Every August for the past 29 years women have gathered in the Michigan woods to celebrate each other. This year will be the 30th anniversary of Michigan Womyn’s Festival. There are workshops, performances, community meals, crafts, and all sorts of other activities. It has been an invaluable safe space for women as well as a rite of passage for many who discover their feminism for the first time within its perimeters. Women come to Michigan to find the energy they need to live and work in a world filled with misogyny. It has evolved with intention over the years and faced many challenges with integrity. With issues ranging from racism to ageism to S and M to transgender politics, the festival has had many dialogues that reflect both the women’s movement and the evolution of the queer community.
The festival has historically had a policy that states that Michigan Womyn’s Festival, as a separatist space only allows women who are born women to attend. This policy has been the center of controversy for the past ten years and has grown to be a very divisive issue in the past five years. Bands and performers who play Michigan have been boycotted and maligned. The festival itself has undoubtedly suffered from the boycotts by many who wish to show loyalty to the transgender community.
This is an issue that brings up a lot of passion and wounds on both sides. Some claim that it’s a generational difference and if the festival is to survive, it will have to become a space that welcomes transgender women. Some claim that it’s a case of “smashing your idols” and the festival has every right to establish its own policies. When you sit down and talk openly to women about this issue there are many compelling arguments for both sides that have been obscured by some of the angry and reactionary remarks that have floated around. I think that both sides have made impressive strides toward understanding each other in the past two years.
I am a big supporter of Michigan Womyn’s Festival and want to see it survive and continue to grow. Last summer in the spirit of growth, I decided to interview women on both sides of the controversy as well as Michigan Womyn’s Festival co-founder, Lisa Vogel. I came away from the interviews with a profound respect for the festival and its history but also a deep empathy for both the women of Michigan and the cause of the transgender community. I also visited Camp Trans, a camp that was set up down the road from Michigan Womyn’s Festival in protest of Michigan’s policy and in celebration of their cause. No matter my position on this issue, I will continue to support the festival, because I have faith in the process and I think it’s existence is invaluable.
The interviews are quite long, even after some editing, but I think they are worth the time. I hope they will spur some discussion and help shed some light on this important process.
Amy R. What are your names and what do you do?
Jessica Snodgrass, I'm the on-land organizer from Camp Trans.
Carrie Schrader, I'm a worker at the festival and a feminist filmmaker.
Brian Burgess, I'm a worker at the festival and also a trans activist.
Angelyn Anastasia (could not verify spelling), I'm a musician from Illinois State University.
Katie Bishop, I'm an abortion clinic worker from Cleveland.
Brandie Taylor, I'm a worker at the festival
Amy R. How long has this incarnation of Camp Trans been going on? Someone told me there were an original Camp Trans and a later Camp Trans, is that true?
Jessica S. Well what originally happened was in 1991 there was a woman, Nancy, who came to the fest. She was a post-operative transsexual woman. She'd been to the fest before, I think it was her second year, and she loved it. Got along really well with everyone here, really found this space to be amazing. And so she came back, 1990 was her first year, and she came back in 1991. And this is all very clear in my mind cause she just came to Camp Trans yesterday for the first time in almost a decade and we spent a lot of time talking, and going over her history.
So she and her friend were down at the gate, waiting for a friend to get in on a shuttle from the airport and she was having a conversation with someone, and I guess apparently, she said something that sort of tipped this person off to the fact that she might be a transsexual. And as a result, she was evicted from the festival. She wasn't allowed to go to her campsite and get her stuff. Her friend had to go and get it. And she was put up in a motel and bought a plane ticket home the next day. She was told that there is a "no transsexual" policy here-it's women-born women only. But at that point the "women-born women only" policy was like an unwritten rule, was what she was told. Like it wasn't in any of the festival material that anyone received. As far as anything she'd ever heard, it didn't exist. And so, to just be thrown out, for this rule that she didn't even know existed, was kind of disheartening, and really disempowering, especially since she'd been to the fest before and knew what an amazing space it was.
And so the next year, one of her friends stayed in the fest and spent a lot of time talking to people. Like, "Do you know what happened to my friend Nancy?" "Do you know why this happened?" "Do you agree that this is OK or do you think that this is a problem in our community?" You know, starting those conversations. And then the next year was the first official Camp Trans, 1992. They maintain that it was a group of transsexual women, some non-trans women, very few trans men; Les Feinberg was there, Pat Califia, Minnie Bruce Pratt, you know, people like that, and that lasted until, I believe 1994. I think it just becomes really hard to go protest something in the woods all the time. So it kind of died out or went away for a couple years, and then in 1999, the Chicago Lesbian Avengers heard about it and picked it back up. And that was when Camp Trans was sort of revived. Since then, you know in the past five years, it's been in the process of becoming more organized and working on having a concrete message. And opening this discussion so that we can all get to a point where we can talk about it and resolve it.
JS. You know, in a way that's best for our communities, for our festival, for our selves.
AR. Someone told me that there was a time when there were workshops given by transsexuals at the festival. You know, people didn't bring attention to it. And at some point, there became this resistance and attention was brought to it, and then it became a political issue. And I didn't know if that was true or not.
JS. I don't think that I know anything about that. Which is not to say that it's not true or didn't happen. Of course the fact of the matter is, in any women's community there are transsexual women there. You know, they've always been there; they're always going to be there. It's mostly a matter of to what degree they're accepted, and how warmly they're welcomed, and what they're treated like when they're there. And you know, there are probably transsexual women in the festival right now. The thing about the policy is that it makes it so that transsexual women can't say, "I'm a transsexual woman," for fear of being kicked out. It's, you know, a "don't-ask-don't-tell" policy, which, of course, is what the US military has, and I mean, just like where I'm sitting as, like, a young feminist, like, goddamn we can do better than that. You know?
AR. Is Camp Trans asking Michigan because they see Michigan as the most probable ally to the trans community in general? And I mean "M to F's" and "F to M's" as well, you know the whole trans community. You know, seeing themselves as part of the queer community at large, which they feel that Michigan is some part of. Or is it just an issue about "M to F" inclusion in Michigan mostly?
JS. Camp Trans' mission is to change the policy from "women-born, women only" to "all self-identified women."
AR. So what about an "F to M" who doesn't identify as a woman anymore?
JS. I feel like that's definitely something that we as a women's community need to address, but that's not what Camp Trans is working on.
JS. What we're working on is women's space and women.
JS. If that's something that other people want to talk about, other people want to work on, that's fine. And definitely there are a lot of "F to M's" and gender-variant, female-assigned, masculine-identified people – wherever they're falling on the spectrum – who are at Michigan, who are at Camp Trans, who are incredible trans allies, who are vital parts of women's spaces.
Carrie S. And they're here. The policy as it's stated now, you know, there's sort of three ingredients that make it up. I feel like there's a part of it that means that female-to-male trans can self-identify, and make a choice, and say, "Some part of me still feels like a woman. I want to go to a space where that's celebrated, so I'm going to go to the festival."
AR. So Camp Trans is focusing more on "M-to-F" issues, really. Even though what is talked about a lot in my community is F-to...
JS. ...F-to-M issues.
AR. Which is interesting.
Brian B. I feel like it's important...there are two separate but related conversations, and I really appreciate that Camp Trans has really clearly articulated it's mission this year, because I think...
JS. ...it has caused a lot of message confusion.
BB. Yeah, yeah. And I think that the F-to-M conversation is one that has to happen within the festival because it's something that's already playing out here; whereas, the M-to-F conversation is completely different because there is a locked door.
CS. Right. And the F-to-M conversation is happening here all the time. And, at least in Worker Ville, I'll say, it's happening in Worker Ville, and it was a big part of the workshop this year.
