The last day of our visit I really wanted to go do something in nature. Seattle has these pretty spectacular views of mountains (almost 360 degrees) and gorgeous parks and evergreen trees and I knew going back to Brooklyn meant WINTER in full effect. Nature chills me out and helps me reboot. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas and it wasn't just gloomy and no views that day, but raining. No one else was game for nature so I said, "Let's do something really Seattle-y." We decided to go to the flagship REI store to look around and to stop at the recreational marijuana store because I had never been to a store to purchase cannabis before and I thought it might make a fun story. Like "Hey friends, guess what I did in Seattle??"
Today I landed at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a week-long celebration designed specifically for womyn located in Hart, Michigan. The Festival actually begins on Tuesday but since I work at the Festival, both as a member of the Box Office crew and a second job co-facilitating a four day workshop series, I get there a few days early. I have attended the Festival since 2001. I have found it to be an incredibly unique place that is healing, spiritual and connecting in a way that I haven’t seen an equal. I believe it is a powerful event worth preserving for further generations.
In 2002 I became aware that trans womyn were not included in the intention of who is invited to attend the Festival. I also learned that this issue has been a longstanding source of conflict within the Festival. This past year, in particular, has sparked a strong sense of urgency around the issue. An ongoing boycott has collected more fervor and supporters this year, more Facebook posts have been seen on the topic, more conversations are being had about it around the water cooler/tea basket. The reason for the additional energy around it might be connected to the strong momentum that has been gained this year in the transgender movement – what the cover of Time Magazine called “the Transgender Tipping point”.
Regardless of the reason, I have learned that there are more than two sides to this conflict. Many people feel silenced, hurt and disrespected in the current climate of the conversation. In addition, there have been many misconceptions running rampant which have fostered a lot of confusion and have led to even deeper levels of resentment and mistrust. So, I’ve written this post to clarify from my perspective, some of the misconceptions about Michfest and trans issues and to hopefully support the work towards healing.
Misconception #1: Trans Womyn are not allowed on the land.
The first misconception that Trans Womyn are not allowed on the land. Trans womyn have always attended the Festival and continue to attend the Festival. Some of these womyn are open about their transition status, others remain stealth on the land. Since 2008 I have worked at the Festival’s Box Office. I know first-hand that no one’s gender is questioned when tickets are sold to the Festival. However, it is the intention of the festival to focus on cis womyn during organizing of the festival which has spurred the conflict and debate.
I do not agree with this intention. I believe that trans womyn are womyn. Because I love the Festival and find the intergenerational interactions, incredible work providing access to disabled womyn and many other aspects of the event valuable, I continue to work to change the intention from the inside.
Misconception #2: Anyone who does not boycott is Transphobic
The second misconception is that anyone who attends the Festival (and does not boycott the event) must be transphobic and is harming the trans movement. This is a particularly hurtful misconception that has caused me personally to receive a life-time supply of hate mail. I receive hate mail from people who believe trans womyn should not attend the Festival as well as from people who believe I am transphobic for working within the Festival to change it.
The truth is there are a large number of festival participants each year who work tirelessly while on the land to change the intention of who is invited to the festival, and ensure that trans women have equal voice and space at the festival – including having trans womyn in the music line up.
I have personally organized fundraisers to provide scholarships for trans womyn to attend through the Trans Womyn Belong Here scholarship fund, initiated dozens of one-on-one conversations with Festival organizers about the topic, and over the past couple of months will have spent 150 hours or more organizing efforts for trans womyns’ inclusion, having discussions with folks on and off the land and preparing and facilitating the 4 day workshops that seek to build bridges between those who do not support the intention and those who do.
I am not alone. There are a number of people on the land who continue to rally for trans inclusion by engaging in hard conversations, initiating petitions, songwriting, and doing a slew of other actions seeking to open people’s hearts and minds. As a result, the number of people aware of and supporting trans inclusion has grown every year. And the more people who come to the land who believe in trans inclusion, the more likely it is that the Festival’s intention will change.
