What's With the MichFest Protest? - A Primer

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Lorraine Donaldson, Camp Trans organizers, and Yellow Armbands, 2006
By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
It's been a lively week in the land of activists protesting (and not protesting) the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. MichFest, in existence since 1976, has been a flashpoint of trans activism and protest since 1993, when Nancy Burkholder was expelled for not being a "natural, woman-born-woman." The protests, which had simmered steadily since then, popped last year, in the form of a petition circulated by Equality Michigan calling for a boycott of the festival. In an Op-Ed about the boycott, then Equality Michigan Executive Director Emily Divendorf spelled out why she believed MichFest's ongoing marginalization of trans women was antithetical to both feminism and LGBTQ equality, saying, "Painting trans*women as foreign to our experience as women when many of our trans*sisters have spent a lifetime feeling cast out simply because their identification with the female experience is so very real, is to tell them that we don't believe them when they tell us who they are . . . Supporting Michfest makes us weapons against our own people. Until trans*women are invited to sit next to you as their authentic selves, it is hypocrisy and it is harm." The protest took off, with several large organizations joining in, including HRC, GLAAD and Pride at Work. In response, MichFest organizer Lisa Vogel penned her own Op-Ed, titled "Michfest Responds: We Have a Few Demands of Our Own." In it, she apologizes for the expulsion of Burkholder, and claims there is no anti-trans policy--or "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy around gender--at the festival. She also accuses boycott organizers of behaving like McCarthy-ites, cites Michelle Goldberg's execrable, pro-TERF New Yorker article "What is a Woman?" and reiterates what seems to be a sticking point for both sides: that the focus of the event is "on the experience of those born female, who've lived their lives subjected to oppression based on the sole fact of their being female." S1O_MIFest_2231 For reasons we'll look at later, trans women and their allies find this definition of womanhood to be incontestably transphobic and backward, in a way that results in an unsafe atmosphere for trans woman attendees. For now, though, let's recap what's happened with the protest this week. On April 10, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the National LGBTQ Task Force released letters announcing they were removing their names from Equality Michigan's boycott. In the letters, the Executive Directors of the groups discuss having had numerous conversations with supporters who'd been upset at the boycott. The letters, which can be read here, attempt to strike a balance between the sentimental feelings held by long time MichFest attendees, and the outrage felt by trans women who see the festival as a marginalizing institution. Almost immediately, a petition emerged, urging NCLR and the Taskforce to resume the boycott. The petition, which has garnered over 400 signatures, takes issue with the language of the letters used to describe the festival, saying, "For transgender women, MichFest is not a sacred or liberating space. Instead, its policies, practices, and continuing support from cisgender women, is a source of ongoing trauma." The NCLR & the Taskforce quickly issued a joint statement upon the petition's emergence, attempting to clarify their position. "We are writing to state clearly our commitment to the full inclusion and welcome of transgender women, as women, in the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (Michfest)," the groups' EDs said. "We will continue to actively work to fulfill that goal." The petition's author, Hannah Howard, seemed hardly mollified, however, noting, "These two organizations have historically done extremely little to actively advocate for transgender women's inclusion in MichFest . . . There is certainly no page on either organizations public website about advocating for trans women's inclusion in women's space being a major program or priority." From there, things only grew stranger. The Transadvocate, a website and organization fiercely committed to anti-TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) work, which has written extensively about MichFest's history of transmisogyny, on April 12 also publicly withdrew their support from the boycott. In lofty language that invoked the U.S.'s recent diplomatic work with Iran, Transadvocate's Autumn Sandeen wrote of her hopes that diplomacy could achieve more than a boycott could. On April 13, in a move that's garnered almost no attention, Equality Michigan announced that Emily Dievendorf, the woman who spearheaded the boycott, was stepping down as the organization's ED. In the accompanying press release, the Board of Trustees thanked Dievendorf for her many accomplishments, among