JS. Well that's definitely something that's inside of here, you know, and that's something that has to be dealt with in here. What I and Camp Trans are concerned with are male-to-female transsexuals, because, the policy says "women-born, women only." And who's a woman-identified person who wasn't born a woman? The only class of people that fall into that category is transsexual women. So, which I mean, is another sort of linguistic thing that we could go on with...who's really born a woman? I'm an infant-born infant when I'm born and I grow up and become a woman. And I feel like how I became a woman, and the kind of woman that I've become...to say that's what I was at birth, that kind of erases a lot of my experiences and how I got here. Like, I'm not a woman because a doctor looked at me and said, "badda bing, badda boom...female!" You know, that's not what makes me a girl. I'm a girl because of how I walk down the street and how I interact with people, and how people treat me, and you know, what it's like to get shit from the sausage party at my job, and you know, like my relationship with my mother...like there are all of these things that make me a woman, and so very little of that has to do with what was between my legs when I was born.
AR. But the discussion on the other side gets into something about male privilege. So it's like do you think that society has some kind of reaction to what they think you are because of your sexual organs. And so a man, even if he, his whole life, up 'til the point he's like, let's say 20 years old, even though he feels like he's inhabiting the wrong body before he has a sex change to become a woman, or becomes a woman with out a sex change, he's still...is he still treated with privilege as a man? Or is he not, because he's seen...
JS. ...as a freak...
AR. ...walking differently, you know. And is that the issue...? Do you think this person never did enjoy male privilege the way we talk about male privilege?
JS. I mean, definitely all transsexuals have unique experiences, the way all women have unique experiences. And I don't want to say anything like, "all transsexuals feel that," or "all transsexuals have gone through..." so I want to just lay that out. I will tell you that, the transsexual women who I know, who are in my everyday life, and in my feminist and women's communities outside of Michigan, had a different kind of girlhood. And, one that I can't imagine because I'm not a transsexual woman, but one that I can relate to because I still grew up a girl. You know. And I feel like the conversation about male privilege, you know like when we talk about systems of oppression, they don't just affect the oppressed, they also affect the oppressors. And it's something that goes back and forth. And it's definitely this fucked up institutionalized relationship that has to do with equating power with one side of this dynamic that exists. Right? Like male or female. I know a lot of butch women, who have for, you know, fucking survivalist reasons, had to sometimes move through the world as men, you know, just because, they were very butch, and to be a butch woman, does not mean you get to walk down the street unharrassed, or not get killed, or beat up at the bar. And so I feel like when a butch woman has to, or feels like she should take on a male name or male pronouns, or you know, whatever...just to get through the world, like that's actually oppression, like that's denying her the ability to express her womanhood in the way that she would like to. But it's like a rock and a hard place, because do you want to get your ass kicked every day, or do you want to just, you know, know who you are and believe that you're being as true to yourself as you can be just to exist. And that's like an example of what may seem like some sort of male privilege being given to a butch woman moving through the world that way, but in reality it's oppression because she's being denied claiming her own gender and expressing that, and really having that respected. In the same way, I feel like transsexual women who are forced to move through the world as men for however many years. You know, until you can get out of your parents' house, or until your parents throw you out, or until whatever, you know that's like a survival mechanism. You have to walk this way, and you have to talk this way, and you have to put up with this shit, even though you know that it's not you, and you're being denied a fundamental core of yourself, your gender identity. But it's that, or your dad kicks your ass every day, or your parents throw you out and you end up on the street, and we all know that it's not great for a thirteen-year-old tranny girl to be on the street alone. Transsexual women are a very, very endangered class of women. It's not like there's a tremendously huge number of them. And in the United States, on average, they're killed, as a result of transphobia, like once a month. Which is an incredibly high rate for such a small community.
One woman was trying to hail a taxi in New York and had her throat slit by the cab driver and a lot of other cabbies stood around and watched her bleed to death. And when the paramedics came, and found out she was a transsexual, they sat and laughed and watched, until it was too late. You know, that's fucked up. And my feminism doesn't allow anyone to treat women like that. I can't fragment my feminism like that. The more diversity of women's experiences that we can get in touch with, the stronger we are as women. The more types of women we can welcome into our lives and share our lives with, the stronger our communities are. And, I don't feel like I can pick and choose which women I leave out in the cold.
JS. ...and which women I let get killed, once a month, and, you know, which women I allow to not have access to rape crisis shelters, and you know, like, to me that's not OK. To say that any woman should not have access to women's resources, because some fucked up gender system decided that, you know, she couldn't be who she wanted to be from the get go. And maybe for a couple years, or 20 years, or 40 years, you know, whatever, however long, lived within that as a survival mechanism, like that's not, that's not really fair, you know? However long she may have lived as a man, as a man in air quotes, you know, like being forced into that role, doesn't fucking stop her from getting her throat slit on the street, you know?
BB. And also think it's important to think about privilege, and how it already plays out in the festival, and that it's something that, in order to make this festival run the way that it does, is something that we already have to address on a frequent basis. So, we're already dealing with privilege based on race or class, or so many other factors. And to be inclusive to all kinds of women, it's necessary that we can deal with that. And I don't think that bringing in somebody who may have experienced a certain kind of privilege at some point in their life, that maybe that comes in as another part of privilege that we have to interact with, but I think that's a fine thing to do if it means that this festival can be inclusive of all women.
CS. And finding the places like, OK I can be empowered when I talk to women who have a like experience. I can be empowered when I talk to women who don't, and learn from that.
CS. I was talking to a woman in the festival...this is a woman, who considers herself an "F to M," but also still holds onto a part of her womanhood and comes here every year to celebrate it, and is a big activist... she was saying, as women, we are constantly having to take care of men and masculinity. It's literally from the minute we're born. The doctor looks at our pussy, and says, "you have a pussy, therefore you take care of men," and, you know, of course, whatever... And says, "You know, I decided that I'm a radical lesbian feminist and what that means to me is that I'm saying no to the male community and saying that I will not take care of you again. And even though you were born in the wrong body, that's not my job to take care of you. You have, you were born with a penis, and that means something, it means that you were told things from a certain age, no matter how painful it is. Like I was told things from a certain age with a pussy. And, we'll support you, we'll take care of you, but in this instance, this is for us to have a place to come to where we do not have to take care of men and their gender." So she said, "why aren't we asking the male community to say, you expand your definition of gender – you include men in your community, you include women in your community who were born as men." So then that gets to the whole pussy and cock, argument, right? (laughs)
AR. But if you're a trans, though, aren't you leaving your male hood behind? You never really had it to begin with because you didn't feel right in your body.
JS. But wouldn't we say it to FTM's, you're leaving your womanhood behind?
AR. I think Michigan is saying, you can't leave anything behind - once a man, always a man; once a woman, always a woman.
CS. No, I think they're saying, you can leave it behind, but the truth is, it doesn't matter, because if you've ever tasted having a dick, that's what it comes down to. If you've ever tasted having a penis, you have a privilege we never will and therefore you cannot come in. And that's when it gets really confusing. But it just doesn't fit anymore, I mean, I think 20 years ago the penis was the ultimate representation of the patriarchy. You know it was, when I first came on the land and I started selling sex toys, I would be like, OK well, would you like a cock? Which one would you like? And the women would be, like, (screams). And I didn't even, I didn't get it, coming from my generation, that a dildo, you know I had never even called it a dildo, I called them dicks or cocks, and it was OK with me. So, I don't know how that relates to the point in the beginning, but what I feel like now, is that it's a similar thing. We all have tastes of privilege; we all have tastes of privilege because of our gender, even...
AR. And our race, depending on what our race is.
CS. There are plenty of women on the land who have misogyny and so much internalized misogyny, and have tons of privilege in different ways. And, a trans woman's experience, I mean, at first I think I was afraid. I was like, well, am I going to feel those same feelings that I feel around men if I'm with a trans woman at a workshop and she's speaking from 40 years of male privilege? You know, the last 10 being a woman, but, really, 40 years before that of knowing what it's like to be male and having that privilege. First I was frightened, but now I'm like, I'd love to know.
AR. But is it really male privilege? That's the Jess's point. It's not really male privilege if it's somebody who has been treated like a freak for their whole life.
JS. Yeah, I mean it's, from the outside looking in, as someone who's examining this person's experience, I can understand how it looks like male privilege. But, if you allow people to self-identify, and ask them what it's like for their gender – ask them how their gender developed – ask them what it's like to live in that gender – you find that it's a completely different story. And how you experience your gender, and how society experiences your gender, is ultimately what makes up how you experience gender privilege. So, you know, if you are forced to or for whatever reason, live as the gender you were assigned for 20 years, and every moment of that is painful, and every moment of that is a struggle to identify yourself and to be able to claim and celebrate your womanhood, and get in touch with other women, and talk about being women. And like, you're completely denied that at every corner, based on this thing that you have no control over, by the people who could be helping you the most – the radical feminist lesbian communities – which, you know a lot of trans women come to because it's a fucking important community. And for a community like that to also reject you, and it's not just the frat-guy at the bar who wants to kick your ass, and it's not just the taxi driver, and it's not just the landlord that won't rent to you, and the boss that won't hire you, and your parents that won't talk to you, and your partner that left you. But it's also these women who have this legacy and this reputation, who are saying, "oh, hold on, when we said women, we didn't mean you." We are a community that has so much to give, especially to a very marginalized, endangered class of women. And, to choose to withhold that, based on an outsider's-looking-in sort of perspective, saying, what you experienced as male privilege, even when these women are telling us, no, that wasn't male privilege, that was fucking hell, and you've been there, you know what it's like to be a woman in a man's world. Why won't you listen to me? Why won't you help me? Why can't we do this together? I have a lot to bring to the table.
CS. But there are trans women that I know, that freely admit their access to male privilege. I mean they say, yes, of course, I felt this every day of my life. I didn't want it. And so they have observations based on that that are incredibly interesting. They have a deconstruction of the whole identity around it that is fascinating, and it's so worth hearing, and could be so powerful for other women.
AR. What is the relationship between the F-to M community and M-to-F community in this struggle?
JS. In the situation of Camp Trans, F-to-M's are acting as allies to M-to-F's. Of course, you know, coming from a transgender community, you know, they are often frequently aligned, and working together on the same issues, like legal rights, housing rights, adoption rights, marriage rights. So because of that it is sort of a natural ally, but in this situation F-to-M's are acting as allies to M-to-F's.
BB. I think it's important being a trans activist here, and this is coming from the perspective of being a trans-masculine person within the festival, and acknowledging that how the festival interacts with trans masculine people is something that has to really be discussed as a community, but I see that as a completely separate issue. When I think about doing trans activism here, it's around M-to-F experiences and inclusion. I think it's important.
JS. And this year with the movement to sort of clarify the Camp Trans message, and sort of like redefine our focus, I think it's been an incredibly smooth transition, you know, between F-to-M's and M-to-F's in the Camp Trans community, in the organizing community, in the attendee community. Because ultimately I think that we're actually now saying what we meant to be saying all along. And we're saying it very clearly. You know, like, for example, we're not here to destroy the festival. It never crossed my mind. I don't want to see Michigan end. I would like to bring my children here.
AR. So you don't expect people to not come to Michigan as a support of the Transgender Community? You're not asking people to boycott Michigan? 'Cause that has been a discussion, you know for a long time, about 5 years.
JS. As far as Camp Trans...?
AR. Coming out of Camp Trans, or supposedly. I remember, you know, when the Butchies played here one year, there was a lot of discussion about how everyone should boycott Michigan Womyn's Festival and musicians shouldn't play at Michigan because they don't have a trans-inclusive policy. And that carried on for years, when I would talk to people from the transgender community they would say, you know, I go to Michigan, but I keep it secret because my community does not support me if I go.
AR. So I think it's important if Camp Trans is saying, "You know what? We're trying to change the festival, we want it to exist, we want it to survive, and we don't expect you to boycott it. We expect you to go to it and try to change it."
JS. Definitely over the years, Camp Trans' mission and message has gotten mixed up, especially because it's so hard to talk from across the road to in here. It's so hard to make that connection, and there are so many in-between people and so much stuff that gets confused and lost, that I think there has been a lot of confusion. Also, you have to understand it's not a monolithic voice.
AR. Right, OK.
JS. It's a lot of people who feel a lot of different ways. The reason we come together as Camp Trans is because we agree that M-to-F women should be allowed into Michigan Womyn's Music Festival because they are women, because they identify as women, live as women, and, you know, the other 51 weeks of the year they live in this community, too. They come to your feminist rock shows, they go to your feminist book store, they go to your feminist coffee shops, they go to the other feminist music festivals, they buy the books, they buy the CD's.
We want the policy to change. The policy doesn't change from across the road. The policy changes here. This is where the decisions are made. And, that's why I'm in here. I'm an on-land organizer. I was sent by Camp Trans.
AR. So if someone was trying to decide whether or not to play at Michigan, and wanted to be an ally to the trans community, what would be the right thing to do? Would it be to come play and talk about it? Or would it be to say, we won't play until you change this policy?
JS. There are a variety of different things that they could do and if a musician were to come play or was trying to figure out if they could come play; it really depends on where they're coming from and what they want to accomplish. And definitely Camp Trans has been open to dialoguing with a lot of artists. We've talked with a lot of artists. Like, you know, do you want to play the festival? Is this something that you feel like you want to support? If so, you know, what kinds of support are you willing to show for trans inclusion on the land? You know, do you want to talk about it from the stage? Do you want to donate a lot of money to Camp Trans? There are a million different things, because we're all activists here and we all do activism differently.
Some artists do choose not to play because they don't feel like it's something that they could support. And that's another complicated issue because I'm a 22-year-old, hip, young, radical-feminist dyke, like that's where I live. You know, I live in a lot of women-only spaces, you know, this is where I'm coming from. And women my generation, don't come to the festival. I know very few people who come to this festival anymore.
JS. Because of the "women-born, women-only" policy.
JS. I could get 500 women my age to fill out registration forms to come to the festival. They would bring their partners, they would bring their friends, they would bring their families. You know, but they're not going to come until the policy changes, because it really has become a divisive issue in this community. And it's gotten to the point where the people who are making the decisions and the people who are in control of whether or not this policy is going to change, or even going to be discussed, are absolutely not responding to us at all.
AR. So when you go to Lisa Vogel, and try to have a conversation with her, what happens?
JS. I've never talked to Lisa Vogel; I've never met her,
AR. Do you ask her?
JS. We've sent emails over the years. She did receive a letter this year in the mail from our strategy coordinator. And there have been attempts to contact her. I don't know what the best way is, honestly. I feel like it's a hard situation for me, as like someone sitting where I am, to know how to get in touch with Lisa. I would love to talk to her.
BB. I think, and this brings in the last question, looking at this in kind of an overview kind of a way, this is an activist movement, this is a social change movement, right, I mean in a microcosm situation. But historically social change happens at a variety of levels. And, you know, one direction towards change is never really effective. It's a multiple direction approach that tends to work really well. I actually was able to sit down and have coffee with Lisa Vogel this year because I'm in here and I come from a community in which I get a lot of hostility for coming in here, and my roommate calls me a "scab" and won't talk to me for a week before I come here, because I make the decision to come here. And yet, I can be in here and talk Lisa Vogel into coming out for coffee with me. And sit down and talk about things, and, no, not change the policy overnight, but, like, start to really carve out some ground, and start to really make those alliances. And so then going back to the idea of playing here, and what's most effective for an artist, I mean, I do think it's up to the individual artist or groups of artists, but I think that, I think that there's a lot of constructive change that can happen inside the festival. And there's so much that comes from someone standing on stage and saying, "Well great, I'm glad you enjoyed my set, thank you for all this applause. Now let's talk." You know, and I think that's enormously powerful in here. And what I'm feeling is that that approach over the past couple of years, that approach is being taken a lot, you know more recently by Camp Trans, and definitely for the past few years by activists within the festival. And it's gotten to the point now, where most folks that I'm running into, who, a couple of years ago, would have said "no this is scary, I don't want to deal with it," are now saying "you know what...yeah, this is confusing and this is scary, but this has to be dealt with, so let's talk"
CS. Well, it's changing. I mean, even being a worker here, you know the change is coming, it's just a matter of time, really, you can feel it. It has to. It's the evolution.
