The "don't ask, don't tell" policy for the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival is an untenable compromise on the issue of transgender women at the annual event. I support the inclusion of all women-identified-women at the festival, held every August. I have always opposed the ban on transgender women.
I have not been to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival since 1986, but many of my good friends are longtime festival-goers and passionate about sustaining the festival. I also have many good friends who are transgender women who are outraged by the discrimination of the DADT policyMichFest never actually checks for gender, but the policy is clear and is symbolic of the struggle of transgender women to be seen as women. (The front gate workers have been instructed not to police gender.)
MichFest is among the last women's music festivals left in North America. There were once dozens of strong and mighty fests that lasted a few days but re-energized lesbians (and others) to go back home to face a myriad of social pressures.
I have never written personally about Michigan's "womyn-born-womyn" policy because it is such a controversial and no-win situation. There are extremists on all sides who talk over and under each other, rarely to one another. And I also believe that so many of these issues are generational, and also debated often on an academic level rather than a human level. There have been atrocious comments, and even threats of violence, and I really can't expect to speak with the most extremist people on this. Rather, I am hoping to speak to and with the more movable middle.
I also know that many of the fest's strongest supporters are also very supportive of transgender rights, and many are gender non-conforming in their own lives. They would protest for the right of the trans community to have trans-only spaces. They support transgender inclusion and rights, and certainly are just as appalled as the rest of the community with the violence, discrimination and harassment of transgender and gender non-conforming people.
But based on long-standing societal sexism and very real individual experiences of sexual violence and harassment, these issues are not simple. Yes, we have come a long way from the simple definitions of biology and sex, but you can't just theorize away very real experiences of women in this sexist and violent world. I wish we were all advanced beyond secondary sex characteristics that are artificial demarcations, but for many people, those are still very realand their perception on this issue should be acknowledged in order to have a purposeful debate. [This is not to ignore the fact that transgender women and gay men have also experienced violence based on their gender identity and sexualityand that men are still the vast majority of perpetrators in these cases, too.]
For a true understanding of why things are different now than in the 1970s, let's give some historical perspective. When MichFest started, the modern lesbian movement was small and young and fighting against a massive patriarchy and even sexism within the "gay" community. There was a very real need to be separate, and for some lesbians, there still is. The patriarchy and sexism are still very much alive.
The transgender movement of the 1970s and 1980s was also very young and small. Many of the most visible and vocal members were older transgender women who had "passed" as men most of their childhoods and years into adulthood benefiting from the patriarchy, especially in an era of more blatant institutional homophobia and sexism against women in education, the military, sports, the work force and even in family structures and inheritance. The homophobia and sexism some people get thru societal osmosis is not easy to shake off. This did not make it right to have a ban on transgender women, it just informs us as to the roots of these issues.
Fast forward to the 2000s, when kids as young as 5 or 6 are expressing their gender truths and receiving hormone blockers prior to puberty. Their lives have been significantly different than older generations of transgender women and men. Their experiences will more closely mirror the gender they are fighting to live in. While they still will have their own unique histories, they might be a very different generation of transgender men and women, and gender non-conforming youth and adults. This further reinforces the point that artificial demarcations of who is "really" a woman have always been impossible to navigate, and transgender women from all backgrounds and experiences should be made to feel welcome in women's spaces.
So for those who seek to keep MichFest as "womyn-born-womyn," the definitions and experiences of transgender women are becoming more closely mirrored to those whose gender is more in line with society's perceptions.
As the Indigo Girls put it: "The current intention for the Festival to be for 'Womyn born Womyn' only grew out of an important necessity to honor the idea that womyn have a variety of self expression and appearance and they need a safe space where their womynhood is not in question as they stand in many different places on the spectrum from femininity to masculinity. This intention has a very important historic basis and has kept the space safe for many womyn over the years. But we strongly feel that the time is long overdue for a change of intention, to one that states very plainly the inclusion of Trans Womyn [sic]. To us, this change of intention is the only path to a truly 'safe space' for womyn."
Let me just say that had MichFest handled this better in the 1990s, this likely all would have blown over by now. The festival survived through huge controversies around race, S&M and other issues. Less than 1% of the lesbian population in North America has likely ever even been to MichFest (at its peak it was still less than 10,000 women), and likely that same percentage would apply to transgender women if the policy had been changed. If the policy changes now, I hardly expect much difference, especially after the first couple of years. In fact, there have been transgender women at MichFest for decadesthis is really just about the policy itself. An unfortunate side effect is that some women who are not transgender are actually perceived as such at MichFest and experience some social discomfort there. It does us no good to view transgender women as separate and unequal, or to paint them as sexual predators; there are predators of all genders, and we would do well not to be complacent in believing that a "womyn born womyn" fest makes us safer.
