The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is next week. Having not grown up in North America and having taken a fairly circuitious route to feminism, the first time I ever heard of Michfest was about seven years ago in the Inga Muscio book Cunt, where Muscio talks about what a transformative experience it was to be completely surrounded by only women for a week. Then, a few years later, while I was attending a writing retreat for women of colour at the Leaven Centre in Michigan, one of the women began to talk about Michfest, and their womyn-born-womyn policy (WBW), i.e. the fact that only cisgendered women could attend Michfest. I was stunned.
What if a kid felt completely NOT the specific gender that society assigned him/her throughout life, and so decided to get an operation or take hormones when s/he grew up so that his/her physical appearance would mirror the self-image s/he holds dearest to his/her heart?
What is wrong with any of this?
What, exactly, does it mean to be a woman?
What, exactly, does it mean to be a man?
Why shouldn’t one’s gender be as fluid as one’s life should be, if its a happy life, I mean.
If its a life where freedom happens.
Other people writing for Bitch in the past have articulated what is wrong with a WBM policy. Dani Eurynome says in this article:
While I have heard many of my “sisters” talk about supporting the institutions and changing from within, as a political person, I know that is a bunch of crap. It is up to me, a person who is not being discriminated against, to put up a huge fuss and boycott. Anyone who currently identifies and lives as a woman [should be included]—no inspections, oaths, or harassment.”Safe space” means naiveté at best or falsehood at worst. If women actually believe that they cannot be harmed by other women, then they are naive. A penis is not inherently dangerous—a brain is.
In the same article you can find a few folks arguing for the protection of WBW policies. The current status of Michfest’s WBW policy is unclear to me; it seems as if the WBW policy has been rolled back. So why is this still an issue? Annie Danger writes in An Open Letter to my Friends Who Attend the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival:
I am also speaking up because, in only the most technical of senses, I could finally go [to Michfest]: I can purchase a ticket as an out transsexual woman (though one cannot find that information on the MWMF website). I have considered going. I have had hours and hours of conversations recently—with decade-long Michfest workers, with transwoman friends and their lovers, with women’s-movement organizers who have never been to MWMF, and with those who know me best—about this possibility and I have come to a very solid conclusion: I have no moving reason to put myself through that emotional shredder. I cannot go there and not interact with this issue of trans-exclusion. It is on my body. To go and try to have fun, to do anything but loud and firey activism about this issue would be to leave my body. To disassociate further from a body I fight daily to be in.
I completely disagree with WBW policies. For one, they uphold the extremely transphobic belief that trans women are not “real women” - I mean, it doesn’t get much more transphobic than that.
It’s also very harmful for a movement to form alliances with others based solely on identity, rather than politics. I have learned the hard way, for example, to not assume that any old woman of colour I meet strolling down the street is going to believe what I believe, or even have experienced the world the way I do. Sure, it can be natural to believe, when you feel cornered and alienated by ye olde Dominant Culture on the basis of your identity, that everyone else with your identity, will have reached the same conclusions about the Dominant Culture as you have. But that’s a fantasy - and it’s also essentialising. It does to others what the Dominant Culture does to us: it assumes that you can predict what someone thinks and feels simply on how they look.
Take it from me: make friends and allies based on politics and ideas, not whether or not someone has the same identity as you. Because I’d rather be on a team with Tim Wise than Condoleeza Rice.
In light of all this, I wanted to share that adorably radical video above with you, and its musings on transphobia, friendship, derailing and true solidarity. While it is about a trans woman and cis woman at odds in their friendship, in its short running time it is also a painfully accurate portrayal of any friendship divided by power lines, where one friend has a kind of privilege that the other doesn’t.
Life as any kind of radical is hard. Don’t make it harder by barking up all the wrong trees, and ignoring the trees that want to enter into a symbiotically nurturing alliance with you.