Angelyn A. Can we ask a question? How do you draw the line? Like where is this line, this gender line, where are we going to draw it? That's what I can't reconcile.
CS. It would be self-identified. And I think that's something that so many of the lesbians I know might say they're most afraid of. If an individual comes in, and it is a man dressed in women's clothes, how do you tell that? And they're just afraid that basically, it's going to be infiltrated by men. So saying this is a function of your fear and panic, from being oppressed by men for so long, it's a valid fear that everything we have created is going to be taken away by masculinity and by men. It's OK, let's see what happens anyway.
Katie B. I get the fear, I really do, and at the same time, we think, 5000 women and one guy out here in the woods are some kind of match? I mean why are we so...? I do believe in women's only space. I think it's very important, and I really believe in the festival, but I think we can handle it, I really do.
CS. You have to be able to convince a woman who's been coming here for 30 years, whose job was to stand on the front line, and ask men to leave the land, who got beat up year, after year, after year. Twenty years, you know, five years ago, men coming on the land in groups.
AR. Did that happen? Men tried to come on? For what reason, just to harass?
CS. To beat up, to harass. The Christian right, infiltrating with men.
BB. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I've heard some of that history, and it's a totally valid fear. But I think the other thing that's always important to think about is that harassment is harassment, and this is a self-policing community, and we know harassment when we see it. And when something's going on, like obviously, I'd rather see someone be expelled from the land for their actions than for their identity. So if we assume safe space, I think we should learn to recognize what's not safe when we see it and deal with actions rather than identities.
JS. And also to deal with the idea that safe space isn't just something that exists when you isolate part of a community...you know, like safe space doesn't just exist when you say no men allowed, it's only women. 'Cause women hurt other women. And you have to recognize that safe space is an act, a work in progress. It's something that we all do every day to take care of each other and ourselves. It's not just something that exists, it's something that we create every time we leave our tents or our houses or wake up.
KB. You were talking about the line. And I think that's a really interesting point. I was in this gender workshop yesterday where they were talking about gender binary, and that the binary itself is a patriarchal concept. And I believe that that's true. And she was saying that you can either, when you're faced with being gender-variant, or an un-womanly woman in this culture, you can either be a radical feminist, or you can be trans. And she was saying, we all make deals, basically, so people that are trans have copped out. And I thought, first of all, that's a really unfair characterization. I think "we make deals" is not a good way to talk about somebody who's making a major transition in their life, like, you haven't thought about this. The other part is that it doesn't seem to me that trans folks buy into the binary, it seems that these are the people that are teaching us about exploding the binary, that that's the whole point of that. And so, isn't it a very patriarchal concept to think we have a line? And that there is a clear line. And it matches for everybody. You can be on this, or this. When there are so many folks, I mean intersex books are a really good example, of people that just are ambiguous. And you know, being able to embrace the ambiguity of gender seems to me, a feminist concept.
JS. I did want to speak to this earlier point before I completely forget it, of this fear of, if we allow transsexual women on the land that men will come in and men will take over. I want to make it really clear that when I'm having this conversation, I'm only talking about women. Like, I'm not talking about men. Really, when it comes to women's space, I'm not concerned with men, I'm concerned with women. And I'm concerned with women that are denied women-only space, you know as result, a function of, some variance in womenhood. I was in a workshop the other day where they were talking about trans-inclusion in women-only spaces. And one woman, I guess she ran, or was involved with working at a domestic violence shelter, like some women-only space, like a crisis shelter. And she said that they had changed their policy to include self-identified women, not just like people-with-a-pussy or women-born-women, or creatures-with-cunts, or whatever, but self-identified women. If you're living as a woman, if you feel like a woman, and you need help from a women's resource center, you're welcome here. And she said that since they'd made this change in the policy, not one man had tried to come in. And I think that this is sort of like a red herring that's thrown out to avoid the whole conversation altogether.
AR. It's a generational thing, though. It didn't happen, the trans discussion didn't happen on this level 20 years ago...
JS. No, definitely, it's a whole other conversation.
AR. I think it's an evolution of the community.
JS. And the world.
AR. So women are scared, because their reality is, you know, women who have been coming here for 20 years, and maybe even younger women are scared, because their reality is: you may be talking about women when you speak about transsexuals, but they're thinking, what if it's a pre-op transsexual, there's still a penis. You know, there's this fear, because there's not...
JS. Because there's not an understanding...
AR. ...right, but that takes time.
JS. That's why we have these little flyers. It's entitled "Because Trans-Women's Voices Are Silenced At Michigan." And the first thing is, of course: "the women-born-women only" policy doesn't keep out trans women. Some trans women can and do attend, the policy excludes trans women's voices, it silences us. I mean this is a conversation that we're having about women who aren't even allowed to talk here. You know, like one of the most amazing speakers I know on this topic isn't allowed in the gate. So that, to me, is really frustrating.
AR. Yeah, it's frustrating, but I guess I'm trying to say that I think that it is important, though, to recognize that the fear is happening, Some women who have been coming to Michigan for 20 or 30 years don't have the understanding that you have, because in their world... they didn't have the same level of articulation of transgender. Their experience of men trying to come on the land or harassing them is a valid source of concern.
JS. I do. I definitely, I accept the fear. And I know like, the other day, a woman was telling me about being on the line, fighting with guys who would line up and harass the women. And I know that legacy is there. BB. It needs to be heard, and absolutely needs to be validated. And the conversation can continue after that validation, there can be so much education, but without that validation, that conversation's going nowhere.
KB. Right now, my biggest concern is that if the policy changed today, I don't feel safe for trans women on the land. I worry about how it's going to be for them when they're included.
AR. Oh, for their safety...for their own safety?
JS. Can I please speak to that, quickly? I know that there is a policy on the land for no gender checks, no panty checks...whatever it's called. This policy wasn't to protect trans women on the land who maybe were being harassed for looking too much like a man. This policy was created because there were butch women on the land who were being harassed for looking like too much of a man. Now, it is allowed, OK, and encouraged for butch women to come here. If they feel so harassed about their gender that there has to be a policy that says it's OK for a butch woman to be here and, quote, "look like a man." She's a woman, she's a woman, accept her. If that sort of attitude is so pervasive that it's not safe for a gender-variant, you know - woman, like a butch woman on the land, I cannot imagine what it would be like for a transsexual woman. Like that's a policy made to protect someone who's already in here from this rampant fear of men on the land. And if that's how bad it is for women who've been here since the beginning, I do fear for, if the policy changed tomorrow, what would it be like for my friends to come over here.
Brandie T. Here's my struggle. I can't wrap my brain around how a private festival, on a land that is owned by a very small community, can effect change on the levels you're speaking of.
JS. That's a really great question and I'm really glad that you brought that up. To me, that is one of the most important things about Michigan and this particular issue. It's at the core of all of this. Michigan Women's Music Festival has been around for 29 years. So we're talking about a legacy and an institution in radical feminist communities. It was started as this amazing, progressive space where incredible shit happened. When this festival was founded, there was nothing like it anywhere else in the world and as a result, the women in feminist communities across the country and from around the world come here. It's absolutely unique, and it's incredibly amazing. And so many women come here to find solace, to find support, empowerment, to heal, all of these things. And the women who come here are the women who run the rape-crisis shelters in their hometowns, they're the women who run the domestic violence shelters in their hometowns, they're the women who own the bookstores, they're the women who make the hiring decisions in women-only companies, you know, they're the women who are lawyers who take on women's issues cases. I don't even have words to express how important Michigan is to so many women. You know how vital it is and how huge of an influence it is in women's communities. And so when these amazing women doing all of this incredible work, come on their feminist vacation for the year, they come to like, the holy mother of like, magic, feminist, revolutionary...I don't even have words for it, this is where they come. And they walk in the gates, and this is a place where it's OK to exclude women based on their transsexual status, and they take that home. And that's why like 90% of the domestic violence shelters in California that are women-only don't allow transsexual women. You know, that's where it comes from. It's not 6 days a year; it's 365 days a year. We're all living in this community all the time. It doesn't stop at the gate. We all take what we get here, and we take it home, and we share it with our communities. And that is fucking important. That's why the festival matters.
