Robin Tyler was the first woman to marry her same-sex partner, Diane Olson, in Los Angeles in 2008. She has been coined a "lesbian feminist" by the media throughout the years; a visionary breaking new ground to aid in the LGBT community's expansive pursuit of equality. Tyler also produced of the West Coast Women's Music and Comedy Festivala trans-inclusive women's weekend that began out of the desire to do things differently. Instead of casting out transgender individuals, they welcomed themarms outstretched and wide.
One volunteer, Lenny Earl, began his journey as a self-professed dyke at the West Coast Women's Music and Comedy Festival and ended it as a transitioning forward toward male.
"Lenny started working for the festival when she was very young. After the festivals stopped, she worked and lived with us here at our home. During all of this time, she never discussed 'transitioning' or feeling she was in the 'wrong body.' However, a few years after she moved out, she came to talk to me. Her voice had deepened, so I thought she had a cold. But he said he had begun the process of transitioning," Tyler told Windy City Times. "Lenny is one of the nicest, sweetest people I know. I suppose I feel like a parent to him."
Windy City Times: At what age did you begin volunteering for the West Coast Women's Music and Comedy Festival?
Lenny Earl: My first year volunteering at the festival was at the age of 22. I have to say that I never identified as lesbianin most cases I identified as a dyke.
WCT: Can you give us an experience or two to illustrate what the festival was like in the early days?
Lenny Earl: The experience of working at the festival, even in a voluntary capacity, was absolutely awesome. I say awesome in the strictest sense of the word; I had never worked in an environment before that was so remarkable in the areas of teamwork, and for me personally, stretching limits in finding new skills, talents or interests. I had never before or since, worked a job with that large a scope. I mean, to build most of the infrastructure for a weekend-long event is something that happens from time to time on a commercial level, but never had I envisioned being part of a team that built a temporary city and then tore it back down and return that land to nature in 12 to 14 days.
When I take into consideration that the 150 or so volunteers, for the most part, came from different walks of life where they held different jobs in different industries, and we all communicated so well together that we were able to make the festivals happen is still remarkable to me. In most cases, I don't know what jobs the other women had outside of the festival world. I think that was because it didn't really matter, as this was also a learning environment. You didn't have to have theater lighting experience to work on the lighting and stage crew. You may not have ever swung a hammer before coming to the festival, but we would still take you on the carpentry crew. For instance, I had absolutely no experience in waste management. The second year volunteering for the festival, I found myself volunteering for the trash crew mainly because there was a beautiful dyke heading that crew! Who would have known or guessed that 15 years later I would find myself following that path as a site sustainability manager? But, it happened. From my perspective as an operations manager, something I've been doing for the last 15 years, I am in awe as to what kind of faith and trust the producer must have that first year when she decided that the festival was going to be built by women and for women, oh and in some cases, by volunteers as well!
WCT: What was it like leaving the city for the country to work at the festival for the weekend?
Lenny Earl: Let me give you an idea of what I still see in my mind's eye when I'm asked about the experiences at the West Coast Women's Music and Comedy Festival. I was raised as a city kid, so the drive from the L.A. area up to Yosemite, the Groveland area specifically, was a long, isolating drive. I think that was necessary, because that drive for me represented leaving a lot of what I didn't like about my daily life down in the city.
As the road wound up the mountain, the trees started to get bigger and I started to feel smaller. The winds that you couldn't really hear on the forest floor, and certainly not in the city, eventually ended up being a sound that could easily be mistaken for a person speaking when you stood at certain spots on the land. After taking the right fork and traveling a short distance, you could look down and see … the first glimpse of the land from the front gate was a large rolling Meadow punctuated by a few buildings that indicated that the land was used as a camp when it wasn't being used for our purposes. It was quiet, and peaceful, and didn't feel lonely at all. In fact it was very welcoming, almost as if we were a visitor that it was expecting and had prepared for!
WCT: What was a typical day like for you during this time?
Lenny Earl: Throughout the course of the next four days, if you had a time-lapse camera, you'd probably see a group of anywhere between 30 and up to 150 women dispatching to different areas of that meadow early in the morning, after breakfast. Just like magic, you'd see tents go up, and in the clearing you'd notice something that looked like a box. It would eventually grow into the main stage, complete with the lights in the sound booth and lots and lots of chairs. You would hear generators humming, and every once in a while you'd see a golf cart scoot from one spot in the camp to another [that was Robin Tyler].
I remember watching the different areas at work, no two areas functioned the same and it reminded me of a bee hive. The energy was that intense, everybody moved with purpose and after a day or two of feeling out the heartbeat of the operation, everyone seemed to fall into sync and it was a ballet of sorts. At the end of the day, you'd see those workers returning to the dining hall, hot and tired and dusty ( in all the wrong places ), their faces would be sweat-stained, some would have bandannas on their head to pull their hair backsome didn't have much hair to speak of. All seemed to carry a little bit of the land on their clothing, although most took advantage of the lack of judgmental, prying eyes that we got too used to in the city, and had worked shirtless most of the day, and they had tans/sunburns to show for it! They all wore the smile of a long, hard and good day of work … and a huge feeling of accomplishment!
