The Fight Over Michigan Womyn’s Music Fest

Jun 5th, 2013

It’s that time of year again: the annual fight between Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF) and transgender activists. As lesbians all over the country prep for the celebratory high, non-stop music and just-plain-fun that is MWMF, they also have to prep for a serious attack and running a gauntlet many don’t even understand.

The demarcation for political correctness keeps shifting. Since college I have identified as a radical lesbian feminist. No one ever cared if they offended my radlezfem sensibilities and they still don’t. Lesbians have become adjuncts in the LGBTQIQ identity salad; it’s difficult not to connect that to our femaleness.

Still, in the lesbian-feminism in which I came of age, inclusion was our goal: being aware of the concerns of other oppressed people and supporting their struggles, not just our own. My life-long activism has been about ending oppression–all of it.

But Michigan is not about oppression. It’s about celebration of women’s music and celebration of female/lesbian identity. The revising of that as transphobic is simply wrong.

Let me explain why.

I have lived in African-American neighborhoods for most of my life. My parents were civil rights workers in the 1960s and they lived their work. Most of my parents’ close friends were black, our neighborhood was black, our church was black. My first female lover was black. (So was my first male lover, but I got over any thoughts of being straight before I was 20.) The neighborhood where I’ve lived for the past 23 years is 95 percent black. I write for the local African-American newspaper. I co-founded a mentoring program for inner-city African-American youth called KITH (Kids in the ’Hood). I co-founded an independent publishing house, Tiny Satchel Press, which publishes books for kids of color and LGBT kids. I spend much more time living with and working with people of color than I do with white people.

But I am not black.

Although I have spent literally my entire life living in black communities and working with black kids and adults, I would never presume that I know what it’s like to be black, or to live in non-white skin.

A few years ago African-American filmmaker Julie Dash was meeting me at the apartment of a friend of mine in New York, where I was staying. I said to Julie on the phone, “Just breeze by the front desk with authority and no one will question you when you come in.”

She paused, then said, “That might work for you, but it won’t work for me. Please just be waiting at the desk for me.” She didn’t say anything else. I’m sure she could hear me blushing over the phone.

When I walked into my friend’s building, my years of working-class shame followed me, so I would stride in like I belonged there, daring someone to stop me, daring someone to pick a fight with working-class me. No one ever questioned me. But I was blonde-haired, blue-eyed, so white. Julie was able to afford that building and I was not, so to be stopped at the desk would be humiliating for her and would be a reminder of how race is a demarcation in society, regardless of class. I could pass for upper-class when I was actually working-class. But she could never pass for white.


Here’s another story: For the past 39 years Philadelphia has hosted the annual Greek Picnic in July. This is a huge, week-long convening of national black fraternities and sororities with thousands of attendees. No whites.

Are there protests every year? Is there a “Camp Caucasian” outside the event in Fairmount Park, the largest public city park in the country? No. Because that would be wrong and intrusive and some might even see it as white supremacist.


The long debate over MWMF not allowing transpersons seems to me to be similar. Issues of passing, presumption, belonging, humiliation, solidarity interconnect when we talk about identity and the politics of identity. Identity is also about which battles make sense and which do not, about which battles damage personhood and which strengthen those identities.

MWMF is about strengthening female/lesbian identity in solidarity with other women.

I have spent a lot of the past decade working against the trafficking of women. In the past few months, I have been writing extensively about rape, both in connection with trafficking and just as a daily issue for women.

Whether they acknowledge it or not, all women are oppressed by men. That’s a fact. It doesn’t matter if you love your dad and brothers, uncles and cousins, if your best buddy is a gay man or any of that. As the late Andrea Dworkin wrote, the gender class women is oppressed by the gender class men.

I’ve cited the statistics that validate oppression in myriad columns here. I don’t need to repeat them. I am a multiple rape survivor. I actually prefer the term victim. Survivor implies that once I dusted myself off, washed off the blood and semen and the knife wounds, bruises and all of that healed, I was the same person I was before those rapes. But I was not, am not, never will be. Still, I survived being raped without being killed, even when I was knifed and choked unconscious.

