The Michigan Music Womyn’s Festival (Michfest) is celebrating its 40th year as a counterculture pilgrimage site for lesbians the world over. It’s notable for its ongoing policy of ejecting trans people (or at least trans women), which has brought protest and even boycotts by dyke staple bands like The Indigo Girls. Despite all the gains in transgender civil rights in recent years, this once-controversial exclusionary policy passes largely unnoticed. And when I, as a scrappy gender outlaw, see such an awful act of exclusion going by unchallenged, I think that’s wonderful.
Even before transgender activism hit its stride, Michfest was that topic you shouldn’t bring up at an LGBT dinner. Transgender-excluding radical feminists (TERFs) claimed that limiting access to “womyn-born-womyn” and some FtM-spectrum trans was integral to creating a culture of safety and harmony. When trans people objected to being demonized as predators, TERFs dismissed demands for equal access with the rhetorical question, “It’s just a festival — don’t you people have more important priorities?” But it’s not rhetorical anymore. Trans activists have finally answered, “Actually, yes, we do.”
The Michfest fight used to be crucial. When the festival started openly ejecting trans women, mainstream society saw “transgender rights” as an oxymoron. Activists fought desperately with minimal gains on fundamental dignities like housing, employment and healthcare. When a large group of people are chronically unemployed, ostracized and dehumanized, and the government won’t budge, being included in women’s organizing can be their only chance at survival. Since Michfest was the cultural hub of that activity, it really was the place to be.
But today, instead of focusing on gaining equal access to last-ditch women’s refuges, transgender activism is fighting for equality on diverse issues such as schools, state and federal ID documents, washrooms, pools, healthcare, voting, incarceration, employment and even pop culture. We are building a society where trans people won’t need to use as many emergency services, and while transgender lives are often still cut short, we are seeing gains at unprecedented rates.
At the same time, a new generation of queer women has grown up having no idea what Michfest is, let alone why anyone would go. Those who do know are usually appalled by a policy that flies in the face of fundamental queer decency. As of this year, the underdogs are winning — or at least losing by smaller margins. The few TERFy holdouts have retreated so deep into their bunker mentality that it’s faster and easier to leave them to their woman-cave and just change the rest of the world.
These sudden public gains also bring a new cultural position. Gay marriage used to be the test of political allegiance in the culture war. But in 2015, when Kevin and Devon are dating in Archie and God still hasn’t smote Cascadia, supporting equal marriage is taken for granted by progressives, and fighting the seemingly inevitable won’t carry you to office on a swell of righteous conservative wrath. So when Time Magazine calls you the “next human rights frontier,” commitment to trans equality becomes the new allegiance test in the culture war.
Within this context, saying that Michfest doesn’t want trans people around is kind of like saying that the Ladies’ Evangelical Quilting Circle disapproves of homosexual inversion, or that your grandparents have some controversial opinions about The Irish. In these cases, when someone asks, “Seriously, why do you care?” they’re dismissing someone, but it’s not you. They point to a deeper assumption: that these bigots are obsolete kitsch. They don’t deserve a free pass, just an eye roll, while the rest of us wait for the past they live in to die.
TERFs are running out of progressive friends. It is at this point that they start to form alliances with cultural conservatives. Notable TERFs have joined with religious conservatives to protect the god-fearing, cisgender public from sharing washrooms and crisis shelters with trans people, and certain organizations are working with the Harper government to pursue other oppressive agendas as well, like accepting large amounts of money to “fight human trafficking” while joining the assault on the safety of people who perform sex work.
The surest measure of success is the freedom to ignore little failures. So while Michfest’s policy is irksome, it’s proof of progress that we can move past its unfashionably retro ethics to form broader progressive alliances. I’m curious and a little afraid of what anti-trans/anti-sex-work/pro-Harper “women’s organizations” are going to mutate into, but I know that as a group, trans folk will be well positioned to join in the fight — as political equals.