A reporter recently interviewed me about going to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 2008, and here were my answers to her questions. I just thought I might pass them on, as they might be of interest, given that we’re in Michfest-arguing silly season.
What was your general state of mind going in to Michfest for the first time?
I went to Fest after having been an organizer at Camp Trans for five years. I had been hearing that more and more trans women were “out” on the land, and so I thought, well, maybe it’s not a bad idea to check out first-hand what it is we’ve been protesting for the last ten years. I went in emotionally guarded, but with a very open mind.
As a trans woman, did you feel welcome on the land? How was the experience overall?
In some ways I did, and in some ways I didn’t.
I was shocked about how many people I knew there, personally, who welcomed me with open arms. I grew up in the Midwest, and to this day have many lesbian friends who are perrenial Festival-goers. I felt like I had a crew of pals as soon as I showed up, and I genuinely felt like they had my back.
That said, there were other complicating factors. I was there with my butch partner, who had just started testosterone. Many people don’t realize this, but many Fest-goers don’t approve of butch-femme relationships, of BDSM, sex work, or any number of other things. There are a lot of nice people there, but there are a lot of Debbie Downers, too.
So, occasionally we got some stank-eye. Was it because we were a butch-femme couple? Was it because one or both of us were being read as trans? Was a worker giving us the stank-eye just because she had had a rough day and was in a bad mood? Eventually, I had to stop attempting to read people’s minds and just try to relax.
But, on the positive side, for every nasty look we got (and really, there weren’t that many) we got just as many, “Hey sisters! Welcome home!” enthusiastic greetings. There are a lot of women who love that land, and are effusively welcoming, especially of newcomers.
I definitely felt like I had to mind my P’s and Q’s. A couple of my friends who are party animals tried to convince me to take ecstasy and acid with them, and I said no, even though it would have been fun to have a psychedelic experience in those beautiful woods. I cut myself off after one beer, because I was afraid if I did something even accidentally stupid, it would not just reflect badly on me, but on ALL TRANS WOMEN FOREVER. I felt pressure to be on my best behavior at all times in a way that I think many women who are not trans do not have to worry about. Supposedly, this festival is about being able to let go and be your authentic self; I had my armor on the whole time.
Also, as a side note, I really like folk music. Aleah Long’s performance was especially powerful that year. And the Festival is a beautiful space, on beautiful land. I loved Camp Trans and I love many of the people I have met there over the years, but if you compare the two, let’s face it, Camp Trans was always kind of a shit show. CT had probably about 2% of the budget of Michfest, so going to the Festival after having camped at CT for so many years kind of felt like being at Disneyland. The DART vans (which are wonderful and provide women with disabilities with transportation) even kind of function like a monorail, taking both disabled and non-disabled people from place to place.
What a lot of people don’t know about Michigan is that it is VAST and HUGE, and is comprised of many different neighborhoods, all with their own vibe and culture and ethics (again, to follow through with the Disney metaphor, it’s like Tommorrowland versus the Enchanted Forrest, but instead it’s The Zone versus Bread and Roses.) The Zone is generally where the younger, hipper, more trans-positive party people congregate.
Would you return to Michfest?
I would not return to Michfest. There are just other ways I’d rather spend my time and energy. Many people talk the reasons they go to Michfest as wanting “queer intergenerational connections” — I can get that right here in New York City, where I am a volunteer at SAGE (Services and Advocacy for Gay and Lesbian Elders), a GLBT senior center. I’ve made some great friends with older queer people there. Believe it or not, there are older lesbians right in your own city who probably could use a friend.
Do you believe change is happening on “the inside” at Michfest?
I do not. Take a look at newsletters in the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Park Slope, and you will see that we have been having these exact same arguments about this issue for the last thirty years.
Many academic researchers have done sociological and ethnographic research on people’s attitudes towards trans women inside the Fest. Over time, the results of these studies have not changed at all. About a third of the women are like, “No! Keep them out! Womyn-born-womyn only!” About a third of the people are like, “Sure, why not? Trans womyn are our sisters! Let them in!” And, about a third of the people are like, “I don’t care about this issue at all, this is my vacation, leave me alone.”
The Festival has lost an entire generation of women through sheer stubbornness and refusal to move forward with the times: what used to be a symbol of feminist liberation has now become a symbol of transgender oppression. At this point, Festival’s WBW policy (or “intention,” or whatever) has lasted longer than the US Military’s Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy. I do not believe they will ever recover from this decades-long public relations debaucle.
I believe that Michigan is a lost cause. As trans women, and people who care about trans women, I think we need to abandon it and move on to more important issues.