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Michigan/Trans Controversy Archive

Frequently Asked Questions on Michigan/Trans Controversy: Introduction

What is Michigan Womyn's Music Festival?

Michigan Womyn's Music Festival's 2002 web site states: "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." The weeklong festival takes place every summer on the 650 acres of private land in Hart, Michigan. Michigan Womyn's Music Festival is produced by We Want The Music Company (WWTMC), a for-profit corporation registered in Michigan.

What is the "trans" controversy about?

Michigan Womyn's Music Festival holds the policy that only "womyn-born womyn" are allowed to enter the land, meaning that only those who have lived their entire lives as females can participate in the festival. Put more blatantly, the policy is intended to exclude transsexual people, whether they are male-to-female transsexuals (trans women) or female-to-male transsexuals (trans men). Many in the trans communities as well as queer and women's communities feel that this policy is oppressive, although their proposed alternatives may vary.

Note that many transsexual women actually feel that they have always been women, albeit misidentification by others, and thus feel that the phrase "womyn-born womyn" should include them. For the sake of clarity, this site will use "womyn-born" only in quotation marks.

Are all trans people excluded from the festival?

It depends on how you define "trans," but a simple answer is no. Some non-transsexual women, including butch women, bearded women, drag king performers, and others call themselves transgender because they do not fit into the society's definition of what a woman should look/act like. There are no rules excluding these people so long as they have lived their entire lives as women - in fact, some of the performers, including members of The Butchies and Bitch and Animal identify as "transgender" even as they uphold the policy that excludes transsexual people. It is only transsexual people - who have been raised as a member of one gender but live (or wish to live) as a member of another - that are excluded, because they are seen as having lived as a male (in the case of trans women) or living currently as a male (in the case of trans men).

On the other hand, an environment that excludes transsexual people is not safe for many "transgender" women, as their legitimacy as women are constantly challenged by those who suspect that they are physically transsexual. Many women with ambiguous gender presentation report being harassed or theatened by other women while on the land.

Genderqueer people and others who identify as neither male or female are also excluded under this policy even if they were raised as girls. In 2000, several "trannie boys, boydykes, FTM's, Lesbian Avengers and young gender-variant women" - who were not transsexual women - were evicted from the festival for their refusal to identify as "womyn-born womyn" either because they no longer identify as women, or in solidality with their comrades.

How does Michigan Womyn's Music Festival enforce this policy?

It doesn't and it can't. In fact, the festival instituted a policy of not questioning any individual's gender presentation in order to prevent harassment against transgender women who otherwise qualify as "womyn-born womyn." The festival's 2001 handout states: "We ask all Festival-goers and staff to honor our commitment that no womon's gender will be questioned on the land. [...] Butch/gender-ambiguous womyn should be able to move about our community with confidence that their right to be here will not be questioned. [...] We also have a commitment to run the Festival in a way that keeps faith with the womyn-born womyn policy, which may mean denying admission to individuals who self-declare as male-to-female transsexuals or female-to-male transsexuals now living as men (or asking them to leave if they enter)."

Some transsexual women including Davina Anne Gabriel, the editor of now-defunct newsletter, TransSisters, view this intentional absence of enforcement mechanism as a de facto acceptance of post-operative transsexual women. Others feel that this policy - which they compare to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy regarding gays and lesbians in the military - is not enough, and continue to attend Camp Trans to protest transsexual people's exclusion from Michigan Womyn's Music Festival.

How did this controversy start?

Nancy Burkholder wrote: "In 1991, a woman was expelled from the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival on suspicion of being a transsexual. This incident brought to light an unpublished policy that MWMF was for non-transsexual women only. [...] News of Nancy [Burkholder]'s expulsion and the [existence of] anti-transsexual policy shocked many festival goers. [...] The 1992 MWMF brochure included a statement that "MWMF is a gathering of mothers and daughters for all womyn born womyn," meant to exclude transsexuals."

"At the 1992 festival, a small group of women (including at least one transsexual) set up a literature table to provide information about gender issues, posted "gender myths" in the portajanes, gave away buttons asking "Where's Nancy?" and raised questions, listened, and talked to women for hours. Four workshops were offered about transsexualism and about MWMF policy. Security women were questioned about whether they would expel a transsexual. A survey was conducted to find out what participants thought about including transsexuals. Nearly three-quarters of respondents thought transsexuals should be welcome. Survey results were sent to festival producers and a response requested, but none has been received."