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Riki Wilchins

Op-ed: Where 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Is Alive and Well

Op-ed: Where 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Is Alive and Well


MichFest can do better.

Another August, and another Michigan Womyn's (But Not Trans) Music Festival, an annual exercise in gender hypocrisy. Even as the military has given up "don't ask, don't tell," MichFest clings to it like drowning myn to a raft.

In case you've missed the beginning of this saga, some years ago MichFest security personnel forcibly ejected an attendee they suspected of being a transgender woman. She was given time neither to alert her friends nor collect her belongings.

MichFest's owner then retroactively announced a new policy called "womyn-born-womyn only." This may have lacked an exact English-language translation but had the advantage of being understood by all concerned as a kinder, gentler expression of "No Trannies Allowed."

In subsequent years Camp Trans, an educational protest event, set up shop across the road from the main gate, and it eventually attracted hundreds of trans women and their friends. It was often difficult to tell the genderqueer women at Camp Trans from the genderqueer women going into the festival across the road.

After some years of confrontation, festival officials decided to cease ejecting transgender women and settled into a surly silence on the issue. Their gender policy can be distilled to four familiar words: "don't ask, don't tell."

They won't ask if we're transgender, and we can attend as long as we don't tell them, or anyone else. This policy was just so successful for gay Marines in the showers, so why not let it work its magic in peace at Michigan?

Oh, yeah. Even the Marines have given up DADT.

So that leaves MichFest as the remaining pillar supporting this discriminatory, duplicitous, and degrading policy. Even well-known lesbian artists like the Indigo Girls have responded by refusing to play any further MichFest dates until the festival adopts a fully inclusive attendance policy.

Still, after more than 20 years, debates over the inclusion of transgender women -- even among our allies -- continue to mine the same basic tropes and logic of the debates we had back on trans inclusion in the 1980s (all of which we pretty much lost):

First, someone raises the issue of whether trans women have had "male privilege." Do they mean the privilege of being beaten up by boys, ostracized by classmates, and all but disowned by our parents, and later on, in adulthood, losing our jobs, wives, and lovers, and, not infrequently, access to our children? In other words, discussions of privilege and transgender women always address our alleged male privilege, never the cisgender privilege of those who have positioned themselves to judge us. This performs the neat political trick of making our bodies and experiences controversial, while normalizing those of everyone else involved. Put simply, it radically disempowers trans women from the get-go.

By the way, one day I would like to see a trans-inclusion discussion that addresses whether those women who have enjoyed cisgender privilege all their lives are really in a position to judge the privileges and life experiences of transgender women, but I'm not holding my breath.

Second, someone raises the question of whether we are "really female." This one is more interesting, because the question itself is completely irrelevant. What is relevant is who sets the criteria and who gets to judge. And it is never transgender women. Which is to say, when someone does raises this issue, they are always tacitly implying that: (a) they are really female; and, therefore, (b) they get to judge.

Trannies never are really anything -- we're at best copies of something else, whom other people get to discuss. We never, ever get to judge anyone. OK, we do get to judge boys and girls who walk the balls, and we do get off on watching RuPaul's Drag Race and grading all the cisgender contestants. But that's about it.

So as this MichFest shuts down and plans for 2014 are under way, I'm going to propose a truce. We won't try to come in, but everyone who does go in must be judged by us prior to entry. If they can convince us they're transgender, they get to go in, but the festival organizers can't ask them if they are and they can't tell. And if they can't convince us that they're really transgender, they have to go home. That should make it a lot more fun for everyone, while also keeping all us gendertrash out by the curb where we belong.

Or perhaps next year they should consider changing their gender policy to "don't ask, don't judge."

RIKI WILCHINS is an activist, stand-up comedian, and the author of Read My Lips.

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Riki Wilchins