This month I'm doing a theme based on my favorite artist of all times, Lucinda Williams. She's not dance party per se (or at all) but I love her song Lonely Girls. "Sparkly rhinestones/pretty dresses/fancy hairdos worn by lonely girls." I just imagine these gorgeous feminine archetypes sitting at the bar and being approached by cowboys or other lonely girls. And we all know cowboys are frequently fond of each other. So it's a big ol' queer free for all and it is going to be gorgeous!
I decided over the Winter to withdraw my energy from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.
Since I’ve previously spoken so publicly about why I think trans women should be openly included in the Festival as attendees, performers, workshop presenters, staff and crafts vendors, I think it is important that I speak publicly about my decision to withdraw my energy.
I took inventory of my values. Near the top of my values is my art and activism in the world helping people love themselves. My work is about neutralizing body currency but even more dispelling the myth that anyone is not worthy of love.
Further down the list of my values is my investment in resolving this conflict. The problem for me in the last few years became that I really believed in my strong vision that the conflict could be resolved in favor of trans women’s inclusion. That belief and passion in my conviction fueled me into an energy expenditure that was out of line with my actual system of values.
I felt an obligation to show up to Festival and keep having these conversations because in many ways I grew up there. The Michfest community raised me into political consciousness. I began attending in 2001, at 22 years old. I learned that you could love your body at any size and gender presentation on that land. I learned to love myself there.
Over the years they began to feel like my family. Stepping away from my family or a community I belong to when we have a disagreement is not how I roll. I want to show up for conversations. So I did. It was through my privilege as assigned female at birth that I was able to develop these trusting relationships and have these conversations in the way I did. I really believed in the goodness of the place, the culture of the people and the openness and warmth that I know the women there to be capable of. I really believed change could happen.
Going to the Festival takes a lot of energy, it is a huge undertaking mentally, financially, physically and emotionally to live off the grid and outside that long. Working at the Festival takes a lot of energy, putting in 8 hour shifts. Working on actions for inclusion takes energy before, during and after Festival.
In the summers of 2013 and 2014 I added co-facilitating a four part workshop called Allies in Understanding, aimed to develop communication between women on all sides of the debate about trans women’s inclusion. Building bridges and understanding where there had been a total communication breakdown. Not easy work, but I felt like this might be the key to open up a solution to the decades old debate.
Work with Allies was rewarding and effective with incredibly smart women I respect and love, but wildly time consuming. Days during the Festival I would end up working a 12+ hour day. That’s a really huge energy commitment.
Among the work I’ve been part of I felt was most meaningful was Trans Womyn Belong Here’s scholarship program funding trans women’s attendance. Having their presence so that they could be part of the dialogue on the land about trans women’s inclusion was crucial. Over the past couple of summers the TWBH presence has dwindled, and so has the presence of trans women on the Land. My motivation to do the work was on behalf of trans women who wanted to attend. As that number dwindled, so did my motivation. I don’t feel it ethical to have dialogue about inclusion without a trans women presence, and there were no out trans women in attendance last summer.
I believe everyone in the world is entitled to know and feel their inherent awesomeness. My association with Michfest harmed my ability to do that work. Thus, I decided to withdraw my energy and redirect it towards making the world a better place in different ways.
Some you win some you learn. I learned a lot. Here are some of the things I learned during my 14 year tenure as a Festival attendee and later, as a staff member:
1. People cling to things as they are with the idea that keeping something alive is succeeding. Things have a lifespan. And letting things have that lifespan is important. The fact that Michfest is ending is okay. Even your own participation in community is a thing that has a lifespan, and it is okay to let go with love.
2. “All that you touch, you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.”–Octavia Butler, the Parable of the Sower.
I believe nothing can last that cannot bend and change. I’ve learned that watching the Michfest infrastructure unfold from the inside out. I feel that a lot of the reasons Michfest is ending have to do with not being open to change, not just because of the intention but also the ways in which they used their resources and public relations.
I don’t want to fall into the trap of not being willing to change, which is why I was open to checking my value system and seeing if it lined up with where I was putting my energy.
3. I fuck up and I sometimes cause harm, even as I intend to do good. I know that I have fucked up in my process with and my communications about working through this conflict. I am willing to learn. I always want to be doing better. I want to be open to fucking up because I never want the fear of fucking up to hold me back. I want to be open to checking my behavior, actions and words because I want the world to be awesome and I want to help it become awesome-r.
4. There were more than 2 “sides” to the debate about trans women’s inclusion at Michfest. Certain women wanted autonomous space that was trans inclusive. Certain women wanted autonomous space that was trans exclusive.
There was a whole spectrum of women with feelings in the middle somewhere. Most of them knowing that they wanted autonomous space for women but not sure how trans inclusion would affect that space.
I heard two women tell me the same idea for a trans inclusion policy, one of them identified as trans inclusive and the other as trans exclusive. But both with the same idea. There was more alignment than folks realized looking outside the conflict.
There are lots of folks who still attend the Festival who believe in the full inclusion and participation of trans women.
