Trans Filmmakers Tell History of 'Camp Trans'

 

 

History of transgender people, like many minority groups, is too often lost or overlooked by the mainstream. Even moments of protest within the LGBT space, like the advent of "Camp Trans," deserve to be remembered, and that can require transgender people telling their own stories, say the creators of the “We’ve Been Around” video series.

The videos — from A Nonetheless Production, in association with 11B Productions, which is developing the film adaptation of Leslie Feinberg’s iconic book Stone Butch Blues — are directed in part by Rhys Ernst, the co-producer of Amazon's award-winning series Transparent. Five episodes were released earlier this year, and now Ernst and writer and filmmaker Susan Stryker are recalling the events that led transgender people to take up residence outside the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, which ultimately closed last year after pressure to reverse a policy of excluding transgender women from attending the women-only music festival. Trans activists Leslie Feinberg and Riki Anne Wilchins spearheaded the movement, which is remembered in narration in this episode by Julia Serano. 

The episode is directed by Elliot Montague, written by Rosie Haber, produced by Christine Beebe and includes consulting by Stryker and Wilchins. Executive producers include Ernst, Jelayne Miles, Jase Miles-Peres, and Giulia Caruso. 

The Advocate spoke with Ernst and Stryker, who remembers Camp Trans as a lesson on "the importance of continuing to dialogue."

The Advocate: The mainstream might be surprised that transphobia exists even within the LGBT community. How would you explain the existence of that phenomenon?

Rhys Ernst: Just like sexism, transphobia exists everywhere in our society, including in the gay and lesbian community. One of the things that’s so fascinating about the clash between Camp Trans and Michfest is the parallel needs and struggles between cis women and trans women, and how in some circumstances, oppressed people can oppress people.

Susan Stryker: From a transgender perspective, gay and straight can seem to have more to do with each other than either of them does with trans. While gay and straight cis people differ about who they love, they agree about what a men and women are. Trans people are the ones who do gender differently, and gay/lesbian people are no more likely to understand that difference than straight people.

Ernst: There was and is a great need for a women-only space in our male-dominated society. The error that some at Michfest made was having too narrow of a definition of women that did not include trans women. This is still a contentious issue in some corners of feminist debate with the strong views from a subset of TERFS (trans exclusionary radical feminists), but as Leslie Feinberg aptly argues in our film, trans women are “women in a women hating society, so of course transsexual women want to be welcomed into women’s space for the same reason that every woman does, to feel safe.”  

Michfest became a lightning rod. But was it unique? Are there other places where the discussion about exclusionary policies in queer spaces apply?
Stryker: No, MichFest was not unique. I want to stress that since the '70s there are have always been feminist and lesbian spaces and organizations that are welcoming and inclusive of trans women, just as there have been lesbian and feminist spaces and organizations that have excluded us. I transitioned in the late '80s and early '90s, and have personally been excluded from women-only discussion groups, bath houses, play parties, and dance clubs.

Why haven’t these other spaces gotten the same attention?
Stryker: I think Michfest became a lightning rod for a couple of reasons. First, the Nancy Burkholder expulsion took place right when “queer” was getting traction as a new and more expansive concept encompassing a lot of different LGBT communities and identities, and the question at the time was “is this organization or group of event part of the new queer mindset, or does it still hold to narrower ideas that came out of '70s gay lib and lesbian feminism?” Second, Riki and Leslie got involved, and that gave Camp Trans a higher national profile. And finally, the internet was just getting started in 1994, when it was easier to publicize what was happening there, and build an ongoing protest around trans-exclusion. There were other places with similar policies that were protested, but I think other places doing the same thing took more of a back seat to Michfest, because of the ongoing protest there, and became kind of a place-holder.

Michfest closed, yes. But how do we know whether Camp Trans was successful at changing hearts and minds?

Ernst: A lot of the work that activists at Camp Trans, such as Riki Wilchins and Leslie Feinberg and many others, did for many many years was accumulative to the place where we find ourselves now. But the same is true of so many trans activists throughout history.

Camp Trans’ goal was never to get Michfest to close. The closing of the festival was due to several issues, including lesbophobia and a shifting post-internet culture. That said, the issue of trans inclusion chipped away at the unity of the festival for many years. The issue of trans inclusion is more relevant than ever today with the fervor of anti-trans laws such as HB2 and several other bills popping up across the country. We owe a huge debt to Riki and Leslie and all the other pioneers that have paved the way to where we are now. A stirring of the pot and even backlash, while sometimes painful, is often evidence of change.

The history of trans inclusion at Michfest simply cannot be adequately summed up in a five-minute film. For instance, the question of whether the womyn-born-womyn policy officially changed is much more nuanced, and there was a lot more sympathy and allyship between trans women and cis women at Michfest than we could fully get into in such a brief recounting. But the circumstances and dialog therein undoubtedly changed the course of history. Much like the cultural shifting we find ourselves in right now, the bell of trans existence cannot be unrung.

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