The Indigo Girls
Is It Wrong to Perform at Michfest?

By Karen Iris Tucker

Originally published on Advocate.com May 28 2013 6:00 AM ET

Iconic pop duo the Indigo Girls have long been a staple at the annual Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, but this is the last time Emily Saliers and Amy Ray will take the stage — unless the festival reverses a long-standing policy that only “women born women” may attend.

“It became clear that we had to take a stand and let people know exactly how we felt,” says Saliers. She and Ray issued a statement on their website in April announcing that while they will perform this year, it will be their last until Michfest moves to formally admit transgender women after nearly four decades of being excluded. Saliers and Ray also vowed to donate any money made from the performance to trans activism. They plan to use the stage as a pulpit to discuss the issue, and their statement has already helped start the debate.

On August 6, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival will take place, with roughly 3,000 women in attendance, as it has for the past 38 years in the remote woodlands of Michigan. It began with a simple, yet radical idea: an annual gathering where women alone could congregate from around the world, pitch tents, and enjoy music. Yet its bedrock separatist credo of being an event to create safe space solely for “women born women” has increasingly come under fire as discriminatory, and even transphobic.

The conflict reached a boiling point in April, when writer and comic Red Durkin, a lesbian trans woman, launched a Change.org petition calling on performers to boycott the festival until its organizers would “explicitly welcome all self-identified women.” The petition now has more than 2,000 signatures.

Poet Andrea Gibson dropped out of this year’s lineup. Conversely, songwriter Melissa Ferrick, who admits she’s waffled on the issue in recent years, plans to perform. “I believe boycotting should be a last-resort tool for activism when dealing with like-minded folks with whom you generally share political solidarity and a grassroots worldview,” Ferrick says. Other performers reached by The Advocate were loath to take sides.

In its early years, second-wave feminists and members of an erstwhile fledgling lesbian movement traveled to Michfest simply to revel for a week in the clothing-optional atmosphere “on the Land,” and escape the typical trappings of patriarchy and homophobia. Many of those women — now with children in tow — still return for that same experience.

Saliers theorizes that history is why some Michfest attendees continue to support excluding trans women: “It’s this great fear that this really, really small community will come in and take over and ruin the institution of a safe space that women born women have created."

Lisa Vogel, 57, a founder of the festival and its artistic director, is no stranger to controversy. “In my 38 years of being involved with this festival, there have been a fair number of junctures where the festival has come under fire,” Vogel says. “In the beginning it was because it was a women-only event. It was construed as anti-male."

Vogel released her own statement on the heels of Durkin’s petition, essentially reiterating the women-born-women position. “I respect the politics of separate space,” she says. “What I am trying to address in my statement is that if you are born female, deemed female at birth, raised as a girl, experienced the rigid enforcement of gender hierarchy from the time that you are a baby, you have a certain shared group experience that is different from someone who was born, deemed male, and raised as a boy." 

She describes the current climate surrounding the festival, roiled in heated conversations online, as “heartbreaking.”

“There has been a fair amount of — we’ll call it feedback  — that has at times been discussion and at times been very ugly,” Vogel says. “That’s been extremely challenging because [the festival] is a space built out of love."

Michfest has a legacy of fostering an open-armed community among a multiplicity of types of women, from across the spectrum of femininity to masculinity. Yet its history is also marred by discrimination. In 1991, Nancy Burkholder was expelled from the festival after being asked if, and confirming that, she was a transsexual woman.

That event in turn sparked the annual protest gathering of Camp Trans and the birth of a more recent group, Trans Womyn Belong Here. The group's members attend the festival with the hope of taking “active steps towards welcoming all woman-identified women to the festival,” according to the group’s Facebook page.

Vogel describes the Burkholder incident as a “painful” part of Michfest’s legacy. She says no other trans woman has ever been asked to leave Michfest and that no one is ever asked their gender upon entry to the grounds. Many however, say this look-the-other-way tactic is contradictory — an attempt to have it both ways.