All of the people who attend the Festival love having a separate space for women identified people. 90% of the folks who attend, regardless of their position in the discussion, want everyone else to be their full expression of themselves for that one week a year in the woods together.
The other 10% are just assholes. There are assholes everywhere you go, even in a loving intentional community. I have learned that.
5. Learning to navigate this issue and love people in spite of our differing politics has actually made it easier for me to open up to my family of origin. I now know how to weather conflict with resilience. I show up with my family authentically myself and I accept them even though I don’t agree with some of them politically. Working with my Grandmother on her internalized ageism, fatphobia (etc etc etc) is a life’s work, but I love her and all the things she’s taught me about owning my Femme. I have more tools for loving her around the places we disagree from having done this work on the Land.
6. I want to give my energy to spaces where trans women are welcome with open arms. Where they are included in the programming and their experiences and needs are just as valuable as the experiences and needs of all women in attendance. Outside of Michfest I do this 100% of the time. I didn’t know at 22 years old that you had to ask if trans women were included in full participation of a women’s festival but I know now that I need to make sure of that before I invest my energy.
Last September I attended the Ohio Lesbian Festival to see what it was like at a fully trans inclusive festival and it turns out it’s great. Anyone who wonders about trans inclusion should go to the LezFest or another inclusive festival like Fabulosa in CA.
7. I think the work to resolve the conflict by the administration of the Festival began in earnest about a decade too late. Maybe if we had Allies in Understanding workshops starting in 2002 we could have seen change enough to create a trans inclusive Festival. (Work on the outside of the administration of the Festival for inclusion, including Camp Trans and actions on the Land, began in earnest in the late 90s.)
I sent my resignation letter via email to the owner of the Festival, and one week later (before she replied to my email) I got the announcement that the Festival was going to end after 40 years.
It was a mind-fuck to learn about the end of the Festival after I had already gone through my own grieving process. To learn that it would end still felt shitty. Especially given the amount of work we had done with Allies in Understanding to build room for resolution in the conflict. It felt like we gave up once we started really working to resolve it. But I realize now that it was too late.
There are hundreds of women I know who attended or wanted to attend the Festival in the past who could no longer hang in there until it became trans inclusive. So many folks have told me how they miss it and they hope for change. Everyone who wanted to attend a trans inclusive Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has a different kind of mourning that a lesbian institution could not be open to a full spectrum definition of women.
I don’t think there ever has been or ever will be an institution like Michfest and I think the failure to change and the failure to work in earnest to resolve a huge organizational issue lead to its demise.
Though it is owned by just one lesbian, I think that the Festival is the product of the energy of the thousands of women who attended the festival and who ever wanted to attend the Festival. This has always included trans women. I have been told that trans women have always been at the Festival. They certainly have been since I began attending. There’s much to be lamented in the grief around the Festival’s legacy, but I hope there isn’t an erasure of the fact that trans women have always been part of the community.
8. I love my Michfest family and I trust that the relationships I’ve developed will continue to stand. I know lots of folks who stopped going years ago over the issue of trans women’s inclusion who are still considered part of the tribe to the folks they love. I think one of my biggest fears was losing the tribe, but I know that people will speak my name and keep me close to their hearts even if they don’t see me on the land.
9. People get really concerned with other people’s choices. I’ve lost friends and colleagues without a word over this conflict, whether they were people who are staunchly pro-intention or staunchly anti-Michfest.
One of the nicest things a friend of mine said to me was, “Bevin, I love you regardless of where you camp.” And that person was an important part of my process when I was thinking about leaving what I have long regarded my queer homeland. It is scary and hard to put a stop to a thing you’ve had in your mind and a political goal that was so meaningful. It’s really helpful that I had friends who had different political opinions from me who would never go to Michfest hang in there with me to help me make this shift.
10. I love going on vacation with big groups of people I know. It’s what made Michfest feel like “home.” It’s the feeling I was willing to work so hard to preserve. Even when I didn’t know a woman, if I saw her on the path I smiled at her, because probably eventually I would meet her. I want to start coordinating big vacation trips with folks I know.
(There’s a cruise to Alaska with some gay friends of mine in September 2016, I’m totally serious about getting a bunch of people together. Let’s cruise and camp and go to theme parks and on RV road trips.)
This summer I am 98% totally happy with not being at Festival. I miss my friends but I know I will see them in the world. It’s not the same as living with them in the same “town” for 2 weeks a year but I feel confident I can womanifest something really awesome in its place.
The 2% missing this year? I miss my breakfasts with Sully, this totally amazing baby I got to eat with every morning last year when I’d get up at 7AM for my workshop prep. I do not get to have breakfast with a baby every day in my real life.
And I’ll miss the Twilight Zone glow party on Thursday night.
The Twilight Zone has been the home to a bunch of super awesome mostly working class dykes from the Midwest who have always been very trans inclusive and provided the safe(r) space for trans women on the land to camp. The glow party this year will be an epic send-off to a complex much-beloved and much-maligned institution.