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Transitioning into inclusion at Michigan
Transitioning into inclusion at Michigan
by Jennifer Vanasco - SGN Contributing Writer

Seventeen years after Nancy Burkholder was ejected from the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival because she was outed as a Transwoman, people on the Michigan internet forums are still talking about Transgender inclusion in the Lesbian community.

I find this amazing.

And when I say "amazing," I mean it in a good way.

One of the things I like best about Michigan is how seriously issues are taken that have long been dropped from mainstream discussions - it's a place, and a community, where feminism is still important, where gender is still important, where academic topics like power dynamics, degrees of oppression and social conditioning are discussed, debated and lived.

Michigan, though, is more than an academic exercise, a place to listen to music, or a nice spot to camp or an opportunity to lay naked in the sunshine. It is an exhale. It is the flowering of the self, an invitation to be everything you are in the most honest way you can. Women are emotionally and physically naked at Michigan. And the experience changes them.

Because women who attend Fest and Transwomen who want to all feel so strongly about it, the "womyn-born-womyn only" policy is one that's painful for all sides.

I say "Transwomen" and not "Transgender" inclusion because FTMs are very welcome at Michigan and often seem to be celebrated. I'm OK with that. I would be sad if my FTM Fest friends didn't show up every year.

But Transwomen who fully identify as women are left officially in the cold (though some still buy tickets and come onto the land every year, there is still a "womyn-born-womyn" policy).

The WBW policy is problematic, partly because it is so tough to enforce. It is similar, I think, to an imaginary "Lesbian-only" policy.

Michigan festie-goers are presumed to be Lesbian or Bisexual, but straight women attend and are welcome. We can imagine how much confusion a "Lesbian-born-Lesbian only" policy would cause. Is a woman who has never had sex with another woman welcome? How about a woman who recently came out after 20 years of marriage? Or a woman who identifies as a Lesbian but just slept last night with a man?

I think gender may be similar in that it is not as straightforward as we may have thought a couple of decades ago. There are people who are Intersexed. There are people who are androgynous. There are people who were born into bodies of the wrong gender. It is a muddle; it is a spectrum; and just as is true with sexual orientation, it is not clear where to draw the line.

For the most part, I think, Festival organizers and attendees understand this, which is why FTMs are still welcome at Michigan. But why, then, are Transwomen left out?

Well, maybe it's because some Lesbian communities tend to celebrate masculinity. We laud the tractor-driving, hard-muscled dyke, but dismiss the big-breasted, dress-wearing femme as someone who's worried about breaking a nail. And it makes sense that this sort of celebration of female masculinity may bleed over into who we let into women-only spaces.

More masculine people we want. More feminine people? Maybe not.

Some Michigan supporters of WBW will respond that what they don't like, actually, is the "masculine energy" they think Transwomen have. Others say that Transwomen are a parody of women, that they set feminism back.

I like what Kat Enyeart had to say about this on the Michigan forum (her quote is used with permission):

She calls it "Transmisogyny" and says it's a "double bind."

She writes, "When a Transwoman is loud, assertive, strong, tough, smart, butch, a top, or any other 'masculine' trait she is often seen as having male privilege and accused of taking up too much space; yet when a woman who is not Trans does the same thing she is celebrated as a strong woman, for taking back masculinity as something that women can possess as well as men."

But, she says, "When a woman who is being 'too feminine' is also Trans, her gender is often invalidated to the point of being labeled drag, fake, pathetic and inevitably a male who is simply trying too hard to be a woman."

I think this is true and worth thinking about.

I understand the deep-rooted fears that Festival Lesbians have about Transwomen.

They are afraid that Michigan might change fundamentally, that they will no longer feel as free or as profoundly understood; especially if they've been raped, they worry about male genitals making an appearance, or about men coming in drag to gape (or worse) at the Lesbians.

They worry about the energy of the place changing. They worry about change.

I understand all those things, and I worry about them, too.

But I also understand that one of the great gifts of the Festival is that it looks upon individual diversity with a warm and understanding eye. It is a place where you can meet someone completely different from yourself in class, color, education, religion - and still consider yourselves to be sisters.

I don't think that we will lose that if Transwomen are welcomed at Michigan. I think, instead, that our definition of sisterhood will be expanded.

Jennifer Vanasco is an award-winning, syndicated columnist. E-mail her at

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