Guest Blogger

An Open Letter to Estranged Queer Family Members

Filed By Guest Blogger | September 06, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: lesbians behaving badly, Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, trans exclusion, transgender women

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Zeph Fishlyn has been writing, drawing, and making art in pursuit of social justice for two and a half decades. She is an illustrator and educator working with the Beehive Design Collective, creating collaborative, anti-copyright images for use as educational and organizing tools. She has been a custom tattoo artist since 1998.

I just emerged from three weeks working in the woods to help put on the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. I've been friends at different times with both festival workers and folks who've organized with Camp Michigan-Womyn-s-Music-Festival-700x300.jpgTrans, and I want to share a little something about why I chose to return this year and what happened.

I attended and worked a bunch at the festival from 1988 through the mid-90s. The first time I came, I had been "out" as a dyke for just a little over a year. The only queers I had met were the very earnest academic lesbians at the McGill University Women's Center in Montreal, mullet-haired bar dykes and bisexual punk girls. MichFest more or less blew my mind - I met my first leatherdykes, my first grandmother-herbalist lesbians, my first fully-bearded femme coffee-slingers, my first so-butch-she-passes-as-male carpenters, my first travelling-anarchist-dildo-makers. It radically complicated traditional notions of "female" and opened up new spaces and possibilities for who I could be in the world - which is why when I was working in 1994 and I heard about the very first Camp Trans, I visited as an ally.

Trans women have always been part of lesbian community, though at different times they've been "outed" and excluded. It seems like a no-brainer to me that trans women belong in this place, where we are radically questioning and re-visioning what it means to be female.

In the last decade and a half, the trans controversy is one reason I haven't returned - I just found it so disappointing that the politics of the festival seemed so static and insular when other activist communities I've been involved with have become more inclusive and intersectional, a shift made possible by the successes of second wave feminism and GLBT organizing. I found it hard to believe that dykes who had created such an strong radical space for building female power and confidence and networks were choosing to focus on fear, on border defense, and a flavor of gender policing that reminds me all-too-strongly of the ways my own gender gets policed in the mainstream world.

I found it especially hard that the "womyn-born-womyn-only" adherents further marginalize a group of women who are targeted by the same hatreds, the same misogyny, the same narrow-box ideologies that make my life hard as a genderqueer/butch dyke. Many trans women are already survivors of patriarchal and sexual violence, poverty, homelessness, discrimination, etc. I may have a different experience of femaleness than a trans woman, but then again, as a white class-privileged able-bodied person I also have a different experience than a woman who is Latina, or disabled, or working class (or a femme!) - and yet we are able to create community together and (hopefully) work out our conflicts under the umbrella of the festival.

It's been a long dance between the festival decisionmakers, Camp Trans organizers, and transfolk and allies who have continued to work and attend the festival. I haven't been around; I don't know everything that's happened. I know there's a history of disprespect on all sides that tends to overshadow a parallel history of constructive engagement. Depending on what circles I'm in, if I mention my history at the festival, or my support of Camp Trans, there's an uncomfortable question mark.

So how did I end up returning? The last few years I've been working and socializing primarily with twenty-something mostly-straight environmental radicals and homesteaders and feeling a major lack of middle-aged and older queers in my life. A friend encouraged me to come work the festival, a motherlode of radical older dykedom. I really wanted to, but I didn't know how I could reconcile that desire with my commitment to put my energy into inclusive spaces. Then she told me about "Trans Womyn Belong Here," (TWBH) a group of workers and festival attendees who love the festival and have been organizing to more visibly welcome trans women into the event. They fundraised to buy tickets for trans women this year, planned a small resource center and workshops, and made pamphlets, buttons and t-shirts to highlight the presence of trans allies on the land.

I applied and got accepted to work, but before my shifts started, I spent four days hanging out at Camp Trans. It was a very small group (about fourteen), mostly trans women, who are trying to re-orient themselves after an internal implosion last year about mission and tactics. I spent a lot of time listening, trying to understand what's happened over the last few years, and how I could best act as an ally from within the festival. TWBH folks also came and met with Camp Trans before the festival started up.

