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Michigan/Trans Controversy Archive

Frequently Asked Questions on Michigan/Trans Controversy: Protests

When was the first organized protest at Michigan Womyn's Music Festival?

It was in 1992, a year after Nancy Burkholder was expelled from the festival. Burkholder wrote: "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." Boycott of the festival has been discussed early on, but activists decided "it would be far more effective to show up and make our voices heard."

In 1993, four transsexual women including Burkholder returned to the festival with non-transsexual allies to "conduct scheduled Festival workshops and outreach to other attendees," but were once again thrown out by the festival security. "Still determined to conduct their workshops, they camped across from the main gate in the woods of the National Park. Over 75 women attended the workshops and more than 200 women stopped by to offer their support. Camp Trans was born." (from the press release for a Camp Trans 1994 fundraiser)

What exactly is Camp Trans?

In 1994, transsexual activists and their allies officially held Camp Trans across the road from the entrance of Michigan Womyn's Music festival. Camp Trans 1994 and featured workshops and readings by Leslie Feinberg, Jamison Green, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and others. This was the last Camp Trans (except for a small three-person demonstration in 1995) before it was revived as "Son of Camp Trans" in 1999 by Transexual Menace and GenderPAC.

As Camp Trans attract younger and more queer- and genderqueer- identified people in addition to transsexual people, the character of Camp Trans itself is changing. A press release from GenderPAC states: "the stars of Camp Trans [1999] were the Chicago Lesbian Avengers who, in support of an inclusive MWMF went toe-to-toe with angry lesbian-separatists intent on harassing the trans-contingent out of the festival grounds. The Avengers provided moral and physical support of the activists, escorting them through the grounds and engaging in group shouting matches with indignant separatists."

Riki Anne Wilchins said: "The big change was that five years ago at the original Camp Trans, it was transexuals struggling with the Festival. But this year it was young, radical lesbians struggling with other lesbians. After one shouting match, I thanked one of them for her outspoken support, and she responded, 'I wasn't supporting you. If you're not welcome, I'm not safe here either. This is my issue, too.'" In other words, Camp Trans is no longer simply about including transsexual women; it is about resisting gender oppression within women's communities.

What is the goal of Camp Trans?

The stated purpose of Camp Trans back in 1994 was to "to promote an understanding of gender from a variety of perspectives and to address issue of disenfranchisement in the women's and lesbian communities," but some transsexual activist involved in it report much narrower scope, which is to have the festival to allow, if only in de facto, post-operative transsexual women to enter the land. Inevitably, this difference in priorities and strategies lead to a division within trans communities. Organizers of the 2002 Camp Trans state: "our mission is to educate the attendees of Michigan Womyn's Music Festival about the 'womyn-born-womyn only' policy with the end goal of broadening that policy to include ALL self-identified womyn."

What are those debates within trans communities about?

Some openly criticize GenderPAC's confrontational tactics as well as its effort to advocate for pre- and non-operative transsexual women (and possibly other trans and genderqueer people) to enter the festival. Davina Anne Gabriel did when she wrote: "[The festival] has a perfectly legitimate reason for excluding preoperative MTF transsexuals [...] However, allowing postoperative transsexual women to attend would not result in such consequences. I hope that this will someday become its official policy. The actions of groups like 'Son of Camp Trans' only further impede this goal."

In the summer 2000, a group of known transsexual activists (Beth Elliott, Anne Lawrence, Gwendolyn Ann Smith, Jessica Xavier as well as Gabriel) released a statement condemning Wilchins as "anti-feminist and ultimately oppressive of women, both transsexual and non-transsexual" for advocating for the inclusion of pre- and non-operative transsexual women, suggesting that only women without a penis (i.e. non-transsexual women and post-operative transsexual women) should enter, lest the safety of these women would be compromised. They were criticized by yet another group of trans activists and allies for their racism and classism. Read Emi Koyama's paper, Whose Feminism is it Anyway? for more information about this debate. [Full disclosure: Emi Koyama is the author of this FAQ]

What other form of activism has there been to change the policy at Michigan Womyn's Music Festival?

In 1999, some trans activist began taking another strategy: contacting musicians who headline Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, asking them to take a stand against anti-transsexual policy by either boycotting the festival or making public statements. Many musicians declined to publicly declare their positions, although some did respond. Most notably, The Butchies and Mr. Lady Records and Video released a public statement in defense of the festival: "We strongly believe that transgendered/transsexual people are an important part of the queer community and that they face an enormous amount of opposition. [...] Based on our discussions with Lisa Vogel, the main organizer, we know that the MWMF started as a separatist event for womyn born womyn and we personally still feel the continued need for that kind of space and event. [...] We don't think that our support of the trans communities and womyn born womyn communities are in direct contradiction to each other."

Over the next couple of years, trans activists and allies across the U.S. have staged many actions at the shows of the Butchies and other musicians that support the anti-transsexual policy of Michigan Womyn's Music Festival by distributing fliers that raise awareness of transphobia within queer and women's communities and confronting musicians who profit from supporting an anti-transsexual institution. All actions have been peaceful so far, except in one incident a trans activist was assaulted by a fan of a band being protested.