For the past 30 years, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (MWMF)has held its festival in northern, rural Michigan. Women come from all over the country to attend. It is a celebration of womanhood and solidarity. No men are allowed. The women camp out, listen to music, dance, sing around the campfire and generally just enjoy each other's company for one week a year. The festival attracts something like 6-7 thousand women each year.
Womyn of every age, color, shape, style and attitude gather each year to enjoy a womon-loving cultural extravaganza of our own creation. This year's version includes over 40 performances, hundreds of workshops, a film festival, a crafts fair, and fitness and dance classes. The program will celebrate the artists who have fueled the Festival culture from our beginnings in 1976 and bring together all of the artists who contribute to the Festival's musical heartbeat in the new millennium. The Festival is held on 650 acres of lush Michigan woodlands where you can hike in for the deep woods experience or settle in a busy fireside neighborhood.
But, as with most things, not everyone is happy with the Festival. For the past dozen years or so the policy of MWMF has been to allow only "womyn born womyn" on its property. The organizers, who own this property, argue correctly that they have the absolute right to restrict access to whomever they please. This space, they argue, is for women who have spent their lives experiencing the brunt of the patriarchy. This space, for one short week a year, provides them with an escape from the patriarchy and the experience of a supportive, woman-affirming space. Nevertheless, a closer look at that wording obviously translates to: No trannies allowed. In protest of this policy a group of trans-people, and in later years, other supporters such as the Boston Lesbian Avengers, have attended an organized protest of this policy in a small campground down the road from the entrance to MWMF, called Camp Trans:
In 1991, a woman was asked to leave the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival after her transsexual status became known to festival workers. The festival began for the first time to enforce a policy of allowing only "womyn-born womyn" to attend. The first official Camp Trans was held in 1993, when several transsexual womyn and their allies began camping and holding demonstrations outside the gate. Camp Trans returned in 1994 with the support of transgender activists Riki Ann Wilchins and Les Feinberg, and again in 1999 with many members of the Boston and Chicago Lesbian Avengers. The events of 1999 drew much attention and controversy, culminating in heated tensions as a small group of transgender activists were admitted into the festival to dialogue with organizers and to negotiate a short-lived compromise allowing only post-operative transgender womyn on the festival land.
I have gone through several personal reactions to this whole debate/mess. I have been outraged. I've been understanding and I've been ambivalent. But I think that, in the final analysis (for me), the answer is not about me. In other words, I understand (and agree with) the argument that says that the Festival's policy essentially argues that trans-women are not women at all. From Camp Trans' web-site:
The festival, as stated on its website, is "a magnificent celebration of womyn's culture and community" in which "womyn of every age, color, shape, style and attitude [sic] gather each year to enjoy a womon-loving cultural extravaganza of our own creation." The fest claims to embrace the total diversity of women, and it frequently uses rhetoric suggesting that it represents a singular and all-inclusive women's community. Given these statements, when the festival singles out and excludes trans women from that diversity, it sends the message that trans women are not women. Many of us are only too familiar with the effects of this message firsthand in our own communities.
That makes me feel pretty lousy. In this they deny me my experience as a woman and further set me apart from the rest of humanity. But, I keep coming back to a fundamental premise. This is not about me. The organizers of MWMF cannot deny me my experience, only I can do that. Hey, I probably wouldn't even go to the Festival, even if such a policy did not exist -- I hate camping! And, by the same token, I won't be going to Camp Trans. Still, I cannot deny my wish that this division can be worked out and that the Festival organizers will re-consider their policy. There is no universal experience of womanhood.