I Don't Care About MichFest's Trans Exclusion, You Shouldn't Either

In Depth

Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is currently wrapped up, and I guess it’s that time of the year where we all wring our hands over MichFest’s womyn-born-womyn (read: trans exclusionary) policy. Again. Like we have been doing every summer, apparently, since I was 10 years old. And once again, I just can’t seem to summon the requisite amount of outrage.

Weren’t we just here three months ago? Oh, right, we were. With major queer organisations like Michigan Equality, Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force jumping on the bandwagon calling for Fest to change its tune (yes, that was a music pun, deal with it), there has been a flurry of written commentary on how Fest needs to change, could change, and would be a major positive force if only it would change.

Given Fest’s decreasing profile, it might be important here to refresh just exactly what Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is. There is, of course, the obvious—it’s a music festival in Michigan focused on women (or womyn, for those who have historically opposed the use of the “e” because of the visual connection to “men,” and it is the event’s “intention” that anyone not assigned female at birth and who has not always been perceived as a girl and a woman, including in the present, and conceivably in the future should not attend), but how does Fest see itself?

In those woods you will find diverse and dynamic performances, interactive workshops, healthy foods, clean air and the most amazing sense of community, friendship and fun. Part music festival, part community happening – the experience of Michigan is based upon an essential participatory ethic that enriches the experience of cooperative living. Community. Celebration. Common Ground.

Which is all true. I don’t know this from personal experience, of course, but I have heard it and read it from others. Those who have gone, cisgender and transgender, and those who continue to go. I’ve had commenters show up to speak about the value of their personal experiences with Fest, and I really have no reason to disbelieve them. The fact that there are trans women who have attended and felt that Fest was an amazing experience certainly seems to be strong evidence that characterisations of The Land as run by the last vestiges of the the trans exclusionary radical feminist movement are complete malarky.

The commentary to sprout up around the controversy this summer includes the heartfelt plea for “saving The Land” from transgender attendee Kayley Whalen. And over at Autostraddle, Marie Lyn Bernard has written a wonderful piece on how Fest could change its policy rather easily, if only it were willing to do so. Beautifully written, wonderfully argued… but for me, ultimately not compelling. Even Whalen’s, whose love for Fest is obvious.

To save the Land, we cannot counter hate with hate. Denouncing MichFest as outdated, irrelevant, or out-of-touch will only dig our enemies in deeper and drive potential allies away. Even worse, if we do so we lose the opportunity to bridge the gap between generations of feminists, and divorce ourselves from our own history. An inclusive festival can inject new life into our collective fight against sexism, racism, classism, homophobia and transphobia.

Whalen’s idealism is seductive, but ultimately I think it suffers from serious tunnel vision. Although not explicitly stated by Bernard, I got the same sense reading her piece that she was drawing the same conclusion as Whalen: the argument over trans inclusion in Fest is a major battle in the quest to recognise womanhood’s many intersections. That Fest is some sort of concentrated microcosm of the clash between exclusionary radical feminisms and the intersectional feminisms increasingly embraced by the lesbian feminist community. A sort of lesbian feminist answer to New York, New York, “if we can make it here, we can make it anywhere.” A “win” at Fest will signal a tide that has turned, a tipping point finally toppled over.

…yeah, well. No. Do we really think that pressuring Fest to change its “intention” will cause some great shift in the thinking of exclusionary feminists? Anyone? Bueller? No, I thought not. Fest’s “intention” is a symptom, it is not a cause. Even if we could convince Lisa Vogel, creator of Fest, and the trans exclusionary organisers who stand with her, to change the “intention,” we are unlikely to change the thought processes behind its origin. I’m not sure how many of the exclusionary feminists I’ve had the distinct displeasure of meeting, either in person or online, even go to Fest. My gut feeling is not very many. While the population of these folks may be obvious at Fest (and Whalen and others make it clear that they are), they still represent a tiny minority of a tiny minority movement (which we do not like) of a movement which itself (feminism, or feminisms plural if you prefer, that in general we do like) is not nearly as large as I think we would like to see. Put bluntly, Fest is low hanging fruit. It’s an easy and convenient place to start, but changing it won’t change underlying issues.