Both sides believe they have legitimate concerns and issues, and unfortunately the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival has done a bad job of evolving and communicating over the past 20 years on this issue. Just as the experiences of 1970s women were vastly different from those of the 1950s, so too are the experiences of women today compared to the 1970s. By mostly burying their heads in the Michigan sands, they have forced performers and attendees to choose sides. As a result, all sides have been hurt.
That hurt has lead to very ugly allegations and aggressive behaviors that only further damage the discussions. Cooler heads long ago left the campground.
It is time for a more clear resolution to this issue. Don't ask, don't tell did not work for the military, and it should not be acceptable for a women's music festival. If a transgender person identifies as a woman, they should be allowed in. Transgender men should be respectful of this, as well. Enjoy the festival, but know that everyone is there to enjoy a women's space. Both sides need to understand that our bodies do not always reflect our true selves, but that some bodies can represent traumatic experience for others. It would be great to live in a postphysical-biological-gender world, but we do not live there yet. We can be the change we want to see in the world, and MichFest already has been this for three decades for women who do not conform to society's gender stereotypes for women. This would embrace a larger continuum.
So here are my suggestions:
1) The MichFest policy changes from a "womyn-born womyn/don't ask, don't tell" policy of allowing any woman in, to one of "women-identified-women." Trans people who identify as men, and want to be seen as men, should respect this.
2) We can't deny reality and trauma associated with secondary sex characteristics, but we can respect one another's personal experiences and traumas.
3) I want to say that I intentionally do not use the term cisgender to describe myself or others. I do not choose or prefer that word. It is a word that came out of academic debates on these issues (and it is sometimes used as a slur or as a way to dismiss certain voices), and a lot of us simply do not want that label. I do not call myself homosexual, either, even if it is a true description. I think just as I am trying to honor the myriad ways that transgender and gender non-conforming people are labeling (or not labeling) themselves, we should respect that lesbians who are not transgender also should be able to label ourselves. There are many transgender women who want to be known just as women, especially after a few years post-transition. Let's honor what we want to call ourselves. I am also going to try to better understand and accept this cisgender word as something others call me, even while we try to work together on better self-definitions.
4) We need to commit to learning and evolving on these issues, and to have patience with one another. Some people have clear differences of opinion on medical intervention on gender issues, while others are on a journey of transition. We have to learn from one another, and respect one another, even when we disagree on core values and intentions.
Ultimately, if we choose to be with women of all kinds, regardless of race, abilities, sexual orientation, age, religion and other categories, we must understand that transgender women are women, they just got here through a different path. My path as a white lesbian in Chicago is different than an Asian lesbian's path from Canada, or an African American woman's path from Mississippi, or a Latina lesbian's path from California. We have fought long and hard to be able to define "Our Bodies, Ourselves," to quote a famous book title. Our transgender women friends have done the same, and we should be strong enough as a community to withstand the different lived experiences this might bring to MichFest.
Tracy Baim is publisher of Windy City Times.
MichFest: A Response, by Anne Leighton
This is a response to Tracy Baim's column on Mich-Fest.
I don't agree with your column.
So, according to the calculations offered, I am an extremist. Erasure of Radicalism. That is what your column does for me, it erases Radical Lesbian Feminism. And what depresses the hell out of me is that I know there is no malevolence on your part. You are not trying to destroy us, you simply accept and further a narrative in which we don't exist.
Without malevolence you are comfortable calling Festival policy "don't ask, don't tell." You begin your column with that. You see the policy as not enforced. You are right and so very, very wrong. You are correct that MichFest tries not to engage in patriarchal practices of enforcement as a way of dealing with each other. But you haven't allowed for that possibility, it simply doesn't exist. Erasure.
MichFest has never been a conservative nor liberal institution. It has been and remains a Radical one. Radically it recognizes that one size does not fit all. Radically it recognizes that difference matters AND is fluid. Yet space is less fluid and MichFest grapples with that daily. Chem-free space, womyn of color only space, healing spaces of all sorts, kid space, tween space, each distinct, each with purpose. And each not particularly interested in wasting energy patrolling boundaries.
MichFest is a material reality, not a political party. Our tents are real. Radically we deal with the silliness and difficulty of actual space inhabited by real bodies with complex identities and behaviors. So smoke-free seating is not butted directly against smoke-ok seating. The middle ground is empty of seats, a space for travel. And the wind changes direction, nothing is perfect or fixed.
The festival does not "enforce" because it expects and encourages all womyn to respect themselves, each other, and our various spaces. Because we don't police our boundaries (with what, guns and panty checks?), you call the policy an "untenable compromise."
Respectnot a possibility. Erasure. The enacting of Radical Lesbian Feminism? Nah.
Respect is fostered within the Festival itself, e.g., don't fill up DART or Deaf space close to stage if you are able-bodied or hearing. And yes, security will remind womyn of the intention of that space. Not to police, but to remind all of us that our differences exist in real bodies, in real spaces.
