“The gate was guarded by four womyn, dressed in typical dyke-garb baggy shorts or pants, tee shirts, practical shoes. Behind them, large femme-hued cloth banners beckoned passers by with the word “WELCOME”. On the sturdy pipe gate itself, floral decorated words said simply, “Michigan Womyns Music Festival”. The ready smiles of the gatekeepers who swung the barrier open to eager festie-goers who had made the final leg of their journeys down the washboard dirt road only added to the idyllic, some say even sacred, setting. Inside, the most celebrated annual gathering of womyn in the United States was in full bloom on three stages, in dozens of crafts booths, and camps that attracted every manner of female soul with the money and resources necessary to get there. Almost.
Across from the gate, as it had nearly every year since 1993, a rag tag encampment was taking shape under the rich green canopy of leaves common to this heavily wooded region. Mostly queer, mostly womyn, and all business, Camp Trans was emerging from a yearlong slumber to once again shake an angry fist at Lisa Vogel, owner and womyn-goddess of the Michigan festival. The reason? Lisas long standing denial of womyn-privilege to anyone so inclined to label themselves as a transsexual womyn or anyone who would not fit her narrow attendance criteria as “womyn-born-womyn who had lived their entire life experience as womyn.”
On one side of the road then, was the festival, that claimed inspiration and guiding light from the deepest place within the womb of the feminine when in fact it ruled unilaterally about who was and who was not a womyn. On the other, Camp Trans, a righteous and indignant crew of underclass feminist radical peace loving self described sister spirits who were tired of the open discrimination they say Vogels policy perpetuated. The space between these two camps was a distant measured in emotions and history. This year, the MWMFs 25th, would once again shine a light on that world in between.
The year 2000 version of Camp Trans was put together by a new generation of trans-queer-womyn activists headed by Chicago and Boston area Lesbian Avengers. The Chicago contingent named their group the Camp Trans Organizing Committee, and had been meeting for most of a year to plan and try to figure out how to get Lisa to loosen her attitude toward determining the gender of festival goers.
The festival had been going on since Monday. I arrived on Thursday evening. I was in Michigan because I wanted to go. There is so much debate in the LBTQ community about who should be a part of the festival. I realized that most of those who had an opinion never attended, or had stopped going years ago. I wanted to see and feel for myself how all of this would play out. And besides, I am a womyn. A womyn-born-womyn. I also happen to be a trans-womyn, one who lost her job as a California high school teacher when I came out. Ive felt first hand the sting of the patriarchy that the MWMF purports to hold at bay for a blessed week. I belong among other womyn as surely as I need to sit down to pee. Any rule that would exclude me from the community of my sisters is intolerable to me.
On Friday morning, a group of us assembled under a loosely hung blue tarp that acted as Camp Trans Community Central. We talked about who wanted to go into the festival. It was great being among these twenty-somethings who were far more queer and gender bent than I ever would be. According to Lisas criteria, they should all be allowed entrance. Yet, many wanted no part of the womyn-born-womyn label. They had names like Simon, Ari, and Gunner who were they said dyke-boys” and “trans-boyz” and “andro” and “queer”. They had been born with vaginas, and had even lived the bulk of their young lives as womyn, but it was obvious to me and to them that I was more female than they were. Why, they asked rhetorically, should they be allowed into the MWMF while I was being denied entrance if I stated that I was a transsexual. They were there to push for the right to self-determination, just as I was. We suspected that most every dyke-straight-femme-butch-bitch already camped inside the festival gate wanted the same right.
At 11:00 am, we heard a commotion. Looking up, we saw a band of about thirty festies marching toward the gate from inside the festival, beating a drum and chanting, “We support our tranny friends!” Their bodies were painted with slogans of support and self-identification. They all had wristbands signifying that they had paid to attend, and all could have stayed inside and not bothered with us. But they chose instead to show their support and come to the gate to cheer us on while we attempted to come in.
Bolstered by this classic expression of feminist activism, we approached the gate, and asked to be admitted so we could purchase wristbands of our own. We were met by womyn who claimed to be officials of the festival. They said that anyone honoring the festivals womyn-born-womyn guidelines would be admitted. They were not interested in how we identified. Clearly, they wanted no part of the controversy that had marked previous years. In 1991 Nancy Burkholder was expelled after being outed as a transsexual, and last year bands of self described lesbian separatists harangued gender-queer festies, boldly asking to see their genitals while stalking behind them chanting “man on the land”. This year, a dont ask dont tell policy seemed to be Lisas strategy.
Avengers said they wanted clarification of the policy. They wanted to know who would be admitted and who would not. I stood there, ready to declare that I met the womyn-born-womyn criteria. (In my heart I know this to be true. My mother and daughter and lesbian lover know that this is who I am. The Goddess in my prayers knows this. Surely, telling Lisa Vogel is no stretch for me.) The officials refused to dialogue. They kept saying that they wanted us to respect their policy. When asked again for information, they repeated their mantra. Now, as we stood there almost a decade after Burkholders expulsion, one womyn who declared herself transsexual was told she could not enter. I could see her face, etched with the painful reality that she was not welcome in womyns space. While I truly have compassion for Lisas desire to protect her festival from male energy, I knew then that her line was marked in an inappropriate place. She was keeping out womyn who needed and wanted to be inside.
Along with twenty or so Avengers and allies, I went in, past the gate, and bought my wristband. My experience inside was wonderful, and I was treated with respect everywhere I went. At one point, during the Saturday evening meal, I stood proudly supporting my sisters, now known as The Michigan Eight, who were told to leave the land when they declared their status as dyke-boyz and trans-womyn to festival officials. This was done in full few of hundreds and hundreds of supportive festies, who watched this peaceful act of defiance. I even helped pass out stickers reading room for all kinds of womyn to show my solidarity. Overwhelmingly, the crowd that gathered wanted every womyn present to stay and be accepted. A few detractors tried to drum up anti-trans sentiment but the hatred and ignorance of their words fell without harm into the dust on Lois Lane where we stood.
The Michigan Womyns Music Festival has grown over twenty-five years to include young boys who are the children of festies (they were originally excluded), and to embrace workshops and supporters of the BDSM lifestyle. Today, there are special places on the land for womyn of color and chemical free zones for clean and sober womyn and even a scent free space that were not present originally. Likewise, I believe the festival will change to include trans-womyn and this new generation of dyke-boyz. In many ways, it already has. Every day, in full view of the Night Stage, a trans support group met openly. Transexual Menace tee shirts could be seen all over the land in many meetings and circles. Im guessing that as they always have, Lisa and her friends will soon gather to plan next years festival. Along with the Lesbian Avengers and many festival workers and most importantly festies themselves, I encourage them to do the right thing, and let the MWMF continue to grow to be a space where all kinds of womyn can walk and talk and dance and sing.”
*This was published in August 2000 on LesbianNation.com, now SheWired.com. Dana Rivers, formerly David Warfield, is a transgender mass murderer currently facing trial for killing lesbian couple Patricia Wright and Charlotte Reed, and their son Toto “Benny” Diambu-Wright. Dana/David first stabbed and then shot his victims, he then attempted to set them on fire. The lesbian women were Michfest attendees.
Michfest was a women-only, predominantly Lesbian music festival that existed for 40 years until the HRC (Human Rights Campaign), NCLR (National Center For Lesbian Rights), NGLTF (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force) among others, called for a boycott of the festival and all women who attended or performed at the festival. This was the first and only boycott sponsored by the National Center For Lesbian Rights, directed against a lesbian festival on the grounds that female homosexuality is discriminatory against the sexual rights of heterosexual men.