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MichFest and Roller Derby: Finding my own mythos

December 28, 2011

I love Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.  I just wish it loved me back as much as roller derby does.

Both Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival–or Michfest–and the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) represent two of the most successful feminist attempts to build women-centered communities.  They are massive social experiments that combine a DIY ethos with a  non-profit business structure that have brought thousands of women together to celebrate something they love.  And both have generated heated debates around the topic of transgender women’s inclusion in women’s spaces, which I, as a transgender rollergirl who attended MichFest in both 2010 and 2011, have found myself in the middle of for the last several years.

#TransWomynBelongHere was met with way more resistance at #Mi... on Twitpic

my MichFest 2011 ticket

MichFest is part of my personal origin story, central to the mythos of my gender identity. My experience standing up for the right of transgender women to be able to attend MichFest, a campaign that I have been a part of ever since attending Camp Trans in 2006, has shaped my understanding of what it means to be a woman, and the importance of women-only space. Being part of Camp Trans in 2006 and 2008  also shattered any pre-conceived notions I had of essentialized, binary gender, and helped me understand my queer gender identity.  Through  Camp Trans, I befriended hundreds of transgender individuals from every corner of the U.S. and Canada.  These friends gave me the inspiration and courage to be the person I am today–an activist, a woman, a transgender individual, and a rollergirl.

I would not have had the strength and courage to stand up for transgender inclusion within the DC Rollergirls and within WFTDA if it wasn’t for all the amazing transgender activists who have stood up for transgender inclusion at MichFest, a struggle that has spanned several decades and involved countless transgender advocates and their allies.

But before I write more about that struggle, let me first begin by saying that I love MichFest for it’s own sake, as one of the greatest achievements of lesbian-feminism, a living embodiment of the ideology espoused by feminist and lesbian pioneers including Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde.  MichFest, founded in 1976, and held yearly ever since, is a living artifact of the organized resistance to what Adrienne Rich famously described as “compulsory heterosexuality,” a playground where Sapphic desire and Goddess-centered feminist “woo” is the norm, and heterosexuality and patriarchy often feels like a distant dream. It is an example of an attempt to build a self-sufficient community with something other than “the master’s tools”–including replacing patriarchal language such as “woman/women” and “history” with words like “womon/womyn” and “herstory”–where women run everything from the kitchen to the medical center. The fact that it still draws thousands of women every year, including amazing female musicians and performers, is a testament to it’s enduring success.

"Night Stage" at MichFest--built and staffed by women

The debate around Transgender Inclusion at MichFest is centered around their so-called “womyn-born-womyn” policy, where womyn-born-womyn is a code word for “not a trans woman.”  This policy–or “guideline” as it’s now being referred to by MichFest co-founder Lisa Vogel–is based on an essentialized understanding of gender that claims that women of non-transgender experience(cisgender women) have a more valid claim to “womanhood” than women of transgender experience do.  Lisa Vogel, who owns the land MichFest is held on, has made it very clear since 2006 that while transgender women will not be denied entry to the festival, their presence is not welcome and that by entering, they are “not respecting the boundaries” of womyn-born-womyn.  More openly transphobic womyn-born-womyn often use the analogy of rape, claiming that transgender women violently exert male privilege simply by entering MichFest, violating cisgender women there by their mere presence.  This line of reasoning can be traced back to the infamously transphobic book The Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond, which is one of the most unfortunate products of lesbian-feminism.

The implementation of the wbw policy in 1979, was a time when radfem lesbian separatists were carving out space for themselves and completely throwing off all reliance on men, financially, emotionally and politically. In the fervor, lesbians also began excluding trans women from their spaces claiming they were men infiltrating the burgeoning lesbian movement as a patriarchal attempt to disrupt. It’s a beautiful history marred by this legacy. —rebeccasf

The debate over who should be included in MichFest helped give birth to another weeklong annual event–Camp Trans– that began in the mid-1990’s as a protest of Michfest’s “womyn-born-womyn” policy, but at this point has become it’s own unique celebration of transgender identity.   Camp Trans is located on public land a short walk from MichFest, and except for 2011, has always been held the same week as MichFest.  Organizers of Camp Trans have often been some of the hardest-working advocates for transgender women’s inclusion at MichFest.  Every year on the first day of MichFest, Camp Trans organizers  walk up and down the line of hundreds of cars waiting to get into MichFest, to tell attendees about the problems with the womyn-born-womyn policy, and hand out pro-transgender flyers,  t-shirts, armbands,and/or buttons to transgender allies.  I was at Camp Trans in 2006 when organizer Lorrraine Donaldson was sold a ticket to the 31st annual Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and became the first “out” trans woman to openly attend MichFest, accompanied by the “yellow armbands,” transgender allies within MichFest, and Camp Trans issued a press release celebrating victory.  However, despite our hopes, this event did not lead to a reversal of MichFest’s exclusionary “womyn-born-womyn” policy, and was met with a harsh response, including a letter from MichFest co-founder Lisa Vogel.

