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Myths and The Truth About the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival*

Read the complete text of the Festival Statements HERE.

The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (often referred to as “the Festival,” “Fest,” “MichFest,” “the Land” or “MWMF”) is an international feminist music festival that has taken place on private land near Hart, Michigan since 1976. Since the late 1970s — when the statement was first placed on a festival flyer — the Festival has identified itself as “a space for mothers and daughters, womyn-born-womyn.”

Controversy about the festival arose in 1991 when Nancy Burkholder was asked to leave the festival after several women recognized her as a trans woman and expressed discomfort with her presence in the space. Over the course of the next two decades, several myths have grown around that incident; specifically, that the Festival’s intention towards trans women is transphobic, that the performers who play at the Festival are transphobic, and that the women who attend the festival are transphobic.

This website was created to address these incorrect beliefs and speak truths about the festival that have, for twenty plus years, been shouted over, ignored, or dismissed.

Is the Festival Transphobic?

Myth: The Festival believes trans women are men.

Truth: The Festival recognizes the identity of trans women as women.

“We reiterate that Michfest recognizes trans womyn as womyn—and they are our sisters.”

Festival Statement, August 18, 2014

Myth: The Festival is phobic about trans people.

Truth: Completely false.

“We do not fear their presence among us, a false claim repeatedly made.”

Festival Statement, August 18, 2014

Myth: Everyone who comes to the Festival is transphobic.

Truth: There is a tremendous diversity of women who attend the Festival, representing a range and spectrum of attitudes and opinions about many issues. There are women at the Festival who are activists on behalf of the human and civil rights of trans women, and there are women who harbor prejudices against trans women. The Festival works to provide forums and opportunities to counter the prejudices from the dominant culture (racism, ableism, misogyny, homophobia, classism, transphobia), and many women attending Festival have had traditional ideas challenged and transformed. The Festival, since 2011, has specifically sponsored an “Allies in Understanding” daily workshop. The purpose of this workshop has been to unearth and acknowledge our assumptions of each other, to dig deeper so we can continue to move away from the most dysfunctional aspects of this conflict from both sides, and to learn to authentically dialogue across difference.

Myth: The Festival’s position is hypocritical. The intention of the Festival is transexclusive and therefore transphobic.

Truth: Many mainstream groups and events organized to support women-born-female are transexclusive (for example, events held for pregnant women or support groups for women with uterine cancer), but this does not automatically mean they are transphobic. They are intended to meet the needs of women-born-female with female anatomy.

There is a critical difference between “segregation” and “separation.” One of the core principles of anti-oppression work is to acknowledge the importance of a marginalized group to come together in separate space, to build solidarity with others who share their particular oppression. Trans women have organizations and events that create separate space specific to meeting the needs of women who have transitioned. These are not intended to meet the needs of non-trans women and are not inclusive of women-born-female.

Segregation is different. Segregation occurs when a group within the dominant paradigm uses their power and privilege to keep “others” out. The truth is that both women-born-female and trans women have their own positions of privilege within the dominant paradigm, as well as occupying positions of marginalization outside of it. Women-born-female constitute the majority of women… and they are born with female anatomy and constitute a sex caste that is universally and has been historically subordinated to males. Their anatomy has been the rationale for their subordination. Trans women were born with male anatomy and socialized to a sex caste that is universally and historically dominant over women… and they represent a minority of women. Their anatomy has been the rationale for their oppression.

In the words of lesbian poet Audre Lorde, “There is no hierarchy of oppressions.” An “oppression derby” is non-productive and serves to pit women against each other, which only furthers misogyny in our culture. When women-born-female are denied the right to gather in separate spaces, while it is extended to trans women, there is a privileging of the interests of trans women over those of women-born-female. There are privileges and oppressions for both identities, and it is not possible to “prove” that either identity has more or less privilege, or is subject to more or less oppression.

Myth: Any intention that supports female anatomy as a basis for identity is essentialism and/or biological determinism and therefore is inherently transphobic.

Truth: From the moment of birth, when a person’s sex assignment is made, those with female anatomy are cast into a binary system that places them in a position subordinate to those with male anatomy. For many women, experiences of being born into and living with a female body have profoundly defined our experiences (including our trauma) and informed who we are today. Some of these experiences of the female body include:

  • Shared experiences of painful-to-disabling menstrual cramps that can last for days, every month for three or more decades. This condition often requires medication and frequently results in lost days for work or school.
  • The development of breasts in a culture that fetishizes them.
  • The vulnerability to unwanted pregnancy from consensual sex or rape.
  • The experiences of unwanted pregnancy, abortion trauma, relinquishment for adoption.
  • Pregnancy, lactation, labor, stillbirth, miscarriage, and childbirth.
  • Menopause and perimenopause.
  • Breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer.
  • Medical misogyny: lobotomies, involuntary sterilization, punitive incarceration in mental asylums, unnecessary hysterectomies, clitorectomies, female genital mutilation, inadequate drug testing on females and pregnant women leading to deaths and birth defects, dangerous birth control.
  • The shackling of female inmates when they go into labor.
  • The incarceration of pregnant women, if it is determined that they have drugs in their system.
  • Trauma and body image issues resulting from exposure to pornography and the pornographizing of the culture, fetishizing of breasts, stigmatizing of menstruation (near-universal taboos against menstruating women), disproportionate discrimination against women of size, pressure on women and young girls to diet, to undergo plastic surgery, to surgically “correct” our labia.
  • Harassment and stalking based on our anatomy and/or appearance.
  • Historical imposition of clothing that was and is dangerous and unhealthy, severely constricting mobility: foot-binding, high heels, corsets, full-length skirts.
  • Brutal enforcement of feminine codes for appearance, with violence, discrimination, and contempt directed at females with so-called masculine features. Often these codes are applied as workforce dress codes, limiting employment opportunities.
  • Syndromes associated with sexual assault perpetrated on us as females in a patriarchal culture, including dissociative disorders, amnesia, gender dysphoria.

Myth: Any intention that supports the socialization of girls as a basis for identity is inherently transphobic.

Truth: Women-born-female are traditionally socialized to become members of a subordinate sex caste. This socialization can be experienced as profoundly traumatic and politically oppressive. It has a negative impact on women’s self-esteem and sense of agency. Many women, seeking mental, physical and sexual healing, find that it becomes imperative to confront the mechanisms and effects of this socialization, and many find it helpful to do this with other women in environments that support that intention. Some aspects of socialization to a subordinate sex caste include:

  • Historical exclusion from educational opportunities and employment opportunities.
  • Global exclusion or under-representation in government and judicial systems.
  • Lower wages for equal work. Ongoing discrimination against lesbians in both housing, employment and public accommodations.
  • Historical denial of reproductive rights, with ongoing assaults on these rights, such as the recent legislative attack on abortion clinics in Texas and the Hobby Lobby decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, where (only) female employees’ access to birth control is subject to the religious whims of the employer.
  • Historical sexual harassment.
  • Denial of rights to vote, to serve on juries, to own property, to have legal ownership rights to our children (fathers could abduct and sell our children with impunity), to inherit, to obtain credit: Compulsory heterosexuality.
  • Difficulty in gaining convictions for male perpetrators of sexual violence and domestic violence (especially true in the military and on college campuses).
  • Battery and sexual assault so common that every city has shelters for battered women and rape crisis lines.
  • Historical denial of access to sports.
  • Incarceration for self-defense. (In spite of repeated requests, even the National Center for Lesbian Rights chose not to support the young African American lesbians known as the Jersey Four, who were all sentenced to years in prison for defending themselves from male violence.)
  • Absence of matriarchal values in the world’s major religions.
  • Compulsory childbirth mandated by religion; forced breeding of enslaved women; sale and rape of our children.
  • Female infanticide.
  • Sexual slavery.
  • Wild under-representation in journalism, in television, in literature, in visual arts and theatre, and in film—which results in wildly distorted and degrading reflections of who we are, our experiences, and our agency.
  • Groomed from girlhood to be commodities for males, as wives, mothers, and/or victims in prostitution, pornography, and trafficking.
  • Constituting, with our children, 80-90% of the casualties in war since World War II. All wars today are wars against women.
  • Mass rapes (“ethnic cleansing”) associated with wars.
  • Historical rape in marriage, child “brides” (legalized, formal rape arrangements), witch-burnings, “droit du seigneur”(a feudal right to rape virgins), suttee (burning of widows) in India, female genital mutilation, honor killings.
  • Current and historic “corrective rape” of lesbians.

Myth: The Festival intention creates a precedent that denies trans women access to women’s shelters, rape crisis counseling and bathrooms.

Truth: This statement is frequently repeated, but, in spite of repeated requests, no example has ever been provided where the Festival’s intention has been used to deprive trans women of services. The truth is that, until proven otherwise, this allegation is just one more of the myths about the Festival.

This myth is also particularly dangerous because it goes against the clear truth that many Festival workers, attendees, and performers work for transgender rights and equality in their social and professional circles on a day-to-day basis. In a world where females are being stripped of their rights everyday by federal and state governments, unsupported accusations like this are dangerous and divert necessary attention from oppressive patriarchal norms that crush us all.

Intention, Not Policy

Myth: The Festival will not sell tickets to trans women. The Festival does “panty checks.”

