The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, held annually since 1976, and which in recent years attracted controversy for refusing to admit transgender women, announced on Facebook that this year will be its last. Festival founder and organizer Lisa Vogel wrote, “We have known in our hearts for some years that the life cycle of the Festival was coming to a time of closure.”
In a note posted last night, Vogel wrote that this year’s Michfest, held in early August, would be its last, although she didn’t give one specific reason. The note reads, in part:
We have known in our hearts for some years that the life cycle of the Festival was coming to a time of closure. Too often in our culture, change is met only with fear, the true cycle of life is denied to avoid the grief of loss. But change is the ultimate truth of life. Sisters – I ask you to remember that our 40 year Festival has outlived nearly all of her kin. She has served us well. I want us all to have the opportunity to experience the incredible full life cycle of our beloved Festival, consciously, with time to celebrate and yes, time to grieve.
There have been struggles; there is no doubt about that. This is part of our truth, but it is not—and never has been—our defining story. The Festival has been the crucible for nearly every critical cultural and political issue the lesbian feminist community has grappled with for four decades. Those struggles have been a beautiful part of our collective strength; they have never been a weakness.
For many of us this one week in the woods is the all too rare place and time where we experience validation for our female bodies, and where the female experience presides at the center of our community focus. A place to lay our burden down from the misogyny that pervades our lives from cradle to grave…a place to live in intergenerational community, and to live in harmony with Mother Earth. I know this is true for me. And I have a deep trust that each and every one of us can take what we have experienced on that Land and continue to create space that feeds our spirit, creates diverse community, honors our experience and supports our struggle as womyn making our way through the patriarchal world. Please take what you love about Michigan and use it to create something new and beautiful.
There’s been controversy since the 90s over Michfest’s stated policy of admitting only “women-born women,” but the issue was given wider attention in 2013, when the Indigo Girls publicly withdrew from performing there. In 2014, in an open letter posted on the site, Vogel affirmed the policy while simultaneously denying that it was trans-exclusionary:
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. 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. We do not “restrict festival attendance to cisgendered womyn, prohibiting trans women” as was recently claimed in several Advocate articles. We do not and will not question anyone’s gender. Rather, we trust the greater queer community to respectthis intention, leaving the onus on each individual to choose whether or how to respect it. Ours is a fundamental and respectful feminist statement about who this gathering is intended for, and if some cannot hear this without translating that into a “policy”, “ban” or a “prohibition”, this speaks to a deep-seated failure to think outside of structures of control that inform and guide the patriarchal world.
There is, however, at least one example of a trans woman being thrown out of the festival: Nancy Burkholder, who was asked to leave in 1991 when fellow festivalgoers recognized her as trans. In 2014, with the Human Rights Campaign supporting a proposed boycott of the festival, calling its anti-trans stance “simply inexcusable,” Voegel acknowledged and apologized for Burkholder being kicked out, but insisted that had been a one-time thing:
Over 20 years ago, we asked Nancy Burkholder, a trans womon, to leave the Land. That was wrong, and for that, we are sorry. We, alongside the rest of the LGBTQ community, have learned and changed a great deal over our 39‐year history. We speak to you now in 2014 after two decades of evolution; an evolution grown from our willingness to stay in hard conversations, just as we do every year around issues of race, ability, class and gender. Since that single incident, Festival organizers have never asked a trans womon to leave the Festival. We have a radical commitment to creating a space where for one week a year, no one’s gender is questioned ‐ it’s one of the most unique and valued aspects of the Festival. The Michfest community has always been populated by womyn who bear the burden of unwanted gender scrutiny every day.
As the Advocate points out, several prominent LGBT organizations withdrew their support from the festival in recent years, including the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Equality Michigan and the National LGBTQ Task Force. In response, Vogel accused the groups of “targeting Michfest with McCarthy-era blacklist tactics.”
Photo via Facebook/Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival