3 min

Lessons from Michfest decision to fold rather than change

How will herstory remember trans-exclusive lesbian festival?

Rather than engage in meaningful conversation with its challengers, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has decided to make this year its last. Credit: Windy City Times/Brenda Schumacher

On April 21 Lisa Vogel, founder and spokesperson for the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, announced that its 40th year would be its last. Neither Vogel nor Michfest communications explained this abrupt end. Attendance was shrinking like many sister festivals, but it still hit a respectable 2,300 last year. So why close?

As a quick dip in any Michfest-related forum will show, the cis-only “intention” to create what Vogel calls “ . . . the crucible for nearly every critical cultural and political issue the lesbian feminist community has grappled with for over four decades” facilitated a culture of transmisogyny more spectacular than any folk headliner.

You’d think this would spell certain failure for a progressive-branded space. But Michfest had a 39-year record, and most people expected it to coast onwards in intractable controversy.

Instead, the Festival chose to go down in herstory as another example of a space that won’t adapt — one day it up and implodes, the people who lose out the most are its own supporters, and the world forgets about it.

This shutdown is Michfest’s endgame against criticism. For the first two decades of transgender protest camps, leafletting and awkward conversations at Pride, we saw nothing more than a hard-to-find release calling on trans women to respect their exclusion. Other than that, the Festival refused public discussion of the issue, omitting it from all Festival advertising and ticket sites.

But in March 2013, progressives changed tactics. Red Durkin issued a petition for 16 artists to boycott Michfest. Only then did Vogel finally pen a public letter restating her assertion that the allegations of transphobia were false, that the boycott was unjust, and that the real solution was public dialogue.

Could dialogue bring everyone to understanding and mutual change? Progressive critics responded to Vogel while trying to engage her in public. But Vogel only restated her original claims in two years of letters that constitute all but one of the community statements on Michfest’s website.

This was not dialogue. Michfest was stalling again. The public saw this disingenuity and even the Indigo Girls joined the boycott. Vogel condemned the “McCarthy era blacklist tactics” of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), the National Black Justice Coalition, and others who called for their supporters to avoid Michfest. Then she called for an identical boycott in retaliation.

Just as public statements were better than silence, this angry backlash marked a milestone. Activists started another petition, with even more support. But when the National LGBTQ Task Force and the NCLR backed out, favouring “dialogue,” progressives grew curious. Then even the Transadvocate took a step back. And Vogel announced the end of the festival.

Is the end of this lesbian locus a tragedy? No. A tragic hero chases success as their misdeeds accumulate. Only when their doom becomes inevitable do they change. By contrast, Michfest pissed off queers and feminists, refused meaningful conversation, then favoured nonexistence over change.

Unlike Michfest, we can choose to learn: sieges only work for castles. This struggle stalled out because you can’t dialogue alone.

We can learn that if a “progressive” organization or charity is furthering our marginalization, we start with polite questions. If they engage, good. If they refuse, or rephrase earlier talking points and call it “dialogue,” then have a dialogue — in public with their supporters: their customers, allies, volunteers, donors and attached celebrities.

A well-thought out argument based on logic, compassion and facts will win, especially when the other side chooses silence.

Where do we go now for lesbian folk? Perhaps to one of the numerous alternate women’s music festivals? All are more trans-inclusive and most have fewer mosquitos.

But what about Amazonian heritage? Try the National Women’s Music Festival: it inspired Michfest and ultimately outlived it.

Or perhaps, two or three years from now, attend a new women’s music festival in Michigan whose name and politics are in harmony.

We can expect internet attacks on trans folk, but only from those who were already a problem. We can expect a no-trans-allowed replacement festival that sputters into oblivion. We can expect the few remaining cis-only “feminist” organizations to read the writing on the wall — change or get left behind.

What will herstory remember? Consider when the mayors of Kelowna and other BC municipalities refused to sign Pride proclamations. Faced with a Human Rights Tribunal ruling against singling out the queers, said mayors stopped signing any civic proclamations. As in this case, those in power decided to cull a joyous thing rather than share it, and their stand against progress was overwritten by their successors.

Just as here, 10 years on, herstory will view this decision and the people who made it as immature, rash and, ultimately, irrelevant.