I used to attend the Lesbian Feminist Weekend on the East Coast for years. Four days of blissful, women-only space. Was it perfect? No. But it was free of men. Which meant that even though it was in the middle of nowhere, in the woods, in cabins and tents, we all felt safe. Because it was a penis-free zone. Which for the women attending was a reprieve.

If I were running MWMF, this is what I would say: No penises. No male privilege. No oppression of women. Just fun, music, dancing, celebration. Solidarity.

MWMF is about women-only space just like the Greek picnic is about African-American-only space. MWMF is about women who are oppressed by men every minute of every day being free of that oppression for one week of their year or possibly their lives and reveling in that and celebrating each other, just like the Greek picnic is about solidarity among African-Americans who are oppressed by racism every day of their lives being free of that in all-black space.

But if you can’t leave your male privilege there, as well as your penis, then MWMF is not the place for you and your presence will harm other women who, like me, have been brutalized by men. It will also alter the atmosphere for every woman who has come specifically to be in women-only space because they will feel just as constrained as they feel in straight society.

Being transgender carries its own oppression–there’s no question about that. And no one should be checking genitalia at the door of MWMF. As someone who’s spent years experiencing bi-genderism, I understand why transwomen would want to attend MWMF. But women are not the enemies of other women, whether those women are born women or transitioned women. Women are not the oppressors. It’s a patriarchy out here. But at MWMF, it’s a matriarchy.

So I have to ask this question of those transgender women who want to be at MWMF: If you identify as female, then why are you fighting with other women every August? Why can’t you come to MWMF like other women to revel in the 100 percent femaleness and celebrate with music and dancing and being playful without the presence of men? If you haven’t fully transitioned and still have your penis, can’t you keep it hidden away for that week or wait to come to Michigan until after you have fully transitioned and that remnant of the body that is the wrong body is gone?

Can’t you respect the healing and celebration that Michigan offers women?

I don’t want to pick a fight with anyone. I honestly think the fight is unnecessary. I deeply resent people like the Indigo Girls, who took lesbian money for years and got rich off it before they finally dragged themselves out of the closet, demanding that the women of Michigan toe their line. Shut up and sit down. Your wealth grants you privilege other women at Michigan don’t have.

If my African-American neighbors–people I have lived and worked with for decades–don’t want me at a black-only retreat, do I have the right to force my whiteness on them since while I haven’t oppressed them personally, I wear the skin of their oppressor?

A close friend of mine who runs an agency for abused women and so has a vested interest in safe space for women asked me, “Why do transgender rights trump the rights of lesbians?”

That’s certainly a question the producers of MWMF have tried to answer. But for me the debate over Michigan is: if you are a transitioned woman, why can’t you assimilate with other women for one week and allow your femaleness to predominate? It is the remnants of your male privilege that the women of Michigan are objecting to. As transwomen, can’t you stop fighting with other women long enough to feel what it is like for women at Michigan? Women at MWMF have been damaged and brutalized by male oppression and male privilege–street harassment, homophobia, incest, rape and just “simply” making two-thirds of what they make for the same job. Why isn’t it okay for them to be safe from men and just relax, celebrate, listen to women’s music and dance their hearts out for one week of their lives?

Confusing transphobia with the need for safe space for women has twisted both the meaning of Michigan and the fight for transgender rights. All women should want what MWMF offers: a respite from the fight against male oppression, a place where we won’t be raped, a place where we can heal in safety, a place where we can have a freaking blast for one brief week.

I understand that transgender people would want that, too: a place to be safe and in solidarity with other people who understand your same experience, a place to celebrate your identity with no intrusions. And just as I support the Greek picnic and Michigan, I support a trans-only space.

Michigan isn’t about transphobia–it’s about safe space for lesbians. As long as there is male oppression there will be a need for that space. MWMF is by women, for women. And like the all-black Greek picnic, that’s really okay.


 this column originally appeared in Curve Magazine

follow me on Twitter @VABVOX





Comments are closed.