Truth: When someone buys a Festival ticket, no one questions their sex, nor does the Festival question anyone’s sex at either the Front Gate or on the Land during the Festival.

Myth: The Festival has policies or bans against trans people.

Truth: No. No policy. No ban. No prohibition.

“We have said that this space, for this week, is intended to be for womyn who were born female, raised as girls and who continue to identify as womyn. This is an intention for the spirit of our gathering… It is not a policy, or a ban on anyone. We do not “restrict the Festival attendance to cisgendered womyn, prohibiting trans women” as was recently claimed in several Advocate articles. We do not and will not question anyone’s gender… Ours is a fundamental and respectful feminist statement about who this gathering is intended for, and if some cannot hear this without translating that into a “policy”, “ban” or a “prohibition”, this speaks to a deep-seated failure to think outside of structures of control that inform and guide the patriarchal world.”

Letter to the Community, May 9, 2014

Myth: The Festival practices a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy against trans women who attend, expecting them to keep quiet about their trans status.

Truth: Festival staff do not question anyone’s sex at the Festival (see above). Some trans women who attend are very vocal and visible about their trans identities, and others are more private.

Myth: The Festival has kicked trans women off the Land.

Truth: Twenty-three years ago, Nancy Burkholder, a trans woman was asked to leave the Festival. That was and remains the only time that has ever happened.

“That was wrong, and for that, we are sorry. We, alongside the rest of the LGBTQ community, have learned and changed a great deal over our 39-year history… Since that single incident, Festival organizers have never asked a trans womon to leave the Festival. We have a radical commitment to creating a space where for one week a year, no one’s gender is questioned—it’s one of the most unique and valued aspects of the Festival.”

Festival Statement, August 18, 2014

The Reality of the Festival

Myth: The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival must be transphobic, because of the establishment of Camp Trans, a protest group, just outside the front gate.

Truth: Camp Trans was an annual demonstration and event held outside the front gate of the Festival by trans women and their allies to protest the Festival’s intention for women-born-female space. The history of Camp Trans, can be found at the Wikipedia site. The first incarnation of the camp was in 1994, as a response to the eviction of Nancy Burkholder in 1991 (see above). After a five-year hiatus, “Son of Camp Trans” was established in 1999. The Camp was maintained every year until 2010, when there were allegations of violence and vandalism at the Festival, and there was a confrontation between attendees of Camp Trans and a tow-truck driver near the gates of MichFest. As a result of this, the National Forest revoked the permit for camping at the site, and as of 2012, Camp Trans no longer exists.

The Festival has admitted that the eviction of Nancy Burkholder in 1991 was wrong and has apologized for it. (See above.) The Festival has been consistent in maintaining that the event is intended for women-born-female, and this intention has been perceived as transphobic and exclusionary by some activists for trans rights. There are many trans women, allies and activists who do not feel that Michigan's intention is transphobic.*

– See article on the NewStatesman website*
– See blog on New Narratives 2014*

Myth: The Festival is a bunch of 1970’s old-school, white, lesbian separatists who just need to die off.

Truth: The Festival workers and participants represent an extraordinary diversity of ages, races, sexual orientations, and ethnicities; and those at the Festival represent a broad range of lesbian, feminist, and queer communities.

Myth: The Festival is dying. Transphobia is the cause.

Truth: In a culture where gay and lesbian marriages are recognized, gay and lesbian parenting is becoming mainstreamed, gay and lesbian politicians run for office, and LGBTQ people lead corporations, not-for-profits and sit on the judiciary, it follows that lesbians have a variety of other options for a week of vacation that don’t involve camping. These options include lesbian cruises, lesbian international tours, and lesbian resorts. Economically, the recession and rising gas prices have affected a gathering that, for many, entails either flying or driving thousands of miles. These are factors that have affected all of the women’s music festivals. All of them — including the ones with no women-born-female intention — have experienced declining numbers over the last decades.

The 2014 Festival had 2300 attendees, making it one of the largest predominantly lesbian gatherings in the world. The Festival is stunning in its offerings for attendees, including: deaf camping (with ASL interpretation at every performance), over-fifty camping, camping for women with a wide range of disabilities, clean-and-sober camping, rowdy camping, a Women of Color Tent, an Over-Forty Tent, Friday night Shabbat, a girls’ camp, a boys’ camp, child/infant care, and concert seating areas for clean-and-sober, chemical free, and so on. There is a pavilion specifically designated for discussions about anti-racism. There are 12-Step recovery meetings for a variety of programs all day long, and a special area for women needing emotional support. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival remains one of the largest gathering of lesbians in the world because of what it is, not in spite of it.

* Collectively Compiled By the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival Community

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