It’s early August in Queerdom, and women across the continent are packing their bags for a rural Michigan week of top-tier folk/punk music and counterculture politics. Welcome to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (affectionately known as MichFest), now in its 38th year as the world’s biggest hit of lesbian separatist nostalgia. Here you can hang with your sisters in what founder Lisa Vogel calls “autonomously defined space for womyn who are born female.”
Wait. What? Those words are a big red flag to people versed in the mucky underside of lesbiana — and not because they spell “women” with new and interesting vowels. MichFest designs this “countercultural” festival to be free of transgender and intersex women. They don’t advertise it on their posters or their ticket website, but it’s a decades-old stance with deep wounds and zero progress. Or it was until this year.
The Indigo Girls are a dyke cultural staple, at least if you’re my age. They’ve headlined MichFest since the 1990s and made trouble since the 2000s when they started using stage time to point out that if MichFest claims to welcome all women into global sisterhood, they should actually welcome all women.
Seeing no progress, Amy and Emily finally went elsewhere. The same goes for Hunter Valentine and a lot of other artists, in part because word has gotten around that if you headline where trans people are told to fuck off, Pride music events may tell you to fuck off.
Oh, and you know the Human Rights Campaign (HRC)? That American milquetoast behemoth that fought for gay marriage while stripping trans protections out of anti-discrimination bills? They’re onside too. I love you, 2014.
In years past, when people asked MichFest organizers what their problem was, they at most repeated the party line: womyn-born womyn need this as a unique space to heal. Seriously? Space for marginalized groups is great, but excluding marginalized subgroups? Women’s lib used to push out lesbians. Feminist groups used to kick out sex workers. MichFest reportedly even used to tell women not to be “too butch” onstage. All these were on the losing side of herstory, thank Goddess.
We know that trans people are treated very poorly in general, and religious and other conservatives fight to keep it this way. So why are we pissy about one little festival? Well, a longstanding cause of transgender poverty, illness and death is hostile women’s organizations. Seriously. Trans-exclusive radical feminists (“TERFs”) have fought to deny trans and intersex women (often along with sex workers, butch women, kinky women and women with abusive female partners) access to shelters, medical care, training programs and simple community.
And, unlike religious conservatives, they don’t advertise their politics when asking for support. Instead, they take donations of hours and dollars, then spring their agenda on people in their own community when they’re at their most vulnerable.
Fortunately, inclusive feminism has progressed rapidly, leaving TERFs a shrinking minority, albeit with institutional connections and ties to donors. MichFest is not only their foremost icon; it’s their international hub. The people who defend their trans-free week in Michigan are usually the ones who go home to push trans exclusion where lives are on the line.
But now, MichFest’s lesbian sisters are calling shenanigans, and the festival, scared, has actually engaged. Well, kind of. Organizers put out press releases declaring that they “stand in solidarity with our trans sisters” although they will not change their policy. Instead, decrying “fear, bullying and harassment” that will only “divide our communities,” they call for financial support for themselves and the artists who haven’t yet boycotted them.
Having stated their intractable position, they call for “open dialogue” and conclude with a link to a DIY video set to Melissa Ferrick’s “I Don’t Want You to Change.” At least their soundtrack is internally consistent.
Does MichFest’s brand of radical feminist politics remind you less of fun times at Pride and more of dealing with religious conservatives? Consider: they claim to be allies to the ones they’re hurting. They mistake doctrine for dialogue. And when communities grow tired of stalling and demand change, they claim that they’re the ones being oppressed.
It’s another case of tradition versus equality, much like the fight for gay marriage or anything else we have the luxury of sometimes taking for granted. The human-rights side engages in debate and actually listens. The other side requotes bibles or policy.
Human rights grow, evolve and moult into common culture. MichFest, like other bodies anchored to tradition, is waking up to realize that herstory is passing it by. It is faced with a choice: adapt, or hold to the past so tightly that it is consigned to it.