Whalen says “denouncing MichFest as outdated, irrelevant, or out-of-touch will only dig our enemies in deeper and drive potential allies away,” but while I have no real wish to pursue a change in Fest’s policy… I can’t agree with her here. I’m not doing any denouncing (which upsets some people, they think I should be denouncing Fest, and my response is a languid “meh”), but I think it is outdated (at least as far as third wave feminist theory goes), I think it is out-of-touch with the views of third wave feminists, and as for irrelevant? I don’t just think it so, I know. And I’ve bluntly called it such.

At the very beginning of her piece, Bernard includes a quote about MichFest from Imogen Binnie. It’s a very powerful quote and it sets the stage for the complex historical sketching of MichFest and the reasoning for its need to evolve which Bernard constructs.

Who cares, right? Some stupid festival. Except this thing happens where I meet somebody who seems like a cool queer, talk to them for a while, find out eventually that they go to Michfest, and end up realizing: I cannot trust anyone. Nobody has to be accountable to trans women about this shit anywhere, ever. It is this insidious thing that sneaks up on you every time you go to a party or a reading or something: one of these queers to whom I’ve just been introduced goes to Michfest. I mean, I think it is clear how that would make a trans woman feel fucked up, right? “Oh yeah I am good friends with someone who spends hundreds of dollars every summer to support a group that defines ‘woman’ as ‘not you.'”

Except that’s not what’s happening from where I sit. I can’t name one single person I actually know, really know, consider a friend or at least a several-times-acquaintance from various queer events who has even been to MichFest. And sure, I live in Japan, and many of those acquaintances are Japanese, but most of these folks are not Japanese. In fact, a significant plurality of them are fellow American citizens. I was born in Illinois. I grew up in New Mexico and Texas. My wider social network is still largely American…and I can’t name a single person I know who has attended Fest. And of those I suspect might have attended Fest, not a single one is under 30 years of age. I addressed this three months ago, and I’ll quote it here:

In my own experiences and circles, I see young cisgender queer women increasingly reject the idea of male socialisation as so encompassing, so all-powerful that trans women are incapable of rejecting it or escaping it. My friends, my peers, and my acquaintances both Japanese and Western, who are early thirties or younger—they simply don’t buy the argument MichFest is selling, and neither are the women I attended graduate school with at a woman’s university. They don’t want the product being sold because they find the product out of touch with their values as members of the nebulous identities of “woman” and “lesbian” and “queer” and “feminist.”

This is what is causing Fest’s irrelevance. Not calls by trans activists or activist allies for Fest to change. Not pressure on artists. A combination of ignorance of Fest (Bernard says 46% of Autostraddle’s readers when surveyed didn’t even know what Fest was, which is hard to for me to imagine, because I’ve known what Fest was since I was a very closeted teenager in the late 90s, if only vaguely, with no knowledge of transgender realities, let alone transgender politics) and a distaste if not outright disgust from young queer cisgender women who increasingly know, are friends with, or are currently in relationships with young queer transgender women who do know about it as “that festival that doesn’t include all women” is making Fest irrelevant. Not to the former or current attendees. Not to Whalen who wants to make her “home” continue to play a significant role in lesbian feminist culture and discourse… Just to, you know, everyone else.

There’s no denunciation here, Kayley. Just a cold, hard, and very uncomfortable truth for Fest’s most devoted fans. And I’m genuinely sympathetic. Finding your “home,” which has been so central to lesbian feminist culture and history, slide into irrelevance can’t be easy. It has to hurt. A lot.

However… let’s really consider this. Why on earth would my friends or, even more bluntly, my girlfriends want to go to a celebration of womanhood that denies my womanhood, and of course my lesbianism, which thereby challenges and erases at least elements of theirs too, by extension? They don’t. Period. The irony is, I’ve actually been placed in the position of arguing for leaving Fest alone with female-assigned-at-birth women and non-women, genderqueer and trans men. These FAAB folks were outraged and appalled that I would be excluded and felt like they wanted to really do something about it.

