Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival Comes to a Timely Death

What do Margaret Thatcher and Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival have in common? They’re shit and they’re dead.

I expect to hear a lot of people saying in the coming days that the trans cabal murdered the festival. As with any trans cabal talk, in reality we are too small and too marginalised a group to engage in this sort of conspiracy. Besides, the efforts of trans women and activists sympathetic to us were focussed upon attempting to making the festival inclusive, with a large number of people and institutions signing a petition to demand inclusion of trans women, alongside activism from within.

In truth, the death of Michfest was no more of a conspiracy than declining Church of England congregations. Festival owner Lisa Vogel, announcing the end of the festival, as much admits this, saying “We have known in our hearts for some years that the life cycle of the Festival was coming to a time of closure”. A sympathetic article notes that those attending in 2014 were “Many less than the 8,000-10,000 days”, while ever more acts are unwilling to perform owing to its exclusionary politics.

It died because it refused to change as the understandings of feminism around it did; instead remaining centred on a shrinking and ageing demographic of second wave lesbian feminists. Vogel has talked some right crap about trans women over the years, but as a trans woman who attended testifies, it was they that made an effort to make sure that trans women were made to feel unwelcome; wearing red as a visible symbol of their desire to exclude trans women. Trans women and LGBT activist Kayleigh Whalen describes the experience of being there

I couldn’t help but focus on all the red badges on display, and those same feelings I felt my first year were inaccessible to me. My tears burned on my cheeks; born of indignation, pain and loss from seeing so many women wearing what I could only see as symbols of hatred.

Vogel’s half-arsed attempt at claiming trans women are welcome implicitly makes it clear that these women are what Michfest is centred on, guaranteeing that organisers have no intention of combating that culture of wilful exclusion. She states:

There are trans women and trans men who attend and work at the Festival who participate in the Michfest community in this same spirit – as supporters of, rather than detractors from, our female-focused culture. The presence of trans women at Michfest has been misrepresented as a kind of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But the real issue is about the focus of the event, a focus on the experience of those born female, who’ve lived their lives subjected to oppression based on the sole fact of their being female.

At best she’s saying “you can be included, but only if you are like us, you think like us and you prioritise our issues”, which is not real inclusion.

This does not only discourage trans women and cis women with a particular unwillingness to participate in our exclusion. It discourages any cis women who are aware of the broader implications of trans exclusionary feminism – its tendency to exclude unworthy women like sex workers, or women who want to talk about oppressions beyond their vulva like women of colour or working class women; its focus upon theorising away women it doesn’t like rather than confronting the issues facing women right now.

What I gather from speaking to women from its home country is that it came to be seen as an irrelevant hive of second wavers peppered with some weird, vaguely appropriative spirituality. It’s clear that it had become alienating or at best irrelevant to ever more people that might have brought renewed life to the event. Those who refused to allow Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival to change are those who allowed it to die.

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