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By Pamela Benetti
When I decided to write an article about Camp Trans it was impossible to divorce it from discussing the trans-exclusion policy of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which Camp Trans formed to protest in 1992 after the expulsion of a transsexual woman from the Festival.
The MWMF’s policy of excluding trans-women has become the proverbial “elephant in the living room” which no one outside the trans-community wants to discuss. The current state of affairs, a type of “don’t ask-don’t tell” policy is hardly ideal as it allows misconceptions and phobia of trans people to foment unchecked in a segregated environment which pays lip service to the concept of diversity.
An almost pathological reluctance to deal with this issue grips the MWMF’s leadership. None of the exclusion policy defenders will examine the concept that there are power imbalances and oppression between women, including transsexual women. They have a collective wish that this problem would just “go away” which is a sadly typical attitude of an oppressor when people begin raising their voices in protest, refuse to get back in their closets, refuse to give up their seat at the front of the bus, and refuse to “shut up and take it.”
Transsexual women are held in low regard by the media (think about it; when is the last time you heard a positive story about a trans-woman?) and the norm invalidates and denies the reality of trans-experience and identity. A minority of transphobic lesbians follow suit, refusing to acknowledge us as women on the premise that having been “socialized as men” “taints” us with male privilege. This sociologically determinant model of sex and gender is a politically correct wrapping containing biological determinism, the flawed theory that if your identity and gender presentation do not match your genitals there must be something wrong with you.
People I grew up with knew I was different, and some of them took it upon themselves to “correct” the situation using methods as diverse as beatings, verbal and emotional abuse, and sexual assault. By the time I was in high school and receiving daily “swirlies” from the jocks, being chased across the football field, ostracized, spit on, and urinated on, I was not feeling very “privileged.”
When a transphobe suggests I should just “be a feminine man” I recoil as I relive those moments of trauma. Aside from the fact that I am not a man and have never felt myself to be one, such an assertion is as invalidating of my identity and as offensive as the suggestion that a lesbian woman “hasn’t found the right man yet.”
Were the definition of woman expanded to include anyone who is living or has lived as a woman, including trans-women, it would still be possible to have a separate section of the Festival for womyn-born-womyn, just as there are separate sections for womyn of color, et.al. In my opinion that is the only way the “trans problem” will ever go away.
There are power imbalances between different types of trans-people as well, and Camp Trans is the perfect place to examine those imbalances.
Shortly after our arrival a procession of supporters came to Camp Trans from the MWMF. They joined us for vegetarian chili and volleyball. Lorraine remarked that from her vantage, watching the volleyball game it was impossible to discern who was who, the arbitrary divisions between “us” and “them” having been, for the moment, erased.
At a workshop I heard someone say that Camp Trans was an effort to create safe space for trans-people, and safe space doesn’t necessarily need to be exclusive space. I had never considered that safe space could exist aside from “passing.” To suddenly find myself in such an environment was a pleasant surprise as the evening progressed with music, dancing and volunteers speakers.
Before dawn I set out on a hike up the road. In near darkness I picked my way along, heading north, away from camp, away from the MWMF. The trees were dark silhouettes against the pink dawn sky as I hiked, heedless of time or distance. After awhile I came to halt, and awareness of where I was returned.
There was total silence.
I was about halfway back to camp when I came to the realization that I didn’t feel safe, out here alone down a dirt road in rural Michigan. The disconcerting thought crossed my mind that here, in this place, I was possibly as likely to be beaten up and left on the roadside by a trans-phobic lesbian as a skinhead or other more common breed of bigot. Such is the effect of bigotry, the imposition of a specialized form of paranoia from without, never knowing where the next attack may originate. Until everyone in GLBT community can feel free of this sort of oppression there is no community.
Transgender Advocacy Project
Ann Arbor Mi.