CS. And we come here to learn how to run businesses. I know I came here, and there was no model in the world for me of how a women-run business works. So I came here and that's how I learned.
JS. You know, this is the source of so much inspiration and learning and growing for so many women. And, yeah, there are transsexual women who would come here, if the policy were changed, but to me, that's you know, six days, like that's not the only thing we're talking about. We're talking about asking the festival to be aware of the enormous influence it has in feminist and women's communities, and really do something constructive and progressive with that power and that influence. And, to be a source of inspiration for trans inclusion, and to be a source of encouragement for women who want to make their spaces trans-inclusive. And they can come to Michigan and see how amazing it is to have the diversity of trans women in the festival. And to see all that trans women bring to the table, and the conversation about feminism and male privilege, and what it's like to fucking be a woman in the world. And take that home, and integrate that into their women-run businesses, and all of the stuff that they do, because the women here are amazing, and they get a lot from this festival. And I want everything they get from this festival to be something that's constructive every day of the year, for all women.
This interview was conducted in an area called "Worker Ville". It is separate from the public space of the festival. Workers, artists, musicians, and organizers use this area as their living, eating, and preparation space while at the festival. I talked to three people who consider themselves Trans allies but also supportive of the "women born women only" policy at Michigan. We sat outside at a picnic table and had this discussion.
Amy R. What are your names and what do you do?
Tami Rae Carland, I'm a teacher, an artist, and I own a record label.
Bitch, I'm a musician and general invocator.
Daniela, I'm a musician and an activist.
AR. So, alright...I want to know how you feel about Michigan's "women-born women only " policy and how the controversy over the policy has impacted your experience on the land when you're here and also when you leave. I also want to know if and how it's intersected with your performance.
Bitch. I'd say my stance basically is that I support the policy. I support women making their own boundaries for something they've created and how they want it to go down in the world. I came upon that after years of debating with myself and with other people. It just dawned on me that in our society it's so hard for us to accept women saying no to people. And that feels like the root of the issue for me - that this is a private gathering in a way, and it was set up by a small group of people who have this ideal that they want it to be like that, and I think that's OK. Also, I can't ignore the politics of entitlement around it, you know, how a lot of the issue, and I have noticed this in talking with my friends out at Camp Trans, a lot of the issues are around people born males. So, I find in this patriarchal system that so much of women's energy goes towards making men feel comfortable and satisfying men. This is hard to say... I'm not convinced that if there were problems with people born women being excluded from this space...I'm not so convinced that so many people would rally around them, trying to help them. I think there's a lot of entitlement at work. When I see protesters at my shows, generally the majority is not trans people. The majority of the protesters are fem girls, usually white students, and there's usually one M to F - it's all about them. So I can't ignore that dynamic and I think it's hard for people to tolerate, when they're raised in the patriarchy, it's hard for people to tolerate women saying no.
AR. And you think someone who's male-to-female, once they've transition to being female, you still consider that male birth to be a factor; you really distinguish between a woman who's born a woman and a woman who's born a man?
B. Yeah, there's a definite distinction. It doesn't mean that they're not a woman. If they want to be a woman, I'll call them a woman, I'll treat them as a woman, no problem. I don't have any problem with changing up my definitions of what a woman is. But, they're definitely not a woman like I'm a woman. It's a different kind of woman, just like a black woman is a totally different woman than me in a lot of ways. Simply based on our experiences in the world and how we spent our girlhoods. It's going to be totally different for somebody who's black, than for me, as a white girl. And how I walk into a deli in New York, I'm treated totally different than somebody who's black, you know? I think that a lot of what's projected onto us is by nature just completely different. And so yeah, a woman who was born as a man is definitely a totally different kind of woman than me.
AR. You want to comment on that Tami Rae?
Tami Rae C. I guess what I would say is that my defense, and it has been a defense because I've had to defend it, my defense of the policy has been that I, as a political person, believe that any group of people who have experienced systematic and systemic oppression, based on gender, sexuality, birth sex, color, able-ism, or what have you, that any group of people who have experienced that kind of legislated oppression have the right, in my book, to gather together culturally. I don't think we should create massive political systems based on separatism, but I think cultural events in which people gather for a limited amount of time to celebrate, organize and think and have feelings, really should be encouraged. And so I think that there is a gender that is woman-born woman. And I think that's what gets lost in this - people born biologically male or biologically female, I mean, it's a construct, you know? Just like race is a construct, and class is a construct. Gender is a construct and there are a lot of theoretical things going on. And then there are material things. In that when you're born, you know, totally crassly, when you're born, biologically with a cunt, and you're raised a girl and you're attempted to be feminized, whether it works or not, and you choose that identity, at a certain point you go, well yeah I am a woman, I am a girl, this is how I'm going to identify, and that that runs the spectrum – that that's a particular gender. And it's a different experience from my friends or my allies or my colleagues who were born biologically male and transitioned – surgically, non-surgically, hormonally, non-hormonally – they're very different experiences. And that's not to say that everybody who comes to the land has the same experience. I've been really afraid to say things like this because I get accused of being essentialist, and I just want to not have that fear, because maybe there are some truths, like maybe there are some essential truths (laughs) in that there are these constructs, and that some of us have suffered a particular plight based on them. And by the same token, I would defend a space in which you had to be trans-identified to be there, or you had to be born deaf, or you had to be a black Muslim male, etc. But I don't believe in a political structure that's separatist. So in the queer community, when it comes to political spaces and organizations that are about health care and organizations that are about more survivalist stuff, I think those places really, really need to be integrated.
AR. So, when you say that, you see Michigan as a cultural gathering, and you don't see it necessarily as a political gathering.
AR. And so, for that reason, you don't think that Michigan has to be... to embrace the...
TRC. Political things happen here. I mean, I think that's a really fuzzy thing...
AR. I mean they do, that's why I'm saying.
TRC. But they happen everywhere. I teach and they happen in the classroom, but what I'm doing is a cultural thing.
TRC. I'm doing a job and it's cultural, but I'm a political teacher. I work in my magic, hopefully. I have my agenda, and I go in there, and I'm the first to admit it. But this is a cultural space that has a political identity attached to it, like that's how I think of it, which is different than something like, perhaps, Lesbian Avengers, right?
AR. But I wonder, do you think the intention behind Michigan, for so many people in the community, even if it wasn't its first intention, became political at some point- because it is such a movement, and a constant struggle against oppression?
TRC. I actually don't think so. I've spent a lot of time in Festi-land the last few times I've come here, basically for this reason. And talking to people and like driving the tractor, just being like "Hey where are you from? What are you doing?" And when I've been out there photographing this time, really kind of getting a feel for it, and who am I to say, but my feeling is that a majority of the women come here to have fun. (laughs). It's cultural. They don't come here to be like "What's the rape laws in your town? I want to start a da-da-da-da-da, how am I going to do it?" I mean the workshops and all that, it's important, but I really see it as a cultural experience.
B. Yeah, I like that distinction. I totally agree.
TRC. And that's different to me than a group of people getting together being like how are we gonna undo the system, how are we gonna fight the man, how are we gonna make legislative change, medical change, social change, economic change in the queer community in the world outside of here. That is a place where we have to really break down the barriers of transphobia for fucking sure. You know? And my ultimate thing, and the thing I said in the first public statement that I wrote to represent my record label was that I do not think that the policy is intrinsically, at its core, transphobic. And that's what it's been accused of, that the term "woman-born woman" itself is transphobic. That's what I have been told. Because what it says is it discludes as opposed to self-names, you know? Then I'm like, well "lesbian" is male-phobic, right? I mean, like I don't agree with that.
AR. But it's very convincing when you talk to a woman who has transitioned and they're so much a woman, and so much themselves in a way that they might not have been before they were able to transition, and so, to me, it's a very compelling argument. To sit in front of a woman, and talk to her, and she is even more of a woman than I feel like a woman. OK? That's the reality.