I came to understand that the festival producer, Lisa Vogel, continues to put out an "intention" for the festival to be by and for "womyn-born-womyn" (though that language can be interpreted differently by different people). Trans men can and do work and attend the festival, usually with little hassle. Trans women who attend and work at the festival do so within a climate of "don't-ask-don't-tell," so they may run into hostility if they don't "pass" or if they speak candidly about their bodies and life experience. Some trans women who attended this year were verbally challenged or disrespected on a few occasions when they were identified by anti-inclusion festival-goers. At other times they were recognized and accepted.

During MichFest, TWBH worked to identify specific work crews, craftswomen and performers who are trans-friendly; for instance, I worked on Main Kitchen, and my coordinator made it clear at a crew meeting that all women were (and always have been) welcome on work shifts and in the food line. There was similar clarity from the coordinator of the emotional & recovery support crew, and those conversations happened on other crews as well though I don't know the details. Workers supporting TWBH included members of the security and communications crew, community center, staff services, performer support, box office, stage production, etc.

The t-shirts and buttons were so visible that they came up in a worker meeting at the end of festival. A woman asked, "Why is it okay that so many workers are wearing these? I thought that by signing up to work, you are agreeing to support festival intentions?" In the ensuing discussion, the general sentiment expressed was that the festival is built around diversity of opinion - in fact, it is a space that teaches women how to dissent. So workers are free to express their opinions, though it may not be appropriate for some kinds of workers (eg. the emotional and recovery support crew, or security/communications workers) to do so during their shift hours.

TWBH and other allies organized several officially-scheduled workshops around trans issues. Festival staff sponsored their own workshop called "Allies in Understanding." They recruited skilled facilitators to build respectful dialogue between women who support and reject trans inclusion, and set an example for how staff would like the dialogue to continue in the future - both on the land and in the online forums. It succeeded, clarifying the issues and identifying common ground, but it also revealed the depth of the bigotry and fear that some women continue to hold. The festival has been a longtime haven for women who've experienced violence and abuse and oppression, and unfortunately the resulting fears sometimes get hurtfully misdirected at trans women.

In the TWBH wrap-up meeting we talked a lot about our impressions from dialoguing with women who don't support inclusion. One thread I want to explore is the generational element to this controversy.

From what I saw at the festival, vocal supporters of trans inclusion tend to be younger; vocal supporters of exclusion tend to be older. The women who built the festival and bought the land did so in a hostile cultural climate, with little resources, and sometimes in fear of physical attack from local men. They're protective of what they created. I heard many older dykes who've put years of love and sweat into creating safe(r) space for women express fears that younger folks want to destroy what they've made and shove them aside.

The truth is that our communities are shifting (and always have been). They are able to shift because those who came before us fought for the space in which our politics can grow to meet changing circumstances. Change doesn't have to be destructive if we recognize that we need each other, that we share similar goals.

I was delighted to be at the festival this year because I was reminded what an amazing event it is, maybe even because it's a place where these different manifestations of feminist thought and action clash. Women come from all over the US and beyond. It's super intergenerational - I worked with women from age 19 to 70-something, and they are fierce. I could find myself washing dishes next to a lighting tech, or a teacher, or a director of a major GLBT organization, or a wandering activist.

There's a huge variety of gender expression around the female core. At the festival, women build three huge stages and a plumbing and electrical grid, set up giant circus tents, drive big trucks, wear fabulous outfits, put on ridiculous skits, sort huge piles of recycling, support each others' health and sobriety and martini habits, and tell tall tales from every corner of the country and beyond. There's a thoroughly developed sex-positive and communicative dating culture. There's a Womyn of Color Sanctuary, full ASL interpretation, and an area set up for accessible camping that hosted 175 disabled women this year. The Main Kitchen cooks delicious food for thousands of women in four-foot deep iron pots on an open fire pit, using a methodology that's been studied by the Red Cross.

