Michfest Womyn and Trans Women Ask 'Why?'

Michfest Womyn and Trans Women Ask 'Why?'

“Nooooooo!”
“WHOO HOO!!!!”
“Broken hearted…”
“It's a sad day and a loss for ALL women.”
“I am speechless and full of so many great memories…”
“Yay for change.”
“Crying me eyes out. How can this be?”

LGBT social media is still buzzing with a wide ranging mix of despair and joy, 48 hours after the announcement that the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival's 40th annual gathering this August will be its last.

Transgender activists such as Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told BuzzFeed News the end of the event known as Michfest coincided with a decline in attendance and an inability to attract big name music stars. “They have finally become extinct, like dinosaurs. But with the dinosaurs, it wasn’t something they did to themselves.”

"While it would be unfortunate to fail to resolve this four-decade conflict directly, it would be fitting that the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival dies a natural death, having outlived its usefulness as an exclusive club that failed to adapt,” Dana Beyer, executive director of Gender Rights Maryland, told the Windy City Times.

Despite denials as recently as last year that trans women were not outright banned from the annual event, the festival has been at the center of controversy for decades over its “intention” that attendees be “womyn who were born female, raised as girls and who continue to identify as womyn.”

The Advocate has learned exclusive new information about the behind-the-scenes struggle by both lesbian and trans activists to find a way to resolve those differences, a plan which Michfest’s central figure ultimately abandoned.

In a letter posted Tuesday on the festival’s Facebook page by the founder and organizer who started the annual event in 1976, Lisa Vogel told fans and followers: “We have known in our hearts for some years that the life cycle of the Festival was coming to a time of closure.”

She noted this is not necessarily the end of Michfest: “It's possible that I will come back with something else, or that other sisters will take the inspiration of the Michigan community and create the next expression of our Amazon culture,” Vogel wrote. “What is true for me is that now is the time to bring this 40-year cycle to a close, stepping out on joy at our most incredible anniversary celebration."

Vogel made no mention of the recent negotiations over transgender inclusion, a controversy which dates back as far as 1991, when Nancy Burkholder was asked to leave when she was recognized as trans.

A source with knowledge of those talks revealed Vogel and her supporters had been locked in an intense stalemate with Equality Michigan, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and The TransAdvocate, an investigative watchdog website focused on transgender issues.

As The Advocate reported last June, Equality Michigan launched a petition calling for Michfest to end its "womyn born womyn" intention, for Vogel to meet with leaders in the transgender community, for vendors and workshop leaders to publicly voice support for an end to the policy, and for artists and attendees to boycott the festival.

But once NCLR signed the petition, executive director Kate Kendell told The Advocate “we did hear from the broader lesbian community about their concerns, not as much as with the view of trans women are women, and should be a part of Michfest, as much as the tactic of the petition itself.”

Kendell conceded that over the last several months, the petition and boycott tactic “stagnated.” Our source says it “felt like a threat” to Vogel and her supporters, rather than an olive branch to settle their feud. “I’ve heard from so many women who love and support Michfest,” Kendell said, who “felt that in pursuing a boycott without a conversation we were not living up to the feminist standard.”

According to the source, the Task Force and NCLR were waiting for Equality Michigan to bring Vogel to the table with an offer to suspend the petition. Four months passed.

Then, a month ago, Equality Michigan reportedly insisted Vogel set a date to sit down and negotiate before lifting the petition. According to our source, Vogel balked, and that is when the Task Force and NCLR decided to withdraw from the petition unilaterally.

Kendell denied reports that her group’s decision to withdraw from the petition was motivated by lesbian donors demanding refunds. “One donor — not Vogel — asked for her donations to be returned — and we happily returned her donations. We couldn’t get that money back into her hands fast enough. But we did not experience a financial impact.”

Vogel reportedly signaled she was interested in an opportunity to “honor the evolution” of Michfest, a source tells The Advocate, in the hope it “would continue and grow and thrive, where the experience of all women was honored and embraced… we pursued the goal in a dogged way, and came to believe dialogue would bring about that result.”

The editors at The TransAdvocate followed suit, banking on the promise Vogel would come to the table.

Instead, with Tuesday’s announcement, she surprised some, and confirmed others’ doubts.

Editor-in-Chief Cristan Williams says The TransAdvocate called Vogel’s bluff, suspecting she was never sincere in her stated intention to engage in a dialogue.

“The reality is that Vogel chose to not engage,” says Williams. “She never intended to meet with anyone… she'd rather kill Michfest than meet with trans folk and talk about it (something she's never done)."

The Advocate reached out to Vogel for comment; she declined to be interviewed or offer a statement other than her message on Facebook.

“I am grieving,” says Kendell, “both at the loss of Michfest for all the women, for those who want a meaningful, new iteration of Michfest that could heal old wounds, and bring together an entire community of the most powerful women.”

But, Kendell says, it’s clear to her Vogel’s decision was “one she contemplated for some time.”

Kendell says she hasn’t yet responded to Vogel, and says she doesn’t know what to say. Her hope was to bring together women who are “united and appreciative of how each one is unique, as well as how much they have in common, and upending the patriarchy. It was almost within our grasp, and it’s the only reason I pursued dialogue.”

She’s received a number of messages blaming her for the demise of Michfest. “Some asking, ‘Are you happy, now?’” Kendell said. “Others calling me ‘Pollyanna,’ or saying, ’You were duped.’  I’ve been doing the work for 25 years — 20 of those years here at NCLR, and I have seen miracles.”

So is there yet another miracle waiting in the wings? “Whatever happens next — and I believe something will happen next — we are all in this together,” Kendell added. “Our entire board and staff, and the vast majority of the NLCR community and donors, share our commitment to fully embrace trans women in all segments of society.”

“Our goal remains the same: that Michfest fully welcomes trans women as women,” said Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force in an emailed statement. “And since this is the last Michfest, it is a golden opportunity for organizers to end on a fully inclusive and historic note.”

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