In your column, the radicalness of asking each and every womyn to "respect the intention" is erased. Replaced with the golem of DADT.
But hey, we don't exist. Not really. So it makes sense to rhetorically compare participants of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival to the United States Military. It makes sense for the Editor of the Midwest's largest LGBTQ paper to compare dykes in the woods creating, sharing, arguing, and making love to the United States Military. This is the Middle Ground. Down the rabbit hole.
A rabbit hole where NOT acting like the military in policing boundaries gets you compared to the world's deadliest institution.
That, Tracy, is a real no-win situation. Not because there aren't winners but because we don't even exist in the Land of Middle Ground.
Instead what exists is the reiteration of the Indigo Girls' statement that "womyn have a variety of self-expression and appearance … as they stand in many different places on the spectrum from femininity to masculinity." Because, hey, those of us who have spent our lives rejecting and attempting to create outside of that spectrum, we don't exist. Or maybe we do. We are the un "evolved" ones, stuck in the past, refusing to accept our binary present and non-existent future. Dang extremists. Daring to imagine while dealing with material reality.
No we don't really exist. Why should Lisa Vogel's (co-founder and producer of MichFest) words matter?
Lisa Vogel, April 11, 2013 (as printed by Windy City Times): "I passionately believe the healing in our community will occur when we unconditionally accept transwomyn as womyn while not dismissing or disavowing the lived experience and realities of the WBW (womyn-born womyn) gender identity."
But what matters in the Land of Middle Ground is that "MichFest … is symbolic of the struggle of transgender women to be seen as women." Okay, so in Middle Ground Land, when the big bad ugly of MichFest actually says transwomyn are womyn, it doesn't count because MichFest is symbolic? And this is the non-academic level of discourse?
Oh wait, wait, wait, don't tell me, I forgot. We don't actually exist. (You know how it is as you age, memory and all.)
Okay so here we are at Symbolic Station in Middle Ground Land. (Do the porta potties smell?) At Symbolic Station, real words don't matter. Check. But the policy that you so deride for not being "enforced" is kinda then, you know, like, just words … . So words do matter. (This middle ground is hard on the brain.) Oh I get it now, just like Radical Lesbian Feminists camping and peeing in the woods don't actually exist, just some words exist or matter. Well obviously Lisa's words, "we unconditionally accept transwomyn as womyn" doesn't matter here at Symbolic Station. So what's left from Lisa's statement then, is womyn-born womyn as an identity. That's it.
And this is where the middle ground and symbol land re-emerge into material reality. Because believing, acting and saying that transwomyn are womyn does not count when said by someone who wants womyn-born womyn space respected. The reality is that MichFest is a space for womyn-born womyn, both materially and conceptually. That is the problem, that is what must end. We can only all be womyn if none of us claims the right to gather in our own name. We can only all be womyn if none of us claims an identity that excludes anyone who wishes to claim that same identity. Comfortable doing that about any womyn of color, veteran, working class or differently-abled gatherings? No? Why not? These categories are just as mushy, fluid and real. But wait, wait, that's nor right either. It's OK for boycott petition author Red Durkin to organize transgender only gatherings because transwomyn exist in Middle Ground Land, radical lesbian feminists do not. Yet you want me to come to Middle Ground, where I don't exist. That is a compromise worthy of Democratic politicians.
You conclude by saying that "we have fought long and hard to be able to define 'Our Bodies, Ourselves.'" I agree. Where you and I disagree is that I see not only fighting but creating. And that our creating (and unfortunately fighting) needs to continue. The concept, the identity, the lived experiences of womyn-born womyn contribute to the creative enacting of our bodies, ourselves.
You say that "ultimately, if we choose to be with women of all kinds, regardless of race, abilities, sexual orientation, age, religion and other categories, we must understand that transgender women are women, they just got here through a different path." I agree, and that path matters. It is not a random line on an abstract map. It is a set of relations. Relationships that are complicated, fluid, supportive, oppressive, rigid, simple. Relationships between real people and concrete material institutions. Womyn-born womyn in the woods are real.
This is not about authenticity. Let me repeat that. This is not about authenticity. It is about diverse womyn, primarily lesbian, saying I desire this particular formation of community, this is what I want to help create, learn with, be with for one week.
Your compromise asks us to evolve into non-existence. To gracefully and quietly commit suicide. Like Real Women. (The phrase Like Real Women is used here ironically with an added dash of bitterness and a large helping of sorrow. That womyn-born womyn are being asked to 'evolve' into a colonial patriarchal construct of femininityone that renounces self in favor of others. Like Real Women.)
Anne Leighton is a Chicago lesbian activist.
See related article here: End of gender or start of community, Thoughts on MichFest, by Kate Sosin, here: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/VIEWS-End-of-gender-or-start-of-community-Thoughts-on-MichFest/43969.html .