There's a reason lots of different kinds of women want to attend the festival, including trans women. I want to attend the festival, but I can only feel good about doing so if I'm helping to create a welcoming space for all women. One inspiring tidbit I heard came from a worker who was handing out TWBH pamphlets. A camper told her, "I'm going to take this to my friend - she's a 70-year-old trans woman who's been coming here for years, and this year she wasn't going to come until we bought her a ticket and went to go pick her up. She's gonna love this."

The trans controversy is just the most long-running of many hard-fought conflicts in the wider feminist world that have played out in the crucible of the festival. As in many communities where passionate people are trying to put their politics into practice, the fights can be vicious. There was a decade of terrible conflict in the festival around BDSM sex practices. BDSM dykes were accused of being patriarchal and sick, corrupting children, and threatening other women's emotional and physical safety. One coworker told me she was physically assaulted more than once in the late 80s/early 90s for "promoting violence against women" (because she had nipple rings, which at that time still signaled radical sex practices.) One summer, hundreds of women marched on the Main Kitchen for being a cesspool of deviant sexuality. It's hard to imagine that happening today.

I think the trans controversy has gone on so long because there hasn't been a critical mass of trans women to stand up for themselves, and it's easy for allies to be lazy. But the damage is real. Because allies have been so quiet, the festival has lost tons of credibility among younger women, especially those radical queer activists that are the political offspring of the radical dykes who built the festival in the first place. Meanwhile, it's losing loyal campers to old age, economics, gay mainstreaming, and competing events that welcome all women. Attendance is shrinking; I heard many women this year express fears about its survival. I'm sad about that, because of the community that the festival brings together, and the time and space it creates for women to meet, to build, to reflect, to strategize, to celebrate, across state and country lines, coming together from all the diverse places we come from, across many generations.

I don't think the womyn-born-womyn "intention" is going to change anytime soon, but I also think the magic of this festival is that it's bigger than the people who officially run it. It's a funny hybrid of a business and a temporary intentional community. Allies can speak up, allies can help the festival stretch and grow to welcome and inspire all kinds of women. Allies can model respectful communication and conflict resolution. Allies can help create an atmosphere that does not support gender policing against any woman.

I think the most liberatory path is to create a beautiful culture of inclusion - to have fun, to take care of each other, to draw more supporters in. That's already happening in many places, and I'd like it to happen more at MichFest, because MichFest connects to so many lesbians all over the country. I'd like to see us go beyond a "don't-ask-don't-tell" culture to a culture which celebrates trans women's whole bodies and experience as another aspect of female diversity.

If worst comes to worst, if the festival dies or keeps on limping along with exclusionary politics loud and central, allies can at least help build a bridge between our communities. I need older dykes' stories, strategies and humor to inform the work I do in the world. (Just as I need other gender deviants' stories to keep me alive.) I'd love to connect the fiercest, most visionary, most expansive threads of 70s lesbian feminism with the threads of queer liberation. I'd love to work and brainstorm and play with grandma land-dyke mechanics and young trans-feminist media-makers.

I feel like we have a lot to teach each other. And I'd love to do it with our feet in the dirt.

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As a younger trans woman who passes relatively well, I have interacted with quite a few Michigan attendees. I am routinely asked if I will be "Going to Michigan this year," and I bite my tongue every time.

I want to respond with venom that I'm not welcome there, that by going, they are supporting trans-exclusive spaces and attitudes, and launch into a lecture about comsumer-activism, but I don't. This letter will, I think, help me to step away from that venom.

Thank you for posting this. I forget sometimes, how many wonderful cisgendered people there are out there. I, and I'm sure many others in transgendered communities, was unaware of these actions taken by the staff to promote inclusiveness.

I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin's famous quote:

"We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

I'm glad to see MichFest attendees brandishing TWBH memorabilia so openly. In today's more inclusive political and social culture a trans-exclusive queer event is just plain out of step with the times and, without some sort of resolution, will doom MichFest to forever be a niche market festival or worse end its existence altogether. That being said, it's hard for me to ignore the hard facts of this situation. The organizers don't want trans women at the event. Sure, attendees do, and many of the workers agree with the TWBH message, but if the organizers aren't convinced of that message we won't get anywhere.

