Michigan Womyn’s Festival

Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda
Issue 1 Michaelmas 2002
The magazine of

Women's Union

Michigan Womyn’s FestivalJo Read

Another summer, another contentious Michigan Womyn’s Festival debate…
For more than a decade now a storm has been brewing over the land of the
Michigan fest. The ‘mother’ of all women’s festivals, which has
represented the importance of public women-only-space since 1976, has been
under heavy [organised] fire since 1994. Articles about Michigan no
longer talk about the freedom and positive experiences the fest provides
for women; the goalposts have moved and have taken MWF and its organisers
to the realms of bigots, anti-liberals, and short-sighted traditionalists.
Quite an accomplishment for ’70s radical feminists.

The controversy at Michigan revolves around an original policy
from the ’70s that maintains the fest’s all-female space through admitting
“womyn-born womyn only”[WBW]. Transsexual and genderqueer activists began
to raise awareness of ‘the gender prejudices inherent in the policy’ in
1991, after a male-born attendee, Nancy Burkholder, came out in a workshop
as a transwoman and was evicted from the festival, e.g., asked to respect
the policy. In 1994, a group known as ‘Camp Trans’ set up across the road
from the festival’s main gates and have retained a yearly presence since,
leafleting and protesting for a revised policy that includes all
self-identified women.

While the fight over trans inclusion at the festival began between
organisers and male-to-female transsexuals [MTFs] who wanted to take part,
it has since become a rallying point among the ‘liberal’ and ‘queer’
communities. Groups at the centre of the dispute now include FTMs,
intersex folk, and ‘genderqueers’ who identify as neither men nor women.
There is not one element of the historic struggles at the fest which is
not problematic. How far are the organisers prepared to let the policy be
taken? Why do non-WBW wish to attend this festival? What use does the
policy serve? How far is the policy supported by attendees? These murky
waters are further mystified by the vast expanse of grey area between the
policy and its execution. For example, while the policy says that there
are many gender identities at Michigan, including people who identify as
transgendered, individuals who ‘come out’ as trans will be asked to leave
the premises. However, festival founder/organiser Lisa Vogel has pledged
there will never be questioning of somebody’s gender. The debate centres
around the organisers’ flexibility in implementing the policy, and the
refusal of activists to accept anything other than a fully revised policy.

Michigan and the problems within it can’t be addressed without looking at
everything Michigan has been historically. It was founded primarily by
gay women, people who had no safe spaces. Now that such a space has been
created, they are understandably reluctant to let it go. As with so many
of feminism’s debates, the problems at Michigan revolve around principles
and privilege. Organisers and attendees alike place trust in people to
respect the ‘womyn-born-womyn’ policy. Equally, whilst people of many
identities are free to attend [though they may feel discomforted by
womyn’s unofficial reactions to them] their presence is dependent upon
whether their own principles dictate that they need to ‘come out’ as
trans, etc. And why are men excluded from the festival? To avoid the
problems women find in society, e.g., safety, dismissal of issues
important to women, which result from oppression by a group who hold
social privilege [men].

Opposition to Michigan has publicised the problems that the fest holds for
non-attendees. The policy at Michigan revolves around the comfort of ‘the
group’. It puts the responsibility on a minority group who are excluded
and asked to respect this exclusion, rather than questioning the
entitlement of the dominant group to be able to remove what makes them
uncomfortable. When Vogel says women-born-women, she means
non-transsexual women, and that is a privilege: being non-transsexual in a
society that excludes transsexuals. As Michigan continues through the
Twenty-first century, the WBW-only policy might either represent the
continued need for a space for women, outside society’s changing
definitions of gender and womanhood, or feminism’s uncompromising and
frightened core that cannot risk reassessing its ideas. Or maybe it’s
both. Feminists have always argued that the people in the dominant group
need to feel uncomfortable for social change to progress. That when men,
or whites, or able-bodied people feel uncomfortable, perhaps marginalized
people will feel safer. We can but wait to see how uncomfortable things
will become.




Email us at gender-agenda@cusu.cam.ac.uk