"Support Festival artists in every way you are able," wrote Lisa Vogel in an email to supporters sent this week. "Take a moment now to buy a recording, support a Kickstarter campaign, 'like' each Facebook page of every artist on the Michigan roster and like their posts when they make them. Every time you like something on an artist’s or event’s Facebook page you help."
Despite criticism that Michfest excludes trans women from attending the women's festival, Vogel implored her supporters to keep coming, saying "in these tenuous times, your attendance this summer is crucial."
So far, groups skipping Michfest include The Indigo Girls and Hunter Valentine, plus performers Andrea Gibson and Lea DeLaria. Last year's festival was the last for The Indigo Girls, who called on organizers to change the policy or they would not return.
Vogel has in recent days taken to the Web to defend the festival from criticism, arguing that trans women aren't universally banned, they just aren't wanted at the festival. "We have said that this space, for this week, is intended to be for womyn who were born female, raised as girls and who continue to identify as womyn," Vogel wrote earlier this month. "This is an intention for the spirit of our gathering, rather than the focus of the festival. It is not a policy, or a ban on anyone."
Vogel says attendees are supposed to self-police. "We do not 'restrict festival attendance to cisgender womyn, prohibiting trans women,' as was recently claimed in several Advocate articles," Vogel wrote. "We do not and will not question anyone's gender. Rather, we trust the greater queer community to respect this intention, leaving the onus on each individual to choose whether or how to respect it."
Trans women who are critical of the festival see this as a distinction without a difference. Meanwhile, Vogel details what she says makes trans women different from herself. "Being born female in this culture has meaning," she wrote. "It is an authentic experience, one that has actual lived consequences. These experiences provide important context to the fabric of our lives, context that is chronically missing from the conversation about the very few autonomous spaces created for females."
Arguments like this one — that there is a universal "shared girlhood" among cisgender women — have been criticized as transphobic because they contend that trans women are "socialized as male," and therefore, are immune to much of the trauma brought on by a patriarchal society.
"That's a fallacy," trans journalist Cristan Williams wrote last year in response to an Advocate op-ed. "The truth is that the acculturation experience of being trans differs from the experience of being a [cisgender] male who is [assigned male at birth]. I've no idea what it's like to be a [cisgender male]. I know what it's like to be a trans kid— afraid, ashamed and gender dysphoric all the time. Is being in the closet about one's gender orientation the cis male experience? Is praying not to wake up in the morning if God wouldn't fix my body at just 5 years old the cis male experience? Is being part of a population in which one out of two are raped the cis male experience? The [assigned female at birth vs. assigned male at birth] narrative [to support an argument of exclusion is] willfully obtuse and cruel."
Michfest has never announced a change in its rules, and the line between a ban and an "intention" to exclude has sometimes been fuzzy. According to Nancy Burkholder's account of her experience trying to attend the festival back in 1991, she wasn't merely discouraged from attending once she was outed as trans, but was actively removed from the festival. Burkholder told the TransAdvocate last year that she was told by a woman at the gates that this "was a woman-only event and she wanted to know if I was a man."
"I replied that I was a woman, and I showed her my [New Hampshire] picture ID driver's license. Then she asked me if I was a transsexual. I asked what was the point of her questioning, and she replied that transsexuals were not permitted to attend the festival. She said that MWMF policy was that the festival was open to 'natural, women-born-women' only. I replied that nowhere, in any festival literature or the program guide, was the policy stated. I asked Chris [Coyote] to please verify that policy and she went to the office to contact the festival producers, Lisa Vogel and Boo Price. Sometime during this conversation, I waved [my companion] Laura [Ervin] to come over and she witnessed much of what transpired. ... Del [Kelleher] added that the policy was for the benefit of the transsexuals' safety and the safety of the women attending the festival. When I pointed out that there were other transsexuals on the land, she acknowledged that this was true. Then she added, 'We haven't caught them yet, but we did catch you.'"
Burkholder went on to describe the humiliating experience of being given a refund for her ticket and ejected from the Michfest grounds. In her mind, written or not, this was policy.