I'm a free-market kind of girl. I don't mind MichFest at all; if people want to create an exclusive club of an event, that's fine and dandy by me. However, I do make sure to voice my distaste whenever the festival comes up in conversation; I'm more than happy to inform people of the festival's exclusive policies if it means lower ticket sales for them. When their policy changes officially I'll consider supporting the fest.

Until that point, what you saw was free speech. Speech, and nothing more than that. There are plenty of inclusive queer spaces to support.

I have just never been able to wrap my brain around why trans women care about Mich Fest. Why would ppl want to go somewhere they are hated and despised? I mean really, it seems like POC attending some hardcore skinhead music festival.

I can see some of their points, I guess, but really, why not just leave those women alone and let them have their space? There are lots of other lesbian festivals where I think trans women are accepted (though I would doubt particularly welcome, but that is true of almost any cis space).

And it sounds like Mich Fest is mostly a bunch of old women who never transitioned from the 60's (Hello, Boomers? That was 50 fucking years ago! Let it go!) I sure you can always find new recruits to any extremist group, but it sounds like Mich Fest may be dying out as the old ones go (kind of like homophobia in society).

I like your approach. Don't protest or cause disruption (personally, I feel if fear and intimidation are the answer, you are asking the wrong question), but on the other hand, shine a light on Mich Fest and the over-the-top hatred that radical feminists and separatist lesbians tend to have toward trans women. That is why I continuously refer to and link to their blogs, so ppl can go and see them in their own words if they like. If I try to describe their position towards trans women, noone believes it anhyow, is so extreme. So I am glad they are very vocal, and post a lot.

I lived in Chicago for 7 years and never once attended MichFest. Being someone who as always viewed themselves as male, I always felt uncomfortable with the "womyn-born-womyn" attitude that permeates the organizers and their allies. Sad to say, this attitude also rang true in most organizations in Chicago. It took a lot of advocacy and wearing-down of the "Old Guard" to even get Trans women mammograms with one of the leading lesbian health-care agencies in Chicago. It was always an "us vs. them" attitude and folks rarely considered the fact that men and women get breast cancer. I understand that things are better now, but I never understood why this ugliness was there to begin with. Why don't we accept people as they present and let it go at that?

I find it extremely disappointing that Ms. Fishlyn chose not to respond to the fact that the anti-trans faction at MWMF published a literal "hit list" of trans women at MichFest, identifying them by real name, legal name, picture ID, campsite location, and in some cases profession and employment.

Zeph wrote this before the hit list was posted.

So, I am curious Tobi. How accurate were the things they ascribed to you?

The accuracy is inversely proportional to the incendiary nature of the claim. There was a woman who made assumptions about me, and I did publicly say so. I don't talk with a lisp, I didn't say the posters were discriminatory, but I did point out the anti-trans elements of them, I did make a porn film, but it's not woman-hating or lesbian-hating and in fact won a Feminist Porn Award. I may write more about it later, but I'm still not in a place to. The one thing I will say, is that it's a little disorienting to have them ridicule my *masculinity* as fake.

Ah, yes good old GenderTrender! I read that site, along with RadFemHub and Undercover Punk (blog of Elizabeth Hungersford, who coauthored the anti-trans letter to the UN with Cathy Brennan) just for laughs. These seems to be a small core group of women who cross-post on all these, kind of a 'Hallelujah Chorus'. Unfortunately, The Magazine Project seems to have died, though Bev Jo writes long, hand-wringing, distressed posts on GenderTrender.

I love how much most of them sound like the Tea Partiers, just with a different focus.

I do have to say, though, if there is any basis in fact to what they say about some of the trans-activists who crashed the festival, that I feel those ppl were very very wrong, and that they way they went about things is counter-productive. Of course, given that I know most of what Gallus Mag and the others say is (like the Tea Partiers) a gross distortion of reality, I will wait to hear from a relatively objective third party to form an opinion.