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The Debate

What makes you a woman?

A uterus? Well, then what happens to women who have hysterectomies?

XX chromosomes? Then are we to require genetic testing for admission into women's space? And what happens with all the women who discover that they don't have XX chromosomes after all?

The absence of a penis? Well, that's easily arranged for all kinds of people that don't identify as women.

Breasts? What about people who have to have mastectomies? Or women who are naturally flat-chested?

Do we insist that women have to be born that way, or be living that way now? One allows transmen to be in women's space, the other transwomen, and there are people who object to both of those options. But then, what about the people who insist on recognizing the shared experiences of people raised as female - or those of people living as female now? And how do you enforce any of this - insist that people drop their pants, or get groped, or....

And on, and on, and on. These are a few of the arguments facing the organizers of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival every August, as they struggle to find a policy that will... well, let them exclude transwomen, actually.

It is a raging argument all year round. And of course, because "Michigan" has such a long and distinguished history and is such a life-changing place for many women, many people who oppose the festival's policies go anyway. And many transgendered people of all kinds attend, one way or another.

The crowds at Michigan are generally supposed to be trans-friendly, as opposed to the organizers. Tribe 8 played there for the second time in 2003, despite the fact that at least one of their members now identifies as trans. But another option has arisen out of those fighting to change the festival's policy of "women-born women only": Camp Trans.

The History

Camp Trans was formed in 1994 to protest the festival's policy of excluding transwomen, after two years of protests resulting from the festival's explusion of a woman named Nancy Burkholder. She was ejected in 1991, and later wrote that,

At the 1992 festival, a small group of women (including at least one transsexual) set up a literature table to provide information about gender issues, posted "gender myths" in the portajanes, gave away buttons asking "Where's Nancy?" and raised questions, listened, and talked to women for hours. Four workshops were offered about transsexualism and about MWMF policy. Security women were questioned about whether they would expel a transsexual. A survey was conducted to find out what participants thought about including transsexuals. Nearly three-quarters of respondents thought transsexuals should be welcome.... Survey results were sent to festival producers and a response requested, but none has been received.
When Festival organizers published information in advance of the 1993 festival, it ignored the issue entirely. That year, four transsexual woman and a group of allies came to the Festival to continue their education, but were thrown out. They camped out across the way instead. 75 women ended up coming to their workshops, and 200 stopped by just to show their support. And in 1994, they organized the camp ahead of time and called it Camp Trans.

In 1999 it returned, co-run by the Transexual Menace and GenderPAC, and assisted by the Lesbian Avengers. According to GenderPAC,

"....the stars of Camp Trans 1999 were the Chicago Lesbian Avengers who, in support of an inclusive MWMF went toe-to-toe with angry lesbian-separatists intent on harassing the trans-contingent out of the festival grounds. The Avengers provided moral and physical support of the activists, escorting them through the grounds and engaging in group shouting matches with indignant separatists."
(It is important, however, to note that separatism is not the issue here: there are many trans-supportive and trans-identified separatists of all sexualities.)

The Transexual Menace let it go after that, but the Boston Lesbian Avengers (who have many transgendered members) brought it back. It has since become an annual event roughly half a mile down the road from the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival.

The Actions

Over the last few years it has turned into an event in its own right. It offers workshops, one communal vegetarian meal a day, and the opportunity to meet and bond with other transgendered and trans-friendly people away from the rest of the world, as well as networking and organizing practice. Camp Trans attendees also spend a lot of time "working the line" at the MWMF, telling Festival-goers about the policy.

There is even a comic zine entitled "Welcome to Camp Trans" which explains the history of women's spaces and the importance of letting people define their own gender.

To many outsiders, the issue seems to be one of ontological and linguistic nitpicking. However, festival-goers on both sides of the fence often experience it as a visceral attack on their identity, their community, and their safety. Many MWMF attendees who support the policy perceive it as outsiders attempting to twist their policies and co-opt their space. They are understandably tired of not being able to simply run off to the woods with a bunch of women without being constantly attacked as if doing anything without men were insane and illegal. Unfortunately, as Stacy Montgomery-Scott, author of the above-mentioned zine, writes, "To put it plainly, at the root of all this is the idea that transwomen are, well, men."

The 2004 Outreach Coordinator for Camp Trans, Julia Serano, has explained that the policy of this extremely public and well-known festival affects her all year round: "The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival is the largest women's only space in the world, and it really sets a precedent that it is okay to exclude trans women from whatever space they are in.... Over the last few years, living as an out trans woman, I have seen a lot of ramifications in my everyday life in the queer community in Michigan. I find myself as a trans woman in the queer woman's community constantly explaining myself and my identity."

While discussion of this policy generally focuses on the exclusion of transwomen, the festival also excludes transmen. Organizers and attendees state that sometimes FTMs change their minds, transition back, or simply choose to "live as women" for a week to attend the festival; they are opposed to this, as they (for some reason) recognize FTMs as men and don't want men attending the women-only festival. So far, I have not seen any arguments on the subject which recognize the existence of genderqueer-identified people, or for that matter which recognize the impossibility and rudeness of assuming someone's gender identity.

References:

  • http://lesbianavengers.org: The Boston branch of the Lesbian Avengers
  • http://www.butchdykeboy.com/zines/wtsct: Welcome to Camp Trans zine online
  • http://eminism.org/michigan/faq-protest.html: Frequently Asked Questions about the MWMF/Camp Trans history.
  • http://groups.google.com/groups?selm=BZ4s3B2w164w%40cellar.org&output=gplain: Nancy Burkholder's history of the event.
  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/camp_trans: An open group of people who want to be involved in planning Camp Trans and "ending the policy of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival that bars transsexual woman from attending and sets a transphobic standard for women-only organizations and support services across the country."