful year in 2010 with productive consciousness raising, there were new t-shirts, tent flags, pins and a zine with information about the movement and the group, along with workshops addressing the inclusion for folks to go to.
I’m not one to let my fashion decisions be dictated by others so I wore red and made sure my TWBH flag was visible on my Festival purse all week.
What I love about TWBH is the organizing principle of love for the Festival and a focus on discussion and consciousness raising rather than aggressive action against folks with different opinions.
TWBH was easily identifiable by t-shirts and other paraphanalia, and as the Festival week wore on, WBWs were sporting red felt triangles pinned to their clothes, hats, etc… I found it emotionally difficult to have the opposition to changing the intention so visible. I mean, I knew there were WBW idealists in the world but seeing it visually on so many folks I love and respect was hard to swallow.
But it was actually great, because I got to have conversations with people and hear what they had to say, their concerns and opinions, and be there in a spirit of love and respect. And a good reminder that I don’t have to agree with everything someone says in order to still love and respect them. And I think that is what TWBH is all about–love and respect for the Festival, our Festival community of wyms, and our queer communities at large.
Throughout the week I had tons of conversations about it, three of which I actually saw the consciousness shift of the wym I was speaking with and they told me they agreed with a spiritual definition of wymhood and were in support of changing the intention. That’s progress!! I have other friends who had similar experiences with consciousness raising. Imagine if we had 30 more new wyms on the Land who believe in Trans Womyn’s inclusion and each of them had these conversations all week and changed three peoples’ minds? Imagine if all 90 of those wyms came back the next year to continue the work, while enjoying the gorgeous Festival that surrounds them? It’s a beautiful idea, the swelling of the land full of wyms creating a consciousness shift that reflects a spiritual definition of wymhood.
I’m not saying that the conflict was easy. It sucked sometimes. That there was such a visual representation of transmysoginy was hurty. That there were signs popping up everywhere, on Porta-Janes, on trees, that looked like official Festival announcements (and I know some folks thought that they were) telling Trans Wyms that they were not welcome was hard. Hearing stories of harrowing workshop harassment and boycotts of any crafts wyms who supported TWBH was awful. I thought the boycott was especially terrible, considering that the Festival relies on craftswyms as part of the income for the Festival and supporting other wym artists is an important ethic whether or not they agree with you politically. I thought it was aggressive and not what the Festival is about.
What I’m saying here is–we need help. TWBH cannot be effective unless we have more wyms willing to show-up and support the cause. I have tremendous compassion for Lisa Vogel, the owner of the Festival. This conflict is not easy. Trying to sustain a Festival culturally and financially in a changing world while honoring the wyms that have built it and don’t want to lose it to perceived fears is a difficult position to be in, certainly not one I envy. I have a lot of love and gratitude for Lisa and hope the work of TWBH helps to ease the transition to an inclusive Festival. Lisa is a fun and well-intentioned person who I respect.
If you want to help there are lots of ways you can:
1. Come to the Festival!! Help us do consciousness raising. It’s August 7-12th this year. Tickets are sliding scale $440-$550 before July 14. The ticket includes eating, concerts, a place to camp, hot showers, a million workshops and any number of tractor rides. There’s a rideboard where you can get a ride to the Fest with other wyms. There are lots of ways to make it a reality for you.
TWBH will have t-shirts and other ways to be identifiable as a wym who is willing to have discussions about Trans Womyn’s inclusion. There are workshops you can go to as well to talk one on one with other wyms. I didn’t go to any workshops, and all the folks who talked to me just came up and asked me about it because of the flag on my bag.
2. DONATE to TWBH! Clickie here! If you can’t go to the Festival to have these discussions or don’t identify as a wym or don’t want to live in the woods for a week, donating can go a long way. TWBH provides scholarships to Trans Wyms and also provides educational material and a safe(r) space chill tent (which was awesome to have this year) and every ten bucks makes a huge difference!
3. Host a fundraiser! It doesn’t have to be fancy! Just a pot luck, invite over some friends old-fashioned style not on Facebook and ask folks to pitch in $5.