Music, Gender and Transphobia at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival

     Since 1976, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has provided women of very different backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, sexualities, and ages a safe space to gather. For a week each summer, women from all over travel to Hart, Michigan to attend the festival where they stay on campgrounds, go to music performances, and attend workshops. The whole festival is created by, staffed by, and attended by women. The mission is to escape from the patriarchy that is constant in society and be free with a large group of diverse women who, as women, also feel this oppression in their lives. Additionally, the festival serves as a space for all women along the spectrum of masculinity and femininity and of any sexuality, although it is especially inclusive towards lesbians. Michfest, as it’s nicknamed, was created as an inclusive space for all women, yet a controversy has arisen over how inclusive this safe space really is. Since the conception of this festival, the event is advertised for womyn-born-womyn only. This policy adamantly excludes trans* women from attending, claiming that trans* women have not experienced oppression their whole lives in the same way that WBW (womyn-born-womyn) do. The Michigan Womyn’s Festival is a clear representation of the intersection between music and gender as it relates to cis-privilege and transphobia.

     This policy is not written anywhere on the website (here’s the link if you want to take a look: http://www.michfest.com/index.htm) yet has been stated on multiple occasions by founder/owner Lisa Vogel after an incident that took place in 1991. In 1991, “festie” Nancy Burkholder attended Michfest for the second time. While at the campsite, Burkholder was approached by two women working the festival and was asked to step aside with them. They asked Burkholder if she was transsexual because they did not allow transsexuals at the festival. When Burkholder asked to see this documentation within festival literature, the women who had pulled her aside explained that there was no written documentation on the subject because no transsexual woman had ever before tried to attend. The festival reimbursed Burkholder for her ticket, booked a room for her and a friend at a nearby motel, and asked her to leave the premises. Burkholder wasn’t even permitted to return to the campsite to collect her belongings. Burkholder writes a detailed description of her experience here: http://www.transadvocate.com/michigan-womyns-music-festival_n_8943.htm. Burkholder’s experience with Michfest’s implicit, transphobic policies upset many people and brought the festival’s true intentions to light.

     The controversy centers around the question if it is acceptable to create a safe space for women that is so transphobic. Many people are upset by these policies because they create cis/trans segregation and ironically place women in the oppressive role that they were trying to avoid by attending the festival. This leaves the women advocating for WBW spaces also taking on a position of hegemony and power. They gather to escape their lack of power within the systematic gender hegemony by ironically creating a community that puts them at the top of yet another exclusionary power system. Lisa Vogel, Michfest’s founder and owner was extremely defensive when explaining her rationale for the festival’s trans* exclusionary policy. “I feel very strongly that having a space for women, who are born women, to come together for a week, is a healthy, whole, loving space to provide for women who have that experience.” Vogel explained in an interview with Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. (The whole interview is here: http://www.indigogirls.com/correspondence/2005/2005-06-13-a/interview03.html.) The overall policy and Vogel’s comments caused Red Durkin, a lesbian trans woman to launch an online petition to boycott Michfest until it becomes inclusive to all who identify as women regardless of biological sex. (Here is the link to the campaign: https://www.change.org/petitions/indigo-girls-and-other-michfest-2013-performers-boycott-mwmf-until-the-organizers-fully-include-trans-women) Vogel quickly responded to Durkin’s petition, stating, “What I am trying to address in my statement is that if you are born female, deemed female at birth, raised as a girl, experienced the rigid enforcement of gender hierarchy from the time that you are a baby, you have a certain shared group experience that is different from someone who was born, deemed male, and raised as a boy.” (You can read her entire response here: http://planetransgender.blogspot.com/2013/04/lisa-vogel-michigan-womyns-music.html) By saying this, many people argue, Vogel trivializes the experience of trans* women and undermines the oppression that they too must face both for identifying as a woman and for being trans*.

     In the same letter of response to Durkin’s petition, Vogel explains that Michfest is “a community alive with a value system grown from the core of radical feminism.” Radical feminists believe that the only way to overcome male oppression and overthrow the patriarchy is to challenge gender norms. For this reason, many radical feminists take issue with trans* people because in the eyes of these feminists, trans* people are too deeply rooted in the gender binary that they identify themselves through this lens of gender. Yet, if these women are identifying as women but expressing that others can’t, they are part of the problem. This brings up the issue of authenticity. Who is the real woman: the trans* woman or the biological woman or both? Is anyone allowed to decide which body parts make one person a woman and another not? The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival answers, only biological women, but understandably, this is a serious issue to many.

