Ladies, Are You Ready for Michfest?

By Clea Kim

Originally published on Advocate.com April 10 2013 5:00 AM ET

The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festivaloften referred to as Michfest, is an international feminist music festival that has taken place every August since 1976 on 650 acres of Michigan woodlands. The event is created, staffed, operated and attended entirely by women. (The spelling of “womyn” in the name of the festival is an expression of feminist politics.) This years lineup was recently announced, and among the star performers are the Indigo Girls (pictured), who have been stalwarts at the fest for years, even as they gained wider fame. 

Michfest was founded in 1976 with a couple of thousand participants. Today, it brings in at least 4,000 (mostly queer) women, and some of their children, who camp near the town of Hart. However, there is a women-born-women admittance policy that festival director Lisa Vogel continues to defend. 

“As a queer community, we’re all struggling around how we explore and expand gender definitions, and the women here who are creating this festival are part of that,” Vogel says. “And I feel very strongly that having a space for women who are born women to come together for a week is a healthy, whole, loving space to provide for women who have that experience. To label that as transphobic is, to me, as misplaced as saying the women-of-color tent is racist or to say that a transsexual-only space, a gathering of folks of women who are born men, is misogynist.”

The policy came into effect after a trans woman, Nancy Burkholder, was asked to leave Michfest in 1991. Trans activists, many queer-identified, began protesting, arguing that trans women — especially those who are legally female — should be allowed to join in the solidarity of Michfest. Trans feminist author Julia Serano has said, “Some of the women who travel from all over the country to attend Michigan think nothing of wearing their suspicion or hatred of trans women on their sleeves, and they will often make extraordinarily ignorant and insensitive comments about trans women in their attempts to justify our exclusion.”

In 2005, Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, who has said she identifies with trans and genderqueer folks, interviewed Vogel and several participants from Camp Trans, a nearby annual gathering of transgender women in protest of the Michfest policy,  in hopes of mediating the debate. She posted all their conversations on her website. This year the Indigo Girls have taken a sterner position, posting a letter stating, “Any money that we make playing the Festival will go towards Trans Activism. We will make a statement from stage at the Festival in support of Trans Inclusion. We have made it clear that this will be our last time at the Festival until MWF shows visible and concrete signs of changing their intention.” There is also a Change.org petition calling on all performers to boycott the fest until it adopts a more inclusive policy. The petition currently has nearly 1,400 signatures. 

Both trans and cisgender activists, including Serano, Leslie Feinberg, and the Lesbian Avengers, have participated in Camp Trans. Many women have also joined a movement called Trans Women Belong Here, which includes festival attendees and others "who are taking active steps towards welcoming all woman-identified women to the festival."

Also, some performers are taking a new attitude toward women's music and cultural festivals. Natalia Zuckerman (pictured above) recently told SheWired that "perhaps there isn't as much of a need for lesbian music culture anymore. Meaning, we don't need the public gatherings on that scale to feel like we are part of something, that we belong. Lesbian culture is much more in the mainstream than it has ever been, so we don't need to seek out these alternative spaces to feel safe as much as we did when k.d. and the Indigo Girls first started out. What's next is that there are more gay men and lesbians, trans, bi, and queer people in the music world than ever before. And it is less of a big deal than ever before, less of an anomaly."

This year the festival is scheduled for August 6-11. Among the perfomers are God-des and She (above), whose song "Lick It" is still the greatest lesbian sex anthem around. There also will be performances by Zuckerman, Indigo Girls, JD Samson and Men, Melissa Ferrick, Toshi Reagon, Gloria Bigelow, Betty (of L Word fame), Nona Hendryx, and many more. Attendees don't have to buy a ticket for all six days; one- to five-day tickets are available as well. Click here to see the full lineup.

A six-day ticket gets festivalgoers access to 36 performances. The festival also offers three vegetarian meals a day, woodland camping, hundreds of workshops, a film festival, DJ’d dances, sports (basketball, volleyball, a 5K run), three child-care camps, shuttle transportation, first aid, peer counseling and support, resources for disabled women, and sign language interpretation. But you'll have to do some work too; all women on the land chip in, even crush-worthy entertainers like JD Samson (above).

The festival week begins with intensive workshops Tuesday and Wednesday, taught by women from diverse fields of knowledge, such as the women of Betty (above). There will also be a community center and womyn-of-color tent offering a variety of activities and events. 

Each woman who attends the festival also signs up to participate in community services, the great equalizer. Everything that happens at Michfest is done "by womyn and for womyn," according to organizers. But you don't have to drag yourself away from the  music too long. 

Pictured above: the great Nona Hendryx.

One of MichFest's calling cards is an active peer support system for those in recovery and engagments for women with different emotional needs. Resources for disabled women will be organized through a campground area for women with disabilities, and sign language interpretation services will be available for all concerts and any workshops and activities for which they are requested. The sign language interpreters are often the stars of the show, especially when they have to translate a song like "Lick It." Comedian Gloria Bigelow (above) will likely be one of those stars.

For women who plan to bring children, there is a child care available in three different areas. Sprouts Family Campground provides a day camp as well as a family campground for moms and young children through 4 years old. The Gaia Girls Camp offers activities and supervision through the evening for girls 5 and older, and the Brother Sun Boys Camp runs from 8 a.m. to midnight with crafts, cookouts, music, sports, and other activities for boys aged 5 through 10. No boys older than 10 are allowed at the festival.

Some women, like musician like Toshi Reagon (above), are part of a multigenerational festival heritage. Reagon's mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, has performed at Michfest with her group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Now Toshi Reagon, who is the goddaughter of folksinger Pete Seeger and got her big break opening for Lenny Kravitz, has a daughter of her own with her partner, J. Bob Alotta, executive director of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice.

Musican Melissa Ferrick (above) will be there too. Reservations about camping? Well, you have a choice of sites near the interior festival road, where you'll have nearby neighbors, or more private sites further afield. You also can even bring your own RV, as many performers do.