By Carol Tanis
This summer, on 650 acres of land just north of Hart, thousands of women will gather for one week in a community created by women for women. Scheduled for Aug. 6-11, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival provides a safe space for attendees to camp in the woods, participate in workshops, listen to a wide variety of music, watch films and simply commune with each other in nature. Besides various regions of the U.S., visitors to the festival come from distant countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Russia and Scotland.
This year marks the 38th year for the festival – and co-founder Lisa Vogel has helped to produce every one. Born in Bay City, she moved to Mt. Pleasant to attend Central Michigan University. At age 19, she, along with other women from the region, launched the festival in 1976 just outside the village of Remus.
Over the years, countless controversies have plagued the event. The food, being one. Also, outsiders, such as religious fundamentalists, even tried to put an end to the festival at one time. The continued controversery, though, is whether to admit transgender individuals.
BTL got festival co-founder Lisa Vogel on the phone to talk about the heated transgender debate, the event’s rugged history and the challenges that lie ahead.
What excites you most about the 2013 Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival?
I think we have an awesome program for this year’s festival. It’s really diverse and it highlights a lot of strong, beloved returning groups and some really exciting new talent. It really reflects the diversity and breadth of the Michigan audience, and I’m excited about it.
Is there anything new for the coming year in terms of workshops, amenities and special acts?
We’ve received requests to initiate an adult camping area and we’re going to be putting some serious thought into where this could go in the general camping area. We want to have a campground where mothers can know this is not an area to camp with little ones. It’s certainly not an antifamily thing, but I think there is some desire around adult behavior in tents, where they don’t have to be concerned about little ones overhearing personal moments. So we’re going to be looking for a good place to create some adult space within the general camping area, just as we have family camping.
Attendance has been down and there are rumors the festival might be coming to an end. What is the current state of the festival?
We’ve been reshaping the festival over the last decade. It’s never lost on me that this will be our 38th year and we’re already in miracle territory to keep something alive and viable and vibrant and relevant for all of these years.
Whenever this question is posed, I feel gratitude that the community supports and still has the desire to create this kind of space together. It’s far more than a concert. It’s an experiment in living where we create all of these support systems and services so we can live in this experimental community for the week. And that takes a lot of resources. As the numbers have lessened, it has been difficult in recent years in order to make our budget with all of those things we need to meet on the numbers we’ve been getting. We’re really hoping we can bring 500 or a thousand women back into the festival, or bring new women into the festival to be able to support the infrastructure that we have.
Those of us who work on it are dedicated to continue to do it. And while the financial health has been a little dubious, the spiritual health has been strong. I’m convinced and still very confident that what women receive from that week at the festival is precious and valuable. Meanwhile, we’re in changing times and challenging economic times. I’m hoping that we weather it. We’ve weathered a lot of things in the last 37 years and we have every intention to give it our best energy and keep making community on the land for many more years to come.
The question of whether allow transgender individuals into the festival has been a big issue. How do things currently stand with that?
This is a very complicated discussion. We don’t actually allow or disallow anyone from attending, and we actually never have. We do say, and we have said, that the focus of this festival is for women who were born female and we want that to be where the focus and energy lies. We feel that in the greater queer community affinity groups have the right and responsibility to say whom they would like to gather with. And it’s everyone’s decision how and if they respect that. That statement has been taken out of context many times. And people have run with it in either side of the discussion. So, it’s been very polarizing for the festival. For the women who love the festival, there is such a vibrant and broad representation of gender identity, so for this community to be understood to be narrow in its scope of understanding gender is really missing the importance of the discussion in terms of a female identified community.
It’s a complicated discussion. It’s not simple. I can’t say that I’ve seen that it’s been a big discussion in the gay male community, but in the lesbian community it’s a big discussion. And Michigan has always been some place where the discussions are ripe, get discussed, and acted out and argued out and the passion play happens. So I’m heartened that there are many women who attend the festival who have strong beliefs on all sides of this discussion and are able to have this conversation at the festival with respect for differences, and hopefully we’ll come to a place where there is greater understanding – where everyone has respect for the authentic experience of every individual.
What are some of the biggest changes or trends you’ve seen in the festival and attendees in the last 10 to 20 years? Is it that more children are present?
When the festival first began, the only children that anybody knew of were from women who had been divorced and had been married to men. They had children and then they came out, and what we’ve seen in the last 35 years is several waves of a lesbian baby boom. There were very few children in the first handful of festivals. Now, we just heard from someone who was brought by her mother when she was 7 and now her mother and her and her daughter are coming. And we get a lot of stories of three, and sometimes four, generations of women in a family coming to the festival together – that it’s kind of like a rite of passage.
How does the Michigan Womyn’s Festival compare to other such festivals held in the United States?
The thing that is unique about this festival is that it happens on the land and that it’s a week long. We get to have the experience of being there and really getting into a groove of a culture together. Plus, we’re not moving into a pre-existing space or a camp. You walk around and know that women did the plumbing, women did the stands, women put up those tents, and it just starts to sink in that this is a town created for women by women. And it’s in harmony with the natural environment to the degree that when you leave, you couldn’t tell two weeks after the festival that a festival had happened there. That’s intentional.
Having been with the festival since the beginning, what’s your happiest memory?
I don’t have a happiest memory; I just have so many memories. We really present some fantastic music and entertainment and workshops and politics, and the experience we really feel has been valuable over the years is for women to have the experience that we create together that is very unique to that space. And whether there’s been 6,000 or 3,000, that energy has remained intact.