Guest Blogger

TERFs: All the Rage This Summer

Filed By Guest Blogger | August 30, 2014 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, transgender exclusion

Editor's Note: Guest blogger Barbra Casbar Siperstein was the first transgender member appointed and confirmed to the Democratic National Committee, and is currently a member of the DNC Executive Committee. She's a former deputy vice chair of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee and a former president of the New Jersey Stonewall Democrats, and is also a published author, small business owner, veteran, and a grandparent.


michigan-womyns-festival.jpgSome time in the early 90s when I was living a stealth female life and exploring my true gender with my late wife and other middle-aged middle class couples where the husband was transgender, I became aware of a controversy that was occurring in the summer wilds and woods of Michigan.

The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, often referred to as MWMF or Michfest, has occurred every August since 1976 in a small wooded area in northern Oceana County known as Whiskey Creek. The event is completely built, staffed, run and attended by women.

But not all women are welcome; only women who were assigned female at birth, raised as girls, and currently identify as women can attend. Transgender women are not welcome and aren't deemed to be real women.

The festival's term for its intended attendees is WBW. After Nancy Burkholder, a transgender woman, was asked to leave the festival in 1991, a protest movement against the "womyn-born-womyn" (WBW) intention developed.

Opponents contend that the intention constitutes discrimination against transgender people, many of whom identify as women, are legally female, and have to cope with the same effects of sexism and misogyny in their daily lives - in addition to the discrimination faced by transgender people in our society.

To be honest, my first reaction was "What kind of a real woman would want to run around in the insect ridden wilds of Michigan? Are you kidding? This is something you really want to do?" Camping in the woods and bonding with nature among our own gender sounds like a "guy thing" is what these "womyn" really want to do. Or maybe not. They advertise "3 vegetarian meals a day."

This summer a lot of people truly interested in equality and aware of the damage of sexism and discrimination in our society have taken notice and spoken up. I too, have given the whole thing a second look and a little thought and found it is worth exposing these exclusionary "womyn" for what they are.

This year a number of LGBTQ organizations - including Equality Michigan, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Human Rights Campaign among others - have asserted that MichFest believes transgender womyn are "less than" other womyn and that the Festival's intention is the equivalent of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

The Michfest founder Lisa Vogel responded to the call for the boycott by issuing a statement on their Facebook page.

Their sisterly spirit is a bit contrived and painful to read so I will repost just a bit of their bullet points with a brief remark in italics:

  • We believe all humans suffer under patriarchy; (OK that seems reasonable)
  • We believe that transgendered womyn are womyn; (Yes, we are womyn, but we are transgender womyn, not "transgendered" as the erudite Fox News mavens call us on a good day)
  • We believe that females experience a unique, historical, and debilitating oppression as a class under patriarchy; (OK that sounds reasonable)
  • We believe that the subjugation of females is an international phenomenon, experienced across time, culture, nation, class, ethnicity, ability and race; (OK, perhaps I might add organized religion to that list)
  • MWMF has, since its inception in 1976, formed itself as a space for womyn-born-female as a means to resist and survive the debilitation of female subjugation; (Here is where we have a problem. It strongly implies that some womyn, i.e. trans womyn, contribute to the debilitation of female subjugation. Where did this come from?)
  • We believe that support for womyn-born-female space is not at odds with standing with and for the transgender community; (See the previous statement and explain why this is not pure manure!)
  • We believe that the statements calling for the boycott of the MWMF neither speak for all transgender womyn nor include all of their voices, many of whom are silenced or ignored with regard to their support of the Festival's intention of womyn-born-female space, for example, the New Narratives Conference held in Portland, Oregon this Spring. (Certainly not ALL transgender women agree on everything and I'm overly unimpressed that they found a handful of confused or downtrodden folks from a class of people who experience the highest percentage of societal discrimination and lack of self esteem. Was that the best they could do?)

Emily Dievendorf, executive director of Equality Michigan, said it best:

"Discrimination is at its ugliest when we know it exists and we choose to create a sacred space within in it - to wrap ourselves with it - because everything else, the privilege and validation that it may be woven into, can feel so damn good. This year we are declaring that we have had enough of Michfest's double talk and can see through it. If Michfest is to be trans inclusive then it must change the "intention" to illustrate a wide open door and a safe space for transwomen. In the meantime, while Michfest leaders continue to dig their heels into the excuses and allegiances of yesteryear, Equality Michigan will continue to ask citizens of our state to be clear in their position of inclusion and to invest in the women's festivals that leave no woman behind."

My personal experience with "feminists" who have really made a positive difference for women/womyn has been nothing but positive, especially as a trans activist. A great example would be my late wife, my best friend, whose support and love was so strong that I was able to be honest about myself; she helped me not only survive, but thrive and develop as a strong, responsible woman. As a feminist and a teacher she successfully took the lead in the late 60s so female teachers in New Jersey's second largest school system weren't forced to wear skirts or dresses.

As a transgender activist, it was clear that the early support of NJ NOW and individuals who had been leaders in that organization played a key part in some of our legislative successes in the state.

Today, I'm in a long term relationship with a "feminist" - a former President of NY-NOW who marched and got on the pulpits and TV; later as an executive, she was a role model and raised the glass ceiling for a whole industry of women.

So, who are these so called "radical feminists" who seem so intent on actively excluding transgender women and feminists who support us? They're called TERFs.

Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism, or TERF, has been described as a loosely-organized collective with a message of hate and exclusion against transgender women in particular and transgender people as a whole. They have attached themselves to radical feminism as a means to deny trans women basic access to health care, women's groups, restroom facilities, and anywhere that may be considered women's space.

In every group of people who have been downtrodden and experienced discrimination, there is a tendency to seek out others who they can put down and discriminate against to make themselves appear higher on the social ladder. Rather than do things to empower themselves, they find it easier to trash someone perceived to be on a lower rung who may be more vulnerable and less able to fight back. It's pathetic and perverted behavior, but unfortunately it's not uncommon.

Janice Raymond, author of The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, authored a paper in the early 1980s that the Department of Health and Human Services used to deny trans men and women medical care. Since then, they have continued to use anti-transgender rhetoric, as blogger Cristan Williams suggests "using the banner of feminism much in the same way that Westboro Baptist Church uses Christianity".

They use rhetoric suggesting that trans women are would-be rapists, that we are "men invading women's spaces" (Cathy Brennan, head of Gender Identity Watch) and are "forcing penises on lesbians" (Justin Norwood, Gender Identity Watch). They and radical right wing homophobic religious organizations such as the American Family Association use the same ugly language to frame their transphobia. For trans people they are two peas in a pod.

Their words can cause actual harm. The group Gender Identity Watch worked with the right-wing anti-gay group, Pacific Justice Institute, to help prevent a Colorado teen from being able to use the women's restroom. It was reported that a GIW leader outed the teen, who was already being bullied, on social media and she was subsequently put on suicide watch. Their actions often incite others to denigrate or discriminate a minority - the definition of a hate group.

What drives these TERFs? Perhaps it is something very basic - insecurity, jealousy, maybe even penis envy? I do not know. I do not get it.

I don't understand why some people expend so much energy to destroy the lives of others. But beware... they are few, but they are there and they hurt us.

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