TRC. I've had that experience too. Like I'm dating somebody who doesn't think she should come, you know?
AR. I love being here, and I love women, but sometimes, I don't even feel like a woman.
B. But I believe, I don't want to say it, that's internalized self-loathing
AR. No, it's not self-loathing.
TRC. I don't think it's self-loathing, but I think it's a kind of internalized gender phobia.
AR. No, I love the idea... I love women.
TRC. But don't you think that's what's great about coming here...you know, is that you come and you're like that's a woman, that's a woman....
AR. Yeah. I love the woman part of me, but I guess I feel, it's hard to describe because you have to be in that space. No, I want to come and I think I should be here; I honor that part of me. But sometimes I'm just like wow, you know?
TRC. I have that experience sometimes in queer culture, like in the 80's when I would go to dyke stuff and I'd walk in as a fem, and I'd be like, I'd have that thing where... 'Cause there was this whole kinda time in the eighties, you know the sort of Lesbian Avengers time, where you had the same haircut and leather jacket and stuff. I'd walk in, first of all, punk, there were punks, and I would be like I'm not a real queer, I'm not a real lesbian, I'm not a real, you know? So, on some level I think I know what you're saying.
AR. Daniela, you were saying you had a lot of friends that are trans, that were over in Camp Trans
D. Yeah, I mean I figure they're there. I'm from the punk community, so, for me, this place always seemed, until, I remember when Tribe 8 came, for us this place was not a place that most of my friends or generation wanted to be a part of, because we had all these assumptions. Well now looking back, I think it was some kind of ageism mixed with misogyny because in the general world, you know, men can really idolize some older guy and his traditions or whatever, but for my generation, or at least for my group of friends, like from my punk scene, we didn't think it was cool to like play a guitar, like acoustic guitar or like have long hair, we had all these things in my early twenties about it. And I didn't realize that I was being so exclusive in that way, and I realize now that it was just like this real, self-loathing, something like that. Because once I actually came here... and also the place changed a bit once they let Tribe 8 play and then Team Dresch played. People I knew had been here, but it always seemed like this insurgency. Like we'd go in this place that wasn't our space. But I think a lot of that was in our heads. I don't think that's really what was going on too much, I mean maybe, I don't know, cause the place has changed a lot.
AR. It's cultural.
D. It's cultural.
AR. I had the same experience with "women's music."
D. You did, right? Cause you felt, kind of like, that's not me.
AR. I mean Ferron was about the only person I could relate to, because she was like a Bob Dylan to me, you know. But I felt really aesthetically at odds with it, but then I realized also that it was sexism and homophobia.
B. Me too.
D. Now I can sit around a fire and I can hear someone playing music that maybe I wouldn't particularly put it on my CD player but I can appreciate the moment. And a lot of that's coming from my whole life, and that's why this place is so important to me, because I've traveled a lot and I've lived, I haven't lived in one place for years and years, and I've lived in a lot of different countries, and I've seen a lot of stuff, and different parts of me opened up. But I never thought I could experience those parts here in the U.S. I always thought that here, in the U.S., everything had to be more, like, individualist, kind of, you know like someone couldn't just play the bongos badly and everybody would support them just because. You know it just felt like more dog eat dog, or something. And when I came here, I just felt like I could just be myself, whatever side of myself. And that is directly linked to people who are born as men not being here, in my psyche, in my mind. And it's my oppression, maybe in 200 years it won't have to be that way, because I agree, I've hung out with a lot of people who are, you know, more a woman than I am who were born as men, in a way. Like there's a side of me that comes out that's so beautiful when I'm around those people, and I'm free in a particular way around that. But for the healing that I need to go out into the world and be making the world a better place, this place is like totally vital for that.
AR. And did you all struggle with your trans friends and go through a time when you felt different about it, did everything just sort of evolve or did you always feel this way about it.
D. Well, for me, it's never settled and sometimes there is tension in the air. And it's not like it's all good now. I feel like most of my friends just understand that I'm doing what I need to do, and they may not agree with it, but they don't take it personally. They realize that I have to find my own path.
B. I mean just the fact that there's like something to not agree with is the thing that just drives me insane. Like what's there not to agree with? A certain group of this culture of people getting together for one week out of the year...
TRC. ...to shit in the woods.
B. Yeah, you know. What's there to not agree with?
AR. After my interview with a representative from Camp Trans, I heard two issues coming across from her. One thing is, there are so many people that gather here, I know you think of it as a cultural space, but she's looking at it as a political space, and she's saying there's so many people that gather here that go out into the world, that it's a springboard. And it may be a small gathering for just a few days, but the rest of the year all these people that come here can learn the policies here and then model their lives, non profits, and businesses on what goes here. She believes that it carries over into everything they do.
B. Yeah, I've heard that too.
AR. So that's one thing. And the other thing is that she believes that at this time, there's a real need for allies. And you've spoken to that, we don't want to have to take care of everybody and you know, women aren't allowed to say "no" kind of issue, but to her it's like we need allies. How can you say no to this person who is a woman.
TRC. I think the first part of that is the assuming this is a trans-hating space. And if we assume this is a trans-hating space, then, yeah, five-thousand women are going to leave the land and go create trans-hating policies. I don't have that experience here. I've had women, 60- 70-year-old women, say the most remarkable things to me about gender and transphobia, you know. And that totally undoes my assumptions, you know of who's like on the tip and who's not, you know. So again, like I was saying before, like going out into festi-land and hanging out with the people who are paying to come here and camp and see art, has really helped me too. And having these conversations and starting up dialogues with them and being like you know, there are people out there who are racist and sexist and transphobic, and there are a lot of people who aren't. And I think it's an oversimplification to say that people come to the land and go and take the policy.
B. Me too.
TRC. I think it's presented as a kind of sacred thing, a temporary thing, like it's temporal.
AR. Yeah, but she presents it as the holy mother. She believes Michigan is like the chalice for every women.
TRC. I think that's giving it too much...
B. It's putting too much pressure on it. It's like the super hero thing to do to moms.
TRC. It's like the cupcake thing that I was saying, that metaphor yesterday about the cupcake. It's like we're fighting over the crumb but the cupcake's walking by us.
D. I also think it's a smash-your-idol thing, like I can't help but see the correlation between people idolizing a star, or the weird ways you can hate someone that you love, or you kinda want to change what you love, I don't know...there's something there.
AR. Well, what about the ally issue? Is it up to them to just find their own allies, or is there a need for Michigan to step in and say we're allies.
TRC. I think that's happening. There were three workshops about gender.
AR. So you feel that Michigan's is being an ally to them in the way that it can.
D. It's helping me be an ally by being healed while I'm here. People who were born as men or trans people I know that don't want to come, I mean I feel like they can look and say this is healing you and it's making you a better person, I want to support that.
B. Yep. Why isn't that an ally action?
TRC. Like where are our allies? Like I've been the ally for fags, I've been the ally for men, I've been the ally for a lot of people. Like where are the allies for women-born women? Like who the fuck is that? We don't even have the Take Back the Night marches anymore that are all women, it's like we have to include men, because it's so sexist not to.
D. We're being erased.
TRC. What if we offered to help the trans community put on a festival, donate labor, like what if they came forward to Lisa or me or people who know way more than I do and said can I pick your brain? How do we do this?
B. With something FOR something, instead of against, against, against.
AR. But the dialogue does feel more open now. The difference in the past four years or five years, I see, well this time I see a marked difference, I really do.
D. I felt it just in the way people are talking about it
AR. Just talking to the person that's sort of the ambassador.
TRC. And that's great, that's progress...
B. I wanted to make one more comment about the ally thing. The metaphor I think of is like when a little kid really wants you to take them swimming again and you just went swimming three times, or whatever it is. They're like no, I want another popsicle or whatever. And at some point, if you need to rest, the best way you can take care of that child is to be like, no, I need to rest now, because otherwise, if I take you to the pool, if I just say yes and take you to the pool again, and I'm exhausted, I'm going to get all cranky at you.
AR. So there's no sense that these women could come in and bring something special to the festival that isn't here, a new perspective or something...
