By Sarah Mieras
HART – Transgender activists from throughout the world will once again set up camp across the road from the world’s largest women-only event to protest a long standing policy that excludes certain groups of women from attending.
Close to three decades old, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has a policy that excludes anyone who is not a born female from attending the weeklong event, held on more than 600 private acres in the Manistee National Forest. Transgender activists have long hailed the policy as discriminatory, since it bars pre- and post-operative male to female persons from attending the festival.
In response to the policy, Camp Trans was born as a protest outside the Women’s Festival gates in 1991. In recent years Camp Trans has become a festival in its own right, including workshops, camping space and outreach to festival attendants. Despite its recent transition into its own event, organizers of Camp Trans maintain that the focus of the gathering still remains changing the Womyn’s Festival policy to include a more inclusive definition of “woman.”
“I think the women-born-only policy doesn’t take into account the reality of transgender identity,” said Carrie Tune-Copeland, secretary for TransGender Michigan. “If the Festival was to truly appreciate the richness of gender identity then more people would be let in and they wouldn’t be acting like the gender police.”
Despite the policy, Tune-Copeland, like many trans activists, has attended the Womyn’s Festival in recent years with her female to male partner. Inside the gates of the Festival she was surprised to find that many trans-identified people were present, silently blending in to the crowd.
“There were so many trans-identified people on the land it was amazing. But, it was as if it was a dirty little secret that no one talks about.”
Camp Trans’ 2004 Outreach Coordinator, Julia Serano of Oakland California, is not content with the Festival’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to allowing trans-identified women on the land. In fact, she believes the stalemate that has emerged between Festival organizers and Camp Trans is sending a message to the lesbian feminist community that discrimination against trans people is acceptable.
“The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is the largest women’s only space in the world, and it really sets a precedent that it is okay to exclude trans women from whatever space they are in,” explained Serano.
As a member of the queer women’s community, Serano notes that she feels the effects of the policy not just in August each year, but every day.
“Over the last few years, living as an out trans woman, I have seen a lot of ramifications in my everyday life in the queer communityin Michigan,” explained Serano. “I find myself as a trans woman in the queer woman’s community constantly explaining myself and my identity.”
Tune-Copeland also feels that the effects of the policy extend well beyond the gates of the Festival.
“I feel very leery about feminist space now. The fact that my relationship is not seen as a valid one makes me feel as if I have lost my community. I feel as if I am no longer a valid part of feminist culture.”
The policy, said Tune-Copeland, represents an outdated feminist construct of gender identity, and like most discrimination, she believes the policy is an outgrowth of fear.
“I think that they really believe that “woman” is no longer going to be seen as a valid identity, they think that it will become something that is mutable, and that scares them,” explained Tune-Copeland.
The policy also places female-to-male trans-identified people in an interesting conundrum, noted Serano, since as people who were born women their presence on the Land is rarely questioned. However, under the policy these people, who identify as the male gender, must identify as women to attend.
“Saying that all trans women have male energy also undermines people on the FTM spectrum by saying that their masculinity is simply fake,” said Serano.
Like other organizers and attendants at the 2004 Camp Trans, she hopes that the Festival will someday open its gates to all women and accept that bodies do not define gender identities.
This year’s Camp Trans will take place August 9 through 15 on land just down the road from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Aside from hosting workshops and an area for camping, those who attend Camp Trans can expect one vegetarian communal meal a day and to participate in group chores to maintain the camp space. As in previous years, Camp Trans attendants will be busy “working the line” outside the gates of the Festival to discuss the woman-born-woman policy with those waiting in line.
“A lot of people who attend the Festival are completely unaware of the woman born woman policy,” said Serano, “and they are appalled when they find out.”
As for the official word from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, one worker, Sandy Ramsey, said she wasn’t aware of anything Camp Trans was planning for this August.
“We really can’t speak to what they do, it’s a separate thing,” said Ramsey.