As any social justice buff knows, the trick to creating change is not just one strategy… but a number of strategies coming from the bottom-up, top-down, and inside out. To suggest that those working their tushi’s off from the inside on this issue are transphobic, hurts people’s hearts (a lot!) and creates greater friction within the movement – making the goals that much harder to reach. However, to see us all united in an effort to create an environment of healing and love for people of all body types, backgrounds and circumstances…. that’s the type of movement I want to be a part of.
Misconception #3: The Festival Will Never Change its Intention
The Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, the apartheid movement, the abilities movement, the LGBT movement, and pretty much every movement that has made significant gains did not do it quickly. This is because there is a powerful and unrelenting opposing force in each of these movements – fear. Fear of change. Fear of loss of what one has gained. Fear of engaging with a community that one doesn’t understand. Sometimes even fear of physical safety.
I believe that the best way to eradicate fear is by building bridges of understanding.
Last year, I co-facilitated a four part workshop series sponsored by the Festival called Allies in Understanding. This workshop series sought to heal the deep rifts caused by the conflict and create space to have more productive dialogue. The workshop was incredibly successful, healing and powerful. Womyn on both ends of the conflict made connections with one another that allowed one another to be heard, some for the first time in a discussion about the Festival’s intention. It was amazing to see people’s minds light up as they developed a new understanding of the “other” community, and seeing hearts open to new ideas and new perspectives. I remember overhearing so many conversations with the words “Oh… you know I never thought about it that way.” You could practically feel healing taking place in the room (and by room I mean circle of ferns).
I will again co-facilitate this four day workshop series in 2014 on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday of the Festival week (in addition to working at the Box Office). With the higher level focus on trans issues this year, we are sure to get more people, more ideas, and more passion to create healing that is necessary.
And as stated earlier, the more people who attend and are in favor of changing the intention, the more likely the intention will change. Maybe this year will be the year that the Mich Fest Trans tipping point is reached. We won’t know unless we try. And, because I love this space and find no equal, I will continue to try, however unpopular that opinion may be.
Misconception #4: There is No Transparency about Festival Activities and Policies
I have heard that one thing that has been very difficult is that folks “disappear” onto the Land and there isn’t transparency around what actions and conversations are happening in the ferns. This is not an effort to shut down knowledge about the important conversations, but rather has more to do with low levels of access to technology and a lack of infrastructure for communicating about the topics.
In a small measure to help resolve this one part of the conflict, this year, I will be using social media (Instagram) to provide at least some visibility. I’ll report back about the workshop series, discussions and highs and lows of the Festival experience. I will do my best to allow folks on the outside to feel heard and to know what is happening on the ground. I am seeking to facilitate understanding and foster conversation.
In addition, if you are not attending the festival but have a question or comment that you would like to bring to the dialogue please send me an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. I promise to take all questions and comments that seek to build bridges and inspire healing to the session and do my best to bring back responses to those off the land.
I want to make it crystal clear that my Instagram project and the email project will in no way violate any wyms’privacy. Everything that will be shared will be with consent.
Specifically the workshop Allies in Understanding is confidential and there is a detailed and thoughtful communications contract that guides our work in that space. I co-facilitate the workshop with womyn who are on the whole spectrum of opinions about Trans inclusion. I think this work towards understanding works best when we can take the hand of someone we do not agree with politically 100‰ and work with them for resolution.
I feel particularly drawn to this work because I believe that the Festival will continue to exist and that it will open up the intention to include trans womyn. My mission in life is to make the world safe for all bodies, and I feel it particularly important to do this work in and for a space that I love and a people (the current, future and former attendees of the Festival) who I consider family.
That said, the conflict around Festival moves far beyond the 3,500 workers, attendees and performers and has deeply hurt and affected queer communities and families all over the world. It is my hope, my personal intention, and my unyielding conviction that love, trust and understanding will triumph. And that all people will be considered worthy of love and full acceptance, exactly as they are.