            Although Michfest is full of programs and facilities from day care centers to workshops, the festival’s main attraction is performance. Women performers who come to the festival put on shows that enhance the sense of community and its closeness. Women who perform must also do some sort of work to keep the festival running, like all other women attending Michfest. Performances range from music to comedy and feature women of all ages, ethnicities, and sexualities. Performers of past years of Michfest include slam poet Andrea Gibson, the Indigo Girls, and JD Samson and MEN. Musical performers at the festival vary in their musical styles from multilingual spoken-word rap to country. For instance, Beverly McClellan, who will be performing at Michfest this year, is a blues and folk-rock singer and multi-instrumentalist, contestant on The Voice, a lesbian, and a Native American. Here is a video of her performance of the song “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” at the GLAAD awards. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JI6rpKpufq0. Another performer at the festival this year is MazzMuse, a soul-folk-jazz-classical fusion violinist. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRdHDJ4SItk#t=145

     This year, some artists including Andrea Gibson, JD Samson, and the Indigo Girls, among others have boycotted the festival and decided not to perform due to the transphobic policies. Although some performers have decided that they cannot perform at an event with such transphobic policies, others have different ways to deal with the policies. As Lovers, one group that performed in the past stated, “As gender-nonconforming individuals ourselves, we hope to be part of a community that supports queer and trans identities on all levels.” They then continued to explain, “We are choosing to attend and perform at this year’s festival, both because we love it, and because we feel that attending the festival will be more powerful than refusing to attend. By design, MWMF responds not to external, but internal pressure, and we believe that ultimately, the women who attend the festival are the ones who will decide it’s future.” (To read this whole response and other opinions from Michfest performers, you can visit http://mwmfresponse.tumblr.com/) By taking this stance, Lovers reject the policies but decide to show their distaste in a less openly dissenting way. For a lot of performers and attendees, this becomes a struggle. Many people love the open, inclusive atmosphere of Michfest yet have difficulty reconciling their love of the experience with the oppressive policies by which it is governed. (To see more info, scroll the pages of this article: http://www.advocate.com/women/2013/04/10/ladies-are-you-ready-michfest?page=0,1 which briefly discusses the controversy and highlight a few of the featured artists from last year’s festival. It is interesting to note that a few of the artists pictured are now boycotting the festival.)

     This controversy highlights a larger issue within the LGBT community. This massive community includes many different people of very diverse backgrounds and identities. For this reason, it is impossible to have a cohesive stance on certain issues between groups when everyone belongs specific groups with their own unique interests. Trans* issues are especially difficult because they are not always involving sexual orientation but rather gender expression, which many LGB people do not have to deal with on a daily basis. For this reason, trans* issues are often pushed to the back of many debates. For instance, we have seen many improvements in marriage equality recently, but there has been very little change on the same large scale to include people who do not identify as their prescribed gender or on the gender binary. They are still discriminated against within not only society as a whole, but also within the gay community. Michfest is yet another instance that highlights the intense discrimination that trans* people experience across many communities, even self-described safe spaces. This is what many women overlook when explaining that trans* women can be excluded because they represent the patriarchy and have never had to deal with the same oppression as WBW. Although trans* issues do not receive the publicity and action that they deserve, there has still been a significant increase in public knowledge. If public knowledge increases, so will the inclusion of trans* people in a wider range of communities.

     This year’s upcoming Michfest will take place on August 5th through 10th. It will be interesting to see how the festival planning plays out, given the boycotting efforts and the growing publicity of the transphobic policies. It will also be interesting to see if Lisa Vogel will change any of her strict policies as more and more people protest them. This festival’s longstanding policies on trans* exclusion highlight the intersection of music and gender and an ironic, hegemonic power shift where women are using a free and inclusive place to oppress and exclude others who also struggle with oppression on a daily basis in society. Regardless of how Michfest continues, this protesting movement may be able to aid in the formation of music and gathering events for women regardless of their socially assigned gender. 

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