WCT: How did you all get along outside of the ritual of setting up shop?
Lenny Earl: It seemed like every night after dinner, after the cleanup from dinner, and after the well-deserved showers, we all tended to meet back in the dining hall. We'd hang out, tell the stories of the day, explore the crushes that would inevitably develop, and just generally enjoyed each other's company. I remember a night or two we had a theme night, the one I remember fondly is the "formal" night. We'd find women dressed up in everything from goddess gowns to jeans and ropers, to uniforms and leather attire. We'd dance, we'd enjoy recognition of certain areas that may have experienced a need for "innovative" problem-solving throughout the day; sometimes we would roast somebody. I think to sum up this experience I would say that we celebrated everything. We celebrated being together, we celebrated putting together something that was so much larger than any individual, and we celebrated being who we were, because we were allowed to be who we were.
WCT: How long did you work at the West Coast Women's Music and Comedy Festival?
Lenny Earl: My first two years working was on a work exchange program. The two years that followed, I had the awesome experience of working for Robin during the off-season, and having the chance to see the production develop from the early stages of establishing the contracts and viewing the demo tapes. During those years, once we arrived on the land, I held the responsibility for Central Central, the entity that sort of kept things on track as the festival progressed.
WCT: Did you have thoughts of transitioning into your authentic self during this time?
Lenny Earl: My experience at the festival was an interesting one. I got to see so many different types of women, I was able to experience the energies of those different women, and there were definite differences in energy from one woman to another. I did notice an attraction to some energies over other energies, and chalked that up to an experience in diversity than I knew I wouldn't be able to find any place else. What I didn't realize at that point in time was that this environment was overwhelmingly nonjudgmental. To me, that meant that I could be whoever and whatever I felt comfortable being. I didn't have to justify myself or anything about me. This was also the first experience I'd had interacting with a trans person. At this point in my life, the idea of transitioning was very new to me. And frankly, with the festival experiences being so predominant in my world, I didn't really feel the need to pursue transitioning. I think the level of acceptance I experienced in the festival setting really had a lot to do with me feeling comfortable with how I presented to others at that time.
WCT: When did you decide it was time to transition?
Lenny Earl: My last festival was in 1995, and that was the last of the West Coast Women's Music and Comedy Festival productions. I would have to fast-forward to 1997, as that was the point in time where I met the first FTM in my life. I was in shock, because I had roomed with this fellow for about three months before I realized that he was FTM. Up until that point, and going back as far as 1980, I always regarded myself as somebody who was not female, but also somebody who is obviously not male. I felt that I was something in between, akin to the bisexual of the gender world. But it took about two years for me to realize that there need not be a choice between male and female. Once I was introduced to the concept of female toward male, I realized that's where I stood. That is where I am most comfortable because I do not feel a need to, in a sense, divorce myself from the female aspect of my being, as that is a strength of my person. At the same time, I want to feel comfortable in my body, and in how the majority of society regards me.
WCT: How were you treated during the festival by the founders?
Lenny Earl: My experience with the West Coast Women's Music and Comedy Festival was remarkable, in all respects. The environment was all-inclusive, and I don't ever remember a feeling of needing to conform to anything that was not of my own choosing. I would say that the sentiment around the festival environment was acceptance. If you are into leather, a practicing Wiccan, with children ( male or female ), clean and sober, bisexual, asexual, trans, it was all okay.
From a personal perspective, Robin accepted me in the same breath that I told her of my plans to transition. In fact, about two years after I started the transition, I went to visit her. It took her about 10 minutes to tell me that I was the same Lenny I always had been. Yes, maybe a little more facial hair than before, and a deeper voice, but the same energy.
WCT: Having since transitioned, would you consider returning as a volunteer?
Lenny Earl: I would certainly consider returning to the West Coast Women's Music and Comedy Festival if it were ever to happen again. I'd have no reason to expect a different level of acceptance now as compared to what I had experienced years ago. I don't think the producer would have any problem accepting me as a volunteer, and I think for that reason, the Festies and my coworkers also would not have a problem working with me. And this is not wishful thinking, because I'd seen just that occur at the West Coast Women's Music and Comedy Festival in the last few years of its production.
WCT: Do you have any thoughts regarding the current state of Michfest as it pertains to transgender individuals?
Lenny Earl: I have specifically stayed away from the Michigan Festival due to the perceived politics of the festival. The difficulties and negative press that the festival has received of late regarding trans individuals is similar, I think, to the difficulties and negative underground press that the festival received years earlier with regard to the leather individuals. My experience of festivals, although exclusive to one production, has been one of inclusiveness and acceptance. I don't think I'd want to chance marring that experience.