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By Lisa Vogel, founder and producer of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival
Many demands have been made of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (“Michfest”) via the Equality Michigan call for a boycott launched July 28. We have a few demands of our own.
1. Get Your Facts Straight
As the 39th Festival closes and we turn our hearts and minds to our landmark 40th anniversary, we reiterate that Michfest recognizes trans women as women – and they are our sisters. We do not fear their presence among us, a false claim repeatedly made. What we resist – and what we will never stop fighting – is the continued erasure and disrespect for the specific experience of being born and living as female in a patriarchal, misogynist world.
Over 20 years ago, we asked Nancy Burkholder, a trans woman, to leave the Land. That was wrong, and for that, we are sorry. We, alongside the rest of the LGBTQ community, have learned and changed a great deal over our 39-year history. We speak to you now in 2014 after two decades of evolution; an evolution grown from our willingness to stay in hard conversations, just as we do every year around issues of race, ability, class and gender. Since that single incident, Festival organizers have never asked a trans woman to leave the Festival. We have a radical commitment to creating a space where for one week a year, no one’s gender is questioned – it’s one of the most unique and valued aspects of the Festival. The Michfest community has always been populated by women who bear the burden of unwanted gender scrutiny every day.
The truth is, trans women and trans men attend the Festival, blog about their experiences, and work on crew. Again, it is not the inclusion of trans women at Festival that we resist; it is the erasure of the specificity of female experience in the discussion of the space itself that stifles progress in this conversation. As long as those who boycott and threaten Michfest do not acknowledge the reasons why the space was created in the first place, and has remained vital for four decades, the conversation remains deadlocked.
2. Acknowledge The Validity of Autonomous, Female-Defined Space
Michfest is widely known as a predominantly lesbian community. This does not mean that heterosexual women, bisexual women, or those who do not share this identity are not present or welcome. But for a week, we collectively experience a lesbian-centered world; we experience what it feels like to be in a community defined by lesbian culture.
There are trans women and trans men who attend and work at the Festival who participate in the Michfest community in this same spirit – as supporters of, rather than detractors from, our female-focused culture. The presence of trans women at Michfest has been misrepresented as a kind of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But the real issue is about the focus of the event, a focus on the experience of those born female, who’ve lived their lives subjected to oppression based on the sole fact of their being female.
In an August 4, 2014 article titled ” What Is a Woman: The Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism,” The New Yorker magazine documents the extremism of the current push for language that erases the female experience. The board of the New York Abortion Access Fund, for example, “voted unanimously to stop using the word ‘women’ when talking about people who get pregnant. A Change.org petition directed at NARAL and Planned Parenthood “specifically criticizes the hash tag #StandWithTexasWomen. . .and the phrase ‘Trust Women.'”
We see this same pressure for erasure of a specifically female reality when “Pussy Manifesto,” the female empowerment song written by the performers Bitch and Animal, now embraced as an unofficial Michfest anthem, is disparaged by some as transphobic – as was the event “A Night of A Thousand Vaginas” – solely for the use of the words vagina and pussy.
If it is considered transphobic to talk about our pussies, our vaginas, or to even use the word female as specific to sex, our movement is dangerously close to using the same tactics as the far right, women hating, Michigan Republican leadership, who revoked the speaking privileges of two female legislators for saying the word vagina out loud on the Michigan State House floor. What has our movement come to when the mere articulation of your own experience in your own female body is denounced as an injury to another? It’s time to examine the core issue here, which is our right to create an autonomous space focused on a female-defined experience.
3. Acknowledge That Michfest Creates Spaces That Do Not Exist Elsewhere
This year, thousands of women and girls from 3 weeks to 92 years old attended our 39th Festival. This included over 75 deaf women who came to rejuvenate and be in community. Nearly 200 women with disabilities came into the woods to thrive. At one of the workshops held this year, young women stated that until they came to Festival, they had never seen an old gender-non-conforming female in person; they did not know that those women existed. We built this space to let these women be seen and celebrated. We built this space around the fierce solidarity of female experience that has always been and continues to be deconstructed into invisibility; where that unique experience is relegated to a place of dishonor. Whenever females honor ourselves, wherever we take up space, and sit collectively in the source of our collective power, we are burned and stoned, both literally and metaphorically.
4. Turn Your Energy Towards the Real Enemies of Female and LGBTQ Liberation
While the abuse and disenfranchisement of women and girls escalates around the world and LGBTQ people experience life-threatening harms, LGBTQ organizations have turned inwards on a curious target – a weeklong music festival that does not ban or exclude anyone, that simply seeks to devote its focus to an experience that is denigrated in the larger world: the experience of being born and living as female.
Equality Michigan and the organizations endorsing its petition including HRC, the Task Force, NCLR and the National Black Justice Coalition, are targeting Michfest with McCarthy-era blacklist tactics. Specifically, they have called for attendees and artists to boycott the event, and – astonishingly – have threatened the livelihood of artists and vendors by branding those who participate in the Festival as “having committed anti-transgender discrimination.”
These organizations are targeting artists who perform at Michfest while remaining completely silent when queer-identified artists play at venues that generate profits for racist, transphobic, and homophobic corporate entities and individuals, whose interests are dangerous to the global LGBTQ movement and all basic human rights.
We call on the constituents, donors, and dues-paying members of the LGBTQ institutions targeting Michfest to hold them accountable for this misuse and misdirection of organizational resources, and to withdraw their time and dollars from these organizations until the targeting of Michfest ends. Sisters – we urge you to redirect your money to organizations that speak to your lives and speak for you.
5. Join the Conversation, Not the Digital Sound Bite War
Our community is strong enough to hold disagreement and to engage deeply with each other, face-to-face, through difficulty. The Michfest community welcomes conversation; we do not stifle it. We have and will continue to remain in community with those trans women for whom Michfest has been home; trans women like those organizing the New Narratives Conference who do not require females to disappear ourselves or our unique experiences to prove our political and social solidarity.
Michfest has always existed outside the gender binary. We built this city out of a radical diversity of age, culture, race, class and gender. We continue the revolutionary work of digging out from under the boot of patriarchy; a system of oppression so omnipresent, it is invisible in the analysis used by the very organizations who are supposed to be fighting alongside and for us. We are fierce allies to and members of the trans and broader LGBTQ movement – but our alliance cannot and will not be premised on our continued erasure.
We turn to our LGBTQ community and say: we hear your truths; we ask you to acknowledge that you hear ours. Listen to the voices of the tens of thousands of women who call Michfest home. Join the conversation in person in your home communities, not exclusively through social media platforms or online petitions. We invite our sisters to participate in this conversation in person on the Land. Make room in your heart to hold difference of opinion and disagreement – this is the challenging path to honoring true diversity. We turn to our LGBTQ community and ask you to unite with us in the belief that we can work together as a movement and stand together in solidarity. We ask you to work with us, not against us.