B. /TRC. Well of course they could.
AR. So is it all this feeling of burden, of like we have to take care, we have to help process, we have to do this...
TRC. They could, they totally could.
AR. From their perspective they're thinking, they have this thing to offer, a perspective that we could use here, you know.
D. You know, it's like I can't help but notice who takes up space. People come into my restaurant, we'll have women come in my restaurant, out lesbians, whatever, they'll come in, I'll sit them down at a table, they won't even look me in the eyes, ninety percent of the time. They can't even take up that much space. We're talking about people living in this society, coming out to dinner, and then we'll have like fags coming in and they'll just be like, "Hey, How's it going?" like completely in the space.
AR. And you think that doesn't change?
D. There's something about this place being only people who are born as women that we would want to take up that much space or feel free to, or something. We have to practice that.
TRC. I mean I think trans women would have a different, particular, unique thing to bring...
B. Of course.
TRC. ...that would be, I don't think it's just that they would be a burden or that they would flash their penises or anything. It's not anti "that," its just pro this other thing.
Amy R. How are you doing?
Lisa V. I'm good.
A. The weather turned...
L. The weather turned. I feel really...just happy about it all, or happy about most of it. Happy about enough of it, that I'm happy about it all.
A. Well I heard people talking about this story that you told about the original Michigan, the first one, do you want to share that?
L. Oh sure, for some reason old stories are dribbling out of my mouth this year
So, the first year's festival, 1976, we had absolutely no money. We literally did garage sales. We literally did a car wash to get money to buy stamps. I borrowed money from my dope dealer. You know? It's like we had NO money! Our first piece of publicity was a mimeograph, and we did thousands of them because we could go into the university at night and do mimeographs. But, we had no money to rent tents, and we didn't have any water on the sight that we had rented. We had rented a sight that somebody had parceled up to sell– there was 120 acres.
A. In Michigan?
L. In Michigan, over by Mt. Pleasant where I was going to school at the time. And so we rented this space. There was no electricity, no water. We had no idea how we were going to make this work. And we were going to run a generator, we didn't have a truck among us, and we didn't have money to rent any vehicles and literally the sound woman rolled up and she had a truck, and I went, "Oh my God a truck. Now I know who's going to turn around and go to Detroit and get the generators." And we ran the whole thing off a generator. I mean it was just a stitch, you know? And we didn't have any water, and so I was trying to figure out how to get a big amount of potable water, because I didn't think that we would ever have a well. And we eventually had a local person put a well down and pull it up and we just had the well for 5 days, literally. But, I was trying to figure out how to get a hold of some tents, and I made up this story, I called an army reserve place, and I got a name of a guy. And I called another army reserve place and I said, you know, "Sergeant 'Amy Ray,' who I was in the reserves with, told me that you could hook me up with these tents. And what do you think about the Alpena branch? Do they have anything that we could possibly..."? And it went on for years. I mean I think that maybe after five years they finally figured out that nobody really knew me.
And we only rented one stage tent, like a little awning over our tent. And we borrowed for years, large tents. But the first year we also had this huge potable water thing. So it was the day of the first festival, we had no idea what to expect, we thought there'd be, maybe a thousand women, and the people who I was organizing the festival with, they wanted to go to the airport, basically, because they wanted to pick up performers that they were interested to meet. And I'm like, you guys, you cannot leave me here alone, I have no idea what's going on. I had just turned 20. So all of the sudden here were all these women, I mean there were 2000 women that came to the first festival, and they were dykes. We were lesbians from Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, we didn't really have a global view of a lesbian nation at that point - women from New York, and women from California, who were much more political and much more separatist. And so all of the sudden I'm running around trying to figure out what to do about all these people because it was a Friday, Saturday, Sunday thing, when all of the sudden this huge army truck with this huge tank of water... Well all they saw was a huge army truck with a huge tank on the back of it, and of course they think we're getting invaded. And I'm standing in front of the women, trying to keep them from attacking them. "No, no, no, really, he's here for a reason." - this big old butch of a guy in the front seat. It was hysterical. I have no muscle memory of him picking that up. I have a very big muscle memory of, I actually jumped up on his, you know, the step up thing, and rode on his truck so I could just keep women back from coming up to him. It was hysterical. But the day before, we actually had a well put in. A local guy took pity on us. You know, a friend of a friend of a friend, and came up and sunk down a well, and pulled it up on Monday. And we ran it off a generator. Cause we were out there trying to put in our own well.
A. How many people was it, the original incarnation of starting the festival.
L. Well initially, there was me and Mary Kindig, and my sister got involved in the spring.
A. So y'all brainstormed it.
L. I had gone off to the Midwest Festival. It's like not a music festival and it still exists in a certain form. I was a freshman in college, and I had a college instructor who was trying to make time with me, so she invited me to go to this thing. And I knew nothing about nothing. I just came out in the spring, you know the spring of my high-school year and was y'know, being a frisky young lesbian. And so she invited me to go to this thing in Missouri and I went. I don't know it was a couple hundred women, maybe, living in a camp, and doing workshops, and sharing work shifts, and cooking for each other, and I was a hippie, you know, so this was like, oh my god, this is kind of like a rock festival, but yet without the dudes, this is fantastic. And then I went from there to a women's music festival in Boston that I heard about there. And it was an indoor, two-day festival, and that's how I met the Saints, 'cause they had the bar happening then.
A. Right, the Saints' Bar.
L. Yeah, and that's when I first met them. And so we went there and that was very cool. I mean, I was definitely into rock and roll, and not much rock and roll was happening, but I loved the women-identified music tremendously.
A. So your original idea with this, it included music...was that like the main ingredient for you?
L. You know what was really the main ingredient? - music and communal living. And the food piece I've often times felt like was maybe the most significant decision of that first year. 'Cause we didn't really have very much the first year. We had a stage, and we had a health care tent, and we had communal food. And that seemed to be, like if we wouldn't have started with communal food, I don't know that we would have gotten back to it. And that, I think defined the community maybe more than almost anything; rather than having stands and you buy your food or something like that. At the time, we were the first women's music festival that did an outdoor communal thing. That was pretty unusual.
A. And the reason why you thought that that was important, was it a cultural reason? Were you compelled by something political about oppression and women needing their own space, was there a developed mission statement, or was it just kinda like this is going to be fun, and we shouldn't have men here.
L. Honestly the original seed was that men would be there. When we really started thinking about it, we couldn't imagine a space without men.
A. Because you didn't want it or because in the world...
L. Never had it. Never had it. Never had it. You know? And even though there were no men at that Midwest Festival and there were women-only concerts, we were in an eco-sphere of kind of left-wing hippies, which were mostly lesbian, and gentle and supportive men, who we hung out with. And so we started planning it, on the way back from the Boston Festival, you know we were in the van, like, "Oh god, this is so much fun going to these things, but it's so far to drive. What if we had something like this in Michigan, it would be so much easier than traveling."
A. Oh, that's great.
L. Fabulously innocent, right? And really I thought that for quite awhile - the easier, softer way, is to do something in Michigan. Having never produced anything but a kegger, you know?
And, so honestly, initially the concept was just a women's event, and we didn't think through the piece of how would it be to actually wake up and have a dude in the tent next to you. And you know initially I went to the women in the food co-op and said, "Would you organize food?" And they were all straight hippie women. And they all actually showed up the first day, and went to the beach and never came back.
A. Oh my god.
L. So like they were so freaked out, so...
A. And what did you do?
L. Well, the food was super simple...
A. The food was there already?
L. Yeah. And it was super simple. So like I really had these experiences of running over to start the fire to cook the corn and the potatoes and running back to the stage, and...
A. You didn't have many people working?
L. No, we had almost nobody. We just had a handful, and you know, women would, some women came and just snapped to.
A. So when you sent out the message to invite people to this, at that point did you say we're gonna make it clear that it's just women, or did it just happen on its own?
L. Well no, it didn't happen on its own. When we started talking to performers, Meg Christian at the time was doing women-only concerts only. And her manager said are you going to have men? And we said, "Oh. We hadn't really thought about that piece." We were having a hard time just getting people to take our phone calls.