Fest was mentioned at and after Japan’s Dyke Weekend, which I attended in May (there is another one coming up in September). We had a large meeting on the one day where there was a discussion about just who qualified as a dyke. The English materials clearly state, “Being a lesbian, bi, queer, trans (or what ever your preferred descriptor of choice) woman has never been easy. Beyond the wonders of Nichome and selected spots around Japan, there is a lack of awesome queer spaces where we can be ourselves, talk community, and most importantly, have fun. Dyke Weekend is one of those rare spots for women who love women, and we are excited to invite you to the 2014 edition!!” However, the Japanese text didn’t clarify this, and although Dyke Weekend has never been explicitly trans exclusionary, it’s never been explicitly trans inclusionary either. So, there was a mismatch in expectations amongst those who attended, since we were pretty evenly divided between Japanese and non-Japanese and had ages from 19 to, I think, 50 or 60-something. Part of the issue was that the organising team changes from event to event/year to year, and so although DWE has been going on for roughly 30 years, the flavor has always been in flux.

As far as I am aware, I was the only trans woman who attended, at least openly. No one seemed to have any issue with me being there, and I was only misgendered once, and not by someone hostile to my presence. During our discussion, it came to light that due to the wide variety of women present at the event, those that didn’t already know me personally (those members of the organising committee and several of the attendees) hadn’t really questioned my “cisness” (although it wasn’t phrased that way, exactly). On the day of the discussion we also opened up attendance to everyone (absolutely not true on the other days) so we could take in views from elsewhere—including views from men. This might seem contrary to the purpose of DWE to some, but there is value in having that openness—with women firmly in control, which is what makes it different from other spaces. After a thorough and sometimes truly heated discussion, we seemed to settle on two views for future events: you were a dyke if you said you were and the only group we absolutely would not allow was cisgender men. Trans women are women, period, and female assigned at birth genderqueer individuals or trans men have a history growing up in a patriarchal society being read as girls or women, which gives them a unique perspective and need for the space. If they want it, and I think many trans men perhaps don’t. This seemed to satisfy the diverse generations, philosophies, and ethnicities of those in attendance.

While it was surreal to be present in a conversation where my womanness and lesbianness was being evaluated for validation, it never seemed to me that I would actually be hung out to dry. What objections were raised seemed more… pro forma than closely held beliefs that trans women should be excluded. Either attempts at devil’s advocate or questions from those who hadn’t really interacted with trans women in women’s spaces asking questions about what to expect—and being assured that they shouldn’t expect anything they would not expect from cisgender women. It had certainly helped that preceding the discussion, I served on a panel with two FAAB folks, one genderqueer (or genderNOPE as she and he might put it) and one a trans man.

Globally, and certainly compared to the United States, DWE is not unique. I mean, as a queer-oriented, woman-only space it’s unique compared to spaces in general, but there are now many such spaces around. Most if not all women’s music festivals in the United States now allow trans women. Some even allow men, just like my woman’s university does, with a strong, in your face statement about the space being primarily for and about women. Fest has a lot of competition, and I think in the debate overs its “intention,” we sometimes forget that it does. Not just those who would change the “intention” but those who support it.

Lesbian feminist culture is not contained entirely inside of The Land for one week each August. We can keep the great things added to the culture and produced on The Land and bring them out to other venues. Inclusive venues without the moral sleight of hand of the “intention.” With opportunities to go to events like DWE in Japan or the many trans inclusive spaces and women’s music festivals in the United States and elsewhere, why would young queer cisgender women want to go to Fest? By the numbers, it is clear that they don’t. There will always be those who attend Fest, “intention” or not, and some of those folks will be younger. Yet they will always be a minority, cut off from the broader arc of lesbian feminist discourse. Whatever they may gain by attending Fest also entails a loss of something else.

I would welcome a change by Lisa Vogel and the other organisers of Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I would applaud it. I would say, “good for you” and “about time,” but… even if I were in the states at the time, I probably wouldn’t go. Wouldn’t feel comfortable going for several years. Not until we had a post-“intention” shakedown period and I heard anecdotes and reports from those choosing to attend. Yet… I am not holding my breath. I’m not even calling for the “intention” to be dropped. I think it’s time we moved on.

I’ve got another Dyke Weekend to go to, and this one is going to be on some badass tropical islands from what I hear. Sounds like fun!

Top image via Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, other images via Kat Callahan.

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