Ladies, Are You Ready for Michfest?
BY Clea Kim
April 10 2013 5:00 AM ET
The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, often 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 year’s 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.