which the boycott was not listed. So, what's this all about? Much of the contention, as noted earlier, stems from the eviction of Burkholder, and MichFest's response. Burkholder's recounting of the event is harrowing, and includes the following passage: "Chris said that the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was a woman-only event and she wanted to know if I was a man. I replied that I was a woman and I showed her my NH picture ID driver’s license. Then she asked me if I was a transsexual. I asked her what was the point of her questioning and she replied that transsexuals were not permitted to attend the festival. She said that MWMF policy was that the festival was open to 'natural, women-born-women' only." (Side note: If there's anyone still unclear about what a TERF is, that passage sums it up.) 56dc8fc810297a078840143beafb5cae-300x254 Vogel claims that this was the only case of anti-trans harassment at MichFest, but other serious accounts have emerged, as well. Following Burkholder's expulsion in 1993, a protest has taken place near the festival nearly every year since. Known as Camp Trans, it attracts activists hoping to increase trans awareness and equity at the event. In 1999, a group from Camp Trans, including a 16 year old trans girl, bought tickets and entered the festival. Upon arrival, according to one witness's account, they were immediately surrounded by festival goers, who screamed, "Man on the land!" at the 16 year old. They were moved to a security tent, where the berating continued, and one adult openly threatened the girl's life. "It was just a mud-slinging, hatred pouring out," the woman said. "It was just like one by one by one being like, ‘You’re a rapist! You’re raping the Land! You’re destroying womanhood! I don’t know what I’m going to do to you!’ – it was just violent, hatred" A more recent trans woman account from the festival comes from activist Kayley Whalen in her Huffington Post article, "A Trans Woman on Saving MichFest." Whalen writes movingly in the piece about her two visits to "the land," as its devotees call it, in 2010 and 2011. On her first trip she spent much of her time in an area known as "The Twilight Zone," which she calls "a refuge for people of marginalized gender and sexual identities, including BDSM practitioners and transgender women." In 2011 she volunteered in "the Womb," the festival's medical center. While there, she became unsettled at seeing a fellow volunteer wearing a red badge: a sign of protest against the presence of trans women on the land. Shaken, she hid her trans identity throughout her shift. Her sense of connectedness at the festival's closing ceremony, too, was undone by the preponderance of red badges and shirts. "When people all around you are telling you directly that you have no claim to your womanhood, that there is no way you are welcome, and that by merely existing you are furthering the patriarchy, it cuts right through to your heart," Whalen wrote. IMG_1870 It's hard to see how this dispute can be settled. If, in 1993, following the harassment and ejection of Burkholder, Vogel had said, "Trans women are women and belong here," the strife would have ended. If she said the same today, unequivocally, the wounds could begin to heal. Her insistence, however, on privileging the experiences of "woman-born-womyn," however, a cissexist construction based on transphobic beliefs, seems intractable. This dilemma was present in the letter written by NCLR executive director Kate Kendall, who said, "Many of the letters we received recognized transgender women as women and sisters in struggle, while also arguing that the intention of Michfest does not diminish the lived experience of transgender women." The problem, though, is that MichFest's intention explicitly diminishes the lived experience of trans women, by relegating them to a lower class, which leads directly to the pain and loss of security suffered by attendees like Whalen and Burkholder. A twist in the protest saga came on April 14, when Transadvocate's Autumn Sandeen published, "An Open Letter to Lisa Vogel: I Bought My MichFest Ticket." Addressing the organizer directly, Sandeen requests a negotiation, specifically about the intention, and about making MichFest's 40th year an inclusive one. "It’s time, Lisa," she writes. "It’s time for you to say the words “and trans womyn are welcome at MichFest under the intention too.†Will the tactic work? Who knows? Let's just say my breath is not being held. As for now, the boycott continues, with organizations like the National Black Justice Coalition and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, being joined by artists like the Indigo Girls and comedienne Lea DeLaria. As those protesting attest, MichFest's policies make them a stubborn hold out from a time when cis women excluded and marginalized trans women from their activism and activities, rather than prioritizing their persistent, glaring needs around safety, and economic security. BlogTail_Leela Ginelle