Trouble in Utopia
Now in its 25th year, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival seems quite comfortable on its 640 acres of secluded land near Hart, Michigan. From security and shuttles to signage and sanitation, more than 650 women (including 400 volunteers) worked to put the event on this year. Nearly 6500 campers came for six days of music, workshops, performances, and that unique, penis-free, testosterone-free, male-energy-free place called "womenspace."
Like the women's movement, the festival has had its share of controversies, which usually reflect larger sociopolitical issues being debated in feminist and lesbian communities. In 1991, Nancy Jean Burkholder was "outed" as a transsexual woman and ejected from the festival by staff members because she was not a woman-born woman. Two years later, and every year since, transgender activists have hosted Camp Trans (www.camptrans.com) just across the street from the festival. Some of these rabble-rousers purchase tickets, attend the festival, and do education and outreach about the exclusion of certain women. In 1999, notable gender activist Riki Wilchins pitched her tent at Camp Trans for the third year, paid her $300 for the Womyn's festival, and presented a gender workshop on the festival grounds; this year, she was denied admission because she had openly identified as transsexual the year before.
Although it was the first year that organizers were willing to put their admission policy in writing, that policy still remained unfairly vague. At the front gate, each festival-goer was handed a sheet titled "Festival Affirms Womyn-Born Womyn Space" that explained that it is "an event intended for womyn who were born and who have lived their entire life experience as femaleand who currently identify as a womon." Staff members told campers that if they honored the festival's womyn-born-womyn guidelines, they would be admitted. Furthermore, the rules stressed that "no one's gender would be questioned on the land." However, "[we may deny] admission to individuals who self-declare as male-to-female transsexuals or female-to-male transsexuals now living as men (or [ask] them to leave if they enter)." So, it appeared that the festival had borrowed the unsuccessful, wishy-washy "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy from the military. As long as you did not declare your gender at the gate, and kept your identity secret on the land, you could freely roam in womenspace.
When Camp Trans began, it was a group of predominantly male-to-female transsexuals fighting for their rightful place among other women. But this year, organized by Boston and Chicago Lesbian Avengers, it was a gang of young gender queersidentified as trannie boys, dyke boys, transwomyn, female-to-male transsexuals (FTMs), boyz, andros, and simple tranzwho shook everything up. Many of them fit the "woman-born" criteria; it was the "woman-identified woman" label where things got a little sticky. You see, these Gen Xers don't identify as women, but they don't necessarily identify as men either. Riki Wilchins believes that these young, cutting-edge boychicks have every right to demand to be part of womenspace: "When lesbian feminism starts constraining women instead of liberating them, we have lost our way. This is what the success of years of lesbian visibility activism looks like: new kinds of dykes we haven't seen before and can't name yet."
Some of these genderfuckers came into the festival, and let me assure you that they blended into womenspace just fine, since there were plenty of butches, girlfags, drag kings, bois, diesel dykes, masculine women, and other gender outlaws around. The only difference was that Camp Trans-ers refused to keep their mouths shut.
Michigan has strongly utopian ideals about creating a safe space for all women. "We want to encourage each of us to take this opportunity to be open to things that are new and to approach our differences with respect," proclaims the festival program. What I found there was that it is a safe space, but only for certain kinds of women. As a femme s/m dyke, I didn't always feel safe. I got harassed and shamed for washing sex toystoys used for demonstration in workshops listed in the programat a secluded water faucet. Staff members refused to support me and my girlfriend's First Annual Ejaculation Contest by including it among other public announcements, "due to the graphic nature of the concept." For utopia to work, it's gotta work for all of us.
Over the years, lesbian feminism has seen some radical changes, and the festival has changed along with it. Once known as adamantly anti-s/m, the festival now offers a kink-positive camping area called the Twilight Zone and more pro-s/m workshops than ever. In order to maintain the "purity of womenspace," campers are asked not to play music that includes men's voices on the land. For the first time, however, we heard Glen Campbell belt out "Rhinestone Cowboy" onstage at a worker talent show during a drag king act. The campy, sparkled send-up was an acknowledgment that drag kings stake out a crucial area of lesbian culture where we can express, interrogate, and perform the wonderful world of gender.
To quote again from the program: "Of course we don't always understand one another, but with a little effort we will come to realize that living our diversity includes bumping up against [our] differences, and constantly expanding what we consider 'our' culture and our community." It is time for festival owner Lisa Vogel and producers to read and stand by their own feel-good propaganda. In other words, welcome the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival into the 21st century, where there are people who identify as neither men nor women, but instead call themselves by names that are still evolving. Can we make room for them? The festival staff constantly encourages feedback from the community. It is a for-profit event produced by a private organization, which technically has the rightas the sign in a greasy spoon warnsto refuse service to anyone. But it has always imagined itself a grassroots, feminist affair created by and for women. In that vein, I challenge producers to poll each festival-goer on the gender admission policy, make the results public, and listen to the voices of the women.
Do you know those slightly annoying credit card ads on television about the cost of things? Well, I am tired of the price of Michigan sisterhood being so fucking expensive and available to only certain members of the tribe. Let's try this instead: Airline ticket to Grand Rapids: $280. Camping equipment: $400. Festival ticket: $340. Room for all kinds of womyn: priceless.
Please visit www.puckerup.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.
- The Man Behind 'Modern Seinfeld,' Focuses on His Own Neuroses in New Book
- NYU Student Employees Say the University Hasn't Paid Them in Months
- Here Are the Early Frontrunners for Worst Halloween Costumes for Sale in New York