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Michigan/Trans Controversy Archive

Frequently Asked Questions on Michigan/Trans Controversy: Ongoing Debates

The policy is about embracing womyn-born-womyn, and not about excluding trans people.

When an action or a pattern of actions negatively impacts a particular community's rights disproportionately, it is considered discriminatory regardless of the intention. This is the exact same argument feminist legal experts have successfully used to confront "glass ceiling" and other subtle and often invisible barriers to women's empowerment in some landmark court cases. Because "womyn-born-womyn" policy has "disparate effect" (which is a legal term to describe this legal prescedence) that are harmful to transsexual and genderqueer people, it needs to be considered discriminatory regardless of the festival's intention.

Isn't the festival like a private party? If so, it should be left up to them to decide who to invite.

First of all, it is not a private party. In addition to being a product of a for-profit corporation (which I assume means that expenses are deducted from taxable income), the festival is a "public accommodation." The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines public accommodation as "a private entity that owns, operates, leases, or leases to, a place of public accommodation" which includes "a wide range of entities, such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, doctors' offices, pharmacies, retail stores, museums, libraries, parks, private schools, and day care centers." The exceptions are "private clubs and religious organizations." And no, the festival doesn't qualify as a "private club" because it's not membership-based.

This is not to say that the discrimination against transsexual people is illegal. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act specifically excludes transsexuality (gender identity disorder) from coverage, thanks to the anti-choice, anti-gay Senator Jesse Helms; the State of Michigan has not adopted the non-discrimination law that protects trans people, although several Michigan cities including Ann Arbor have passed trans-inclusive civil rights ordinances.

Regardless, this debate is not about whether or not women's festivals have the legal right to discriminate against transsexual people; it is about whether or not it is right and feminist to do so. Any argument for or against trans inclusion at women's festivals should be based on our feminist principles rather than on some legal loophole created by Jesse Helms.

The policy simply says that the festival is for a specific kind of women, rather than telling trans women that they aren't women.

Taken from the "general information" part of the festival's 2002 web site: "Michigan is a festival that brings together the artistic, political and personal expression of womyn from every generation, from urban and rural communities, from different cultures, ethnicities, countries and beliefs. That diversity is authentically expressed in every part of the Festival... It is a rare and precious space in time where we enjoy the dazzling celebration of everything female." If the festival insists that this "authentic" "diversity" of "everything female" does not include transsexual women, how is that different from telling transsexual women that they aren't women?

Besides, a women's festival's excluding a whole class of women simply because of their membership in that particular subgroup of women seems ridiculous. It makes much more sense if supporters of the "womyn-born-womyn" policy said, point-blank, that trans women aren't welcome because they are phony.

The festival about celebrating the shared experience of being raised as girls, which transsexual women do not have.

The "general information" page above does not state anything about the "shared experience of being raised as girls." Besides, if the "diversity" of the festgoers "is authentically expressed in every part of the Festival" as the site claims, I would expect that women at the festival do not really share the same experience even if they were all raised as girls, because other factors, such as race, class, nationality, ability, etc. play a huge part in how one experiences girlhood. Being transsexual does affect how the child experiences her childhood as a girl (who was mistaken for a boy), but there is nothing to say that its impact is more profound than other factors that make one girl's experiences different from another's.

Inclusion of someone who has lived part of their lives as men would threaten the safety of women's land.

While men's violence against women are more prevalent in this sexist society, women are capable of abusing and violating other women also, as it was made evident by an increasing number of reports of woman-to-woman domestic violence and sexual assault in recent years. By equating the absence of men (and transsexual people) with safety and their presence with danger, we further trivialize and invisibilize the suffering of many women who are battered by their female partners, including women who were raped or battered while on the land. If we were to make the festival a safe space for all women, we need to stimulate more sophisticated dialogues about safety and accountability and to build structural remedies to prevent abuse, rather than relying on the myth of the safety of women.

Women who are survivors of abuse would be traumatized or triggered if they see people or body parts that look like men's while being on the land.

There are infinite number of ways that someone could be triggered, and therefore each survivor is responsible for determining for herself how to avoid or manage her triggers. When members of the dominant group believe that they have the right to get rid of the minority group solely because of their own fear, such as when white aircraft passangers request Middle-Eastern passangers to be removed from a flight because the presence of Middle-Eastern people make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe, it is called an undeserved sense of entitlement and it needs to be challenged. If the festival insists on removing certain group of women because of their genital structure or other physical characteristics reminiscent of male violence and domination, it should also tell white women to peel off their skin.

Aren't transsexual women (and men) already included as long as they do not publicly identify as transsexual?

No. They are still not welcome, although the festival wisely chose not to interrogate anyone based on their appearances (lest they would end up harassing many butch-looking womyn-born-womyn). Festival owner Lisa Vogel said: "Here's what we say: What womyn-born womyn means to us is women who were born as women, who have lived their entire experience as women, and who identify as women" (Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture Issue 17, Summer 2002).

If transsexual women were to be included, how can you keep men from gaining entrance by pretending to be "pre-op" transsexual women?

Theoretically, men can already enter the festival by pretending to be "womyn-born-womyn" because of the festival's policy of not interrogating anyone about their gender, just like some transsexual women and men enter the land the same way already. There will be no additional risks of invasion even if transsexual women were to be included.

Women don't have a real institutional power in this society. Why do trans activists only target a women's festival?

It is not true that Michigan Womyn's Music Festival is the only issue or the most prioritized issue for transsexual activists. Where were you when we were at the city hall fighting for our right not to be fired simply for being trans? Where were you when we were lobbying to get the medical community to pay attention to our health concerns? Where were you when we were protesting the mall for arresting us for using the restroom like everybody else? Where were you when we gathered to mourn the loss of yet another transsexual victim of hate-motivated murder? And where we you for all those years that we were fighting against the repression of everything queer or gender-variant?

Still, Michigan Womyn's Music Festival is important not just because of what it provides for one week of the year, but because it is a place where women gather from across the country (and beyond) who are active in their own communities. By affecting change at Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, transsexual activists and allies hope to impact many other women's organizations and services in these local communities.

Editor's Note: Thanks to the participants of Michigan Womyn's Music Festival Online Forum for these excellent questions... I especially liked that you called me a "postmodernist" simply because you didn't agree with my comments in Bitch magazine. I don't read that board regularly (duh), so if there are any other questions that need to be addressed here, please do email me.