“It’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ event for trans women,” says Autumn Sandeen, a Navy retiree and transgender activist. Sandeen bristles at much of Vogel’s written statement, particularly when Vogel rejects the contention “that creating a time and a place for women born women to gather is inherently transphobic.”

“What she is offering trans people is a soft sell of what George Wallace said in his 1963 inaugural address: ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,’” Sandeen says. “Lisa Vogel is avoiding saying that trans women are men. She is a liar in not actually saying what she means. She won’t say it out loud because she knows how offensive it would be.”

Sandeen is not alone in perceiving an otherness inherent in Vogel’s perception of trans women. Gemma Seymour-Amper, 43, a trans woman who identifies as a lesbian, contends Vogel, like many other radical feminists who came of age in the ’70s, has a belief “in an essential, ineffable mystique of the feminine that they believe trans woman inherently lack.”

An attendee of both Michfest and Camp Trans, and a supporter of Trans Womyn Belong Here, Seymour-Amper believes her presence would only make the festival richer. “My purpose is not to destroy women’s space but to participate in it and to strengthen it, to be a full member of my community, and to contribute what I can for the greater good,” Seymour-Amper says.

Still, some festival attendees see a purpose for the festival to be separatist. Karen Thompson, who identifies as a black feminist lesbian, acknowledges that some women born women may never see a need in their lifetimes to gather separately. “But my concern, and the concern that I have for [the] festival, is that there are thousands of women who do.” For those folks who need it, says Thompson, “it provides important breathing space. It allows us to put down bags of cultural baggage that we didn’t even know we were carrying."

At its core, Thompson’s argument — and Vogel’s — is essentially based on gender identity and socialization. It contends that being assigned female at birth is a life experience that differs from that of being assigned male. “The internal struggles and social pressures are different,” says Thompson. “We live in a patriarchy. That is still true. And that has real, cultural effects."

Syd Mutcher, another Michfest participant, agrees, saying that trans women are informed by their boyhoods and by male privilege, as well as by womanhood as they transition. “That is why I support the inclusion of trans women in most spaces but also hold a space that is based on the lived experience of being female since the day we were born,” Mutcher says.

The ill effects of patriarchy, however, are not exclusive to women born women, argues Bex Cat-herder, a member of Trans Womyn Belong Here who has also been involved with Camp Trans since 2008, and who is in preliminary talks to organize a protest this year.

Cat-herder agreed that “patriarchy labels infants at birth with immutable sex and gender characteristics.” But, she notes, “so does the policy of exclusion and its supporters by claiming trans women, speaking out against their own marginalization, are exercising male privilege, while [cisgender, or nontrans] women who do the same are simply being strong and standing up for themselves.”

Aaron Norton, a graduate fellow at the Center for Science and Innovation Studies who has researched American attitudes toward transgender people, sees a continued lack of acceptance for trans people in society at large.

Norton and Greg Herek found in a 2005 research study that heterosexual, cisgender people's attitudes toward transgender people were quite negative on the whole. The scale measured respondents's personal feelings toward trans people, with a more favorable feeling toward the group receiving a higher number and less favorable a lower number. The average rating for a heterosexual person’s “feeling thermometer” reading about transgender people was 32 on a scale from 0 to 100. Norton says a similar but more recent study, conducted by the Human Rights Campaign in 2011, suggested a possible increase in that low favorability, with a mean rating of 45.

The Michfest dust-up highlights a perceived fissure in the LGBT community, pitting lesbian supporters of a separate space for women born women, against trans people and their allies who say such a policy is discriminatory. “There are members of our community who do not treat transphobia as [being] on the same level as homophobia,” said Sandeen. “The lesbian community that is not speaking up — members of the LGBT community that are not speaking up on this? Shame on them."

For performers like Saliers, taking the stage means being mindful of a larger backdrop of discrimination. “The question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘What does it feel like to be who you are and to have a person or a community or a country or a world say you don’t count?’” she says. “It’s not right. I really believe if the festival makes the choice to include trans women, years later, they are going to look back and say, ‘Wow, that was a terrible, painful conflict at the time, but kind of, what was that all about?’”

(See a List of the 2013 Michfest Performers)