A. You were calling performers.
L. We were just trying to, you know... we had met Margie Adam at this Chicago concert, afterwards, and got a phone number. And everybody just kept saying, call us after somebody else says yes. Call us after somebody else says yes.
A. Right. They wanted you to have an anchor.
L. Yeah. Exactly. And we had never produced anything. And that's all we had, was an idea. And Margie really was the first person who said yes. At that time she had done a record, Meg had done a record, and Cris Williamson had done her record. Those were the three women who were the primary, touring women that had the draws. And Holly was just at that point kinda crossing into the women's community from doing the anti-war and left stuff.
A. So were things like the women-of-color tent, and the DART, and all of those special sort of things that take into consideration people's needs, did they develop over a long period of time, or was there one moment where it really cemented in everybody's mind?
L. It developed over time. Like DART came out of picking up the phone, a woman saying hey I want to come to your festival and is there a way to get there from the bus. Sure we pick up women from the bus. Well, I'm in a wheelchair. And I remember the woman's name today. And this is on the old land, and I'm like fuck, what is this woman gonna do? I'm like well there's never been a woman in a wheelchair here. And then I went and talked with a woman who worked with women with disabilities and said what do we do?
A. What brought up the women of color area?
L. That really happened once we were on this land, even. So the women-of-color tent didn't come about...
A. This is the third piece of land y'all have been on?
L. Yeah. We were one year on the first land, seven years on a rented piece of land, and we moved here in 1982. I think as more women of color started to attend the festival. You know it was pretty white - pretty white and thirty-something. And diversity of age was like when we did the bookings, we'd think, oh, diversity of age was booking somebody who was 40. Like I remember a woman that we booked and it was really important that we book her because she's like "old," she's 40. (laughs)
A. And so you really developed as things became, came up?
L. Well you know the community evolved. The community, really, I mean my...I mean it's not like I haven't had a few good ideas in 29 years. I'm saying I've had a few, but mostly what I've done is facilitate community ideas. I mean that's really how I see my role.
A. When did you develop your policy, like your specific policy, for example, "women born women?" Did you feel a need to have it after the first year?
L. The first year we articulated it was 1978.
A. So after 2 years?
L. Yeah. There was not a trans movement but you know there was a dynamic that was happening, and there certainly was an issue, and there was a dynamic that was kind of two-fold. There was this whole process that was happening about questioning women of color, butch women of color. Women would come up to me, "there's a man on the land." And the first question out of my mouth became, "is she a woman of color?" Because white women who weren't used to being around African-American women, specifically, or Mexican-American women, would read butch African-American women as men. And that was a real dynamic thing that was happening in the seventies. I mean, just bluntly. And because there hadn't been a lot of, I can say from my experience anyways, there wasn't a whole lot of interracial community action happening. And I think the festivals were really part of making that be so, but it wasn't very "so" at first.
A. And so you handled that by helping people understand, just getting rid of that ignorance and sort of opening people up to...
L. Well I didn't even know the ignorance existed. I'm sure it existed in me, but then I would have someone come up and say "there's a man on the land." And after going up to several people accused of being male and walking up and going, oh that's not a man. And then starting to realize that white women track women of color very differently and not understanding what a butch woman of color presents as is different than a butch white woman. So that was just like, you know, you learn that as you experience it.
A. And do you feel that Michigan is like this springboard where people come and then they go out into the world after Michigan, and whatever happens here really affects the way they run their businesses or the way they do their activism, in a political way. Or do you feel that it's this cultural space and we come together to have fun in a safe space, and you know, not to feel the responsibility or burden of that. Because, I've been interviewing different people about all the different perspectives on Michigan and some people specifically identify it as a cultural space, and some people identify it as a political space. And one woman I did talk to from Camp Trans identified it as a political place. She was talking about the "women born women" policy saying she wants this policy to change because she feels that so many people come here that affect the world when they leave. And I wondered if you felt Michigan's impact in that way, or if that's even an issue.
L. Well I know it has that impact for some women. See I think here there's many, many women endeavoring to do the right thing. You know? And I feel as though the guideline for those of us working on the festival and, certainly for myself, is that probably most important, is to endeavor to do the right thing. It's a cultural event. You know we program it, we build it. And the real Petri dish is what kind of environment, what are our choices, what's our value system here, when we really can't hang it on anybody else. Like what is important to us? Like the services we provide for each other, the way we care for our children, the way we make things accessible, you know, listening to minority voice, leaving lots of room for the voice of dissent, you know, like absolute commitment to continuing dialogue, processing our cracks off. We've been process monsters from the start because it is first and foremost a community event where it is the community's process that will really bubble up to the top, and the right thing will happen.
We have these community meetings and we have these special interest group meetings, and of course we have this whole infrastructure of coordinators and crews. And it's that kind of vital input from so many women that end up solving so many of the problems, end up creating so many of the things, the women-of-color tent, the deaf way tent, the Jewish women's space, how we have the child care organized, the oasis, you know the political statement we're making by how the womb is organized. So that we are fundamentally creating, yes, a first-aid space, but a radical space for teaching different ways to approach healing. I mean that was probably one of the first, besides deciding that we were going to eat together, this process of eating together bonds us as a tribe.
And then the next thing we really developed was really a radical approach to we're not just going to have first aid, we're actually going to teach each other how to take care of ourselves. We're actually going to meld modalities. We really kind of downplay the medical model and the doctors who work in the womb, you know, there have been plenty of docs who can't really hang with the scene there because they're equal with herbalists. You know and it's deep. I mean docs walk away changed.
A. It's a microcosm.
L. Right. And so do I think that has an effect? It has an effect on me every year. I mean I walk away changed every year. I feel the responsibility to keep clear that my job is first and foremost to endeavor to do the right thing. And not to endeavor to make the most money...you know what I mean, like in these years when we're going through all these changes of size, it's really called upon a whole other skill set to make it work, but also to keep your eye on the prize, that it's really...Of course, the concerts are fabulous and the workshops are fabulous, but the grist of it is something bigger than that.
A. Hmmm. I love that.
L. It's really something bigger than that. You know, if we were just about doing a concert, I could figure out how to make a lot of money just doing a concert. I mean, I've been doing it a long time, but the value system really demands that the economics go into community services, and that's crucial. That is what tells us we're a community. That's what has the energy, you know, the cycling of energy, and the interchange. I mean as each new generation comes in, or each new woman attends. So we're taught a consumerist culture, and we're trying to say, the very statement from the beginning is this is your event. You know, we provide a framework, yes you pay a ticket, but we provide a framework, this isn't a thing that we're providing for you. This is the gig. And we've found ourselves saying to people, this may or may not be the event for you. Like, I don't know why I have to do a workshop; I just want to pay an extra fifty dollars. You know? And we're like, thanks but we're not going to let you off the hook that easy, 'cause this is really what your experience, this is actually, we're offering something different and we think it's pretty powerful.
A. Do you mind making a statement about the transgender issue and Michigan Womyn's Festival's "women born women only" policy?
L. Not at all, well let's see, just off the cuff, here's what I would have to say about it. As a queer community we're all struggling around how we explore and expand gender definitions, and the women here who are creating this festival are part of that. And 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. To label that as transphobic is, to me, as misplaced as saying the women-of-color tent is racist, or to say that a transsexual-only space, a gathering of folks of women who are born men is misogynist. I have always in my heart believed in the politics and the culture of separate time and space. I have no issue with that for women-of-color, for Jewish women, for older women, for younger women. I have seen the value of that and I learned the value of that from creating this space for so many years. So the troublesome thing is, in the queer community, if we can't, not just allow, but also actually actively support each other in taking the time and space that we need to have our own thing, then to come together, in all of our various forms, is going to take that much longer. And I understand how certain activists in the Camp Trans scene only see this as a negative statement, and I think that there's a lot of connection that's getting lost. Because, I really think that folks aren't understanding how crucial this space is, as it is, for the women who come here. And, maybe that's just it.
A. That's great.
L. OK, cool.