Lorraine Donaldson, Camp Trans organizers, and Yellow Armbands, 2006

Yet Camp Trans is not just a center for organizing to end MichFest’s womyn-born-womyn policy, it is a camp with it’s own rich history as a celebration of transgender and genderqueer identity.  Gender-variant individuals from all over the world come to Camp Trans to be surrounded in a gender-free zone for a week, where you quickly learn NEVER to assume someone’s pronoun or gender without asking them first.  It’s a beautiful celebration in a safe space created by transgender people and their allies, and like MichFest, it has it’s own performers, workshops, and fun activities lasting an entire week.  It is completely volunteer-run, and unlike MichFest, attendance is free–although donations are requested to keep the camp going.  Camp Trans 2006 was the first time I felt completely comfortable as a transgender woman, and everyone respected my gender identity and called me by my preferred name and pronouns even though I had yet to begin hormone-replacement therapy and spent most the time in workout clothes.  It’s also the first time someone described me as a “sporty dyke,”–I was obsessed with capoeira angola then–and I still consider myself a “sporty dyke” today, even if my sport now is roller derby. Camp Trans 2008 was a year of celebration for me, which included punk-rock karaoke in the woods–I sang the Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love,” and my girlfriend at the time sang the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant.” Many of my best friends, and even future roommates, I met through the extended Camp Trans community–two former roommates are in the photo below from Camp Trans 2009:

Genderqueer Chicago (and friends) at Camp Trans 2009

For the last few years there has also been a pro-transgender inclusion camp inside MichFest known as Trans Womyn Belong Here (TWBH), which is distinct from Camp Trans, but allied with Camp Trans’ original mission: opening MichFest to transgender women.  In 2010 I attended MichFest as a solo camper, and kept my transgender history largely secret, although I did meet a few folks from TWBH.  In 2011, I camped in the middle of the TWBH camp at MichFest, and was much more out and open about my transgender identity, including leading an official workshop at MichFest for transgender allies called “Transgender Ally Toolkit.” More on my experiences attending MichFest coming soon in future posts…

But to return to 2006, that year I entered a book collection contest at my college with a collection of over 50 books on transgender and lesbian history, culture and identity.   I annotated all the books and wrote an essay to tie them all together, and ended up winning third place in the A. Edward Newton Book Collection contest.   The essay I wrote told the story of Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Camp Trans and the “genderqueer revolution” of the 1990s.  The collection included books and articles by Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg, Riki Wilchins, Dean Spade, Patrick Califia, Jack Halberstam, and more.  It also told the story of the birth of lesbian-feminism, and included books by Adrienne Rich, Marilyn Hacker, Audre Lorde, and Alison Bechdel. As a reward for winning third place, I was given a cash prize, but more importantly, was able to display all the books in the library collection for a month, and give a speech about my collection. I still have all the books, plus dozens more, including zines such as “Transexual Fury,” which I picked up from Camp Trans in 2006 (below).  If you click on the image you get the full comic, which includes superheros from Camp Trans and MichFest helping each other out:

 

Camp Trans meets MichFest

In tribute to MichFest and Camp Trans, a subject I’m sure to come back to in future posts,  I wanted to highlight here some excellent essays, articles and websites central to the MichFest transgender inclusion debate.  For anyone new to this subject, and without 50 or more books on feminism, queer history and transgender theory on hand, the Transgender Studies Reader, edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, is the perfect place to start. Even better, as I found out tonight, much of the book’s contents is available online here.

Key blog posts on recent events from MichFest and Camp Trans  (2010 and 2011):

Camp Trans and the Spirit of Community by

transgender: OUT!wear Pridewear Selling AntiTrans Woman Tshirts! by rebbecasf

Just Another Woman at MichFest (Pretty Queer) by Alice Kafarski

Critiques of transphobia within lesbian-feminism and transgender exclusion in women’s spaces:

DIVIDED SISTERHOOD: A CRITICAL REVIEW OF JANICE RAYMOND’S THE TRANSSEXUAL EMPIRE by Carol Riddell

WHOSE FEMINISM IS IT ANYWAY? THE UNSPOKEN RACISM OF THE TRANS INCLUSION DEBATE by Emi Koyama

Two essays that really shaped how I understand my own “queer” gender as being outside of both male and female:

MY WORDS TO VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN ABOVE THE VILLAGE OF CHAMOUNIX: PERFORMING TRANSGENDER RAGE by Susan Stryker

MUTILATING GENDER by Dean Spade


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4 Comments
  1. Marina Brown permalink

    Personally if i want mud, mosquitoes and biting flies i will go to the Massanuttens or Catskills and run rather than sit around at mich fest 😉 …though biting flies made a pretty good showing at the Vermont 100 mile run where i finished second to last 😉 Getting serious – I really like Emi Koyama and Dean Spade, BTW. Back in the day i was a Susan Stryker fan too.

    • Never been to Massanuttens or Catskills, sounds fun. 100 mile run is damn impressive, no matter where you finish. MichFest involves a lot more than just sitting around though–lots of walking and intense workshops, including breakdancing!

      Dean Spade is a personal hero, and I helped organize an LGBT conference where I invited him as a speaker:http://orgs.sccs.swarthmore.edu/qtc/files/sager2007/schedule.html#spade I love the Sylvia Rivera Law Project he helped found. Emi Koyama is great too. Any particular reason you’re no longer a Susan Stryker fan? She is rather theory-heavy

  2. Every time the oppressed become oppressors, the terrorists win. It’s pretty incredible what you’re doing for awareness. I totally admire your courage, and hope this year brings you lots and lots of joy for all that bullshit that you’re finding ways to turn into gold. xoxo

  3. Please stay away from my festival. You are not biologically female, and nothing can change that. If you won’t, it just proves to me once again that you and the others like you are MEN. You go wherever you fucking well want to, whenever you want to, and nobody and nothing can convince you that you don’t have a god-given right to do so–regardless of who you violate in the process. Especially if it’s just womyn.
    Why do YOUR rights matter more than MINE?
    YOU are the oppressor.
    You are NOT WELCOME at the festival.
    PLEASE STAY AWAY. TAKE “NO” FOR AN ANSWER. If you want to be considered a woman, STOP ACTING LIKE A DICK.

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