Tuesday, September 6, 2011

An Open Letter to the Estranged Branches of My Radical Queer Family

by Zeph Fish

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 Trans, 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 seemed 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 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. (http://transequality.org/Resources/index.html) 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 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 tshirts 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 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.

xo Zeph Fish