Prejudice By Any Other Name

The Michigan Womyn's Festival Insults the Transgender Community.  Again.

Posted August 26, 2006


The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (MWMF) is a popular annual all-women's event featuring well-known women musicians and performers from around the world.  It bills itself as "an amazing cross-generational multi-cultural event for womyn", and boasts to be "uncompromisingly counter-culturally radical".  Each year it attracts thousands of attendees for a unique weekend of camping, music, and bonding all framed towards this one-of-a-kind celebration of womyn-hood.  It is also known for its long-standing policy of refusing to admit trans-women to the event.  In fact, if you look up it's entry on Wikipedia you'll notice that as much space is taken to explain the policy of transgender exclusion as is taken to describe the event itself. 

Each year a group of trans-women challenges this long-standing policy.  They establish "Camp Trans" across from the event and attempts to purchase a ticket for the event.  Each year they are refused.  In past years, "stealth" transwomen have attended the event undetected by flying under the radar and have lived to tell their tale.  It is with more than a little irony that the phrase "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" immediately comes to mind.  Nonetheless, this policy of rejection towards trans women has been in place and in force since the event was started.

This year, however, surprise of surprises: event organizers did sell a ticket to an openly transgender woman.  Further, the organization made an official policy change statement indicating that it had changed it's "Women Born Women" only policy.  Dated this past week - Aug. 21 - this was big news.  It MADE the news.  Some hailed it as a true "Milestone in Trans Acceptance".  If it were actually true - it truly would have been. 

Sadly, by the end of the week event organizers were falling all over themselves as they quickly back-pedaled.  They clarified their stand by saying that although they would sell a transgender woman a ticket, they asked us not to come (Read it here).  They emphasized that the only people welcome at the event are "women who were born as and have lived their entire life experience as women."  Their follow-up statement went even further, stating that "If a transwoman purchased a ticket, it represents nothing more than that woman choosing to disrespect the stated intention of this Festival."  Ouch.  It seems to me that this is nothing more than an effort to shift responsibility from the organizers of the event to transwomen now being labeled as disrespectful for having the audacity to actually attend.  Rather than explicitly banning transwomen, they're asking transwomen to ban themselves.  This is somehow better?  You've got to be kidding.

What's the difference between those laying the gauntlet at the entry gates of this festival and self-appointed guardians of womanhood who would guard the bathroom door to stop trans-people from entering uniquely "woman's" space?  Nothing.  It's two sides of the same coin.  It's people sitting in judgment of others who are in no position to do so.  It's an opportunity for those who feel empowered to speak on behalf of ALL women to inflict their personal fears, prejudices, and small mindedness on others.  Frankly, trans women should be celebrated for their courage, their tenacity, and their incredible spirit.  Instead, we find ourselves fighting yet another battle for acceptance - defending our authenticity and our dignity from attack by those we would consider friends.  

What would happen if event organizers adopted a Whites-born-White policy that refused admittance for African Americans, Hispanics or anyone who was judged to be un-White?  Such a policy would be attacked from all sides as unconscionable and hateful.  There's no other word for this than what it really is - Prejudice.  Pure and simple.  There can be no sugar coating it.  Somehow, when it comes to bathrooms, or to events, or to organizations - the Trans-factor seems to overshadow the true motivations at work or, even worse, to justify it in the minds of some as being acceptable..  People in positions of  perceived power continue to feel empowered to use the trans card as justification to treat us badly, to segregate us, to disrespect us. Once we strip the sensationalized frosting from the cake we can expose what's really at play - it becomes clear and unmistakable.  This kind of treatment is unconditionally unacceptable in other contexts.  And it's totally unacceptable here. 

During my recent interview with XM Radio I was asked whether I felt that the trans community and the GLB community was one big happy queer family.  I candidly shared my view that we've still got a long, long way to go.  The initial reports of the supposed policy change at MWMF seemed to indicate that  another step of progress towards acceptance and inclusion had been made.  By the end of the week, however, the hasty clarification served as an effective slap in the face to demonstrate that there really is no change here.  In the minds of many, even within the gay and lesbian community, we're not considered true men or women.  This kind of continued narrow-mindedness isn't localized to the leaders at MWMF.  It's everywhere, even among those who are leaders inside the GLB community in one capacity or another.   Unfortunately, these missteps do far more harm than good to demonstrate that we can't even accept (or even tolerate) one another.  How can we expect others to do so? 

It can be argued that every major national GLBT organization has changed its mission statement to become explicitly trans inclusive.  This is true.  More and more corporations are adopting policy that is more fully inclusive.  This is all great news and I think we need to celebrate those victories and the progress it represents.  Does that somehow mean that the organizations themselves are fully accepting and inclusive.  Far from it.  Some feel far more like the "You're included but you're not invited" approach so effectively demonstrated by MWMF than an open invitation to those who are gender gifted.  Just because a company or an organization has established a policy that explicitly supports trans inclusion does that somehow mean that the culture itself is accepting?  No way.  Bad things still happen, and they'll continue to happen for as long as hateful people think they can get away with it.

As for MWMF - I can't wait to see their next policy change.  There are any number of unique and interesting ways that they can continue to disrespect and marginalize transwomen.  Next up - Only passable transwomen are invited.  Or, perhaps they'll establish a Vagina Gestapo to ensure that only those with natural-born vaginas are allowed to enter.  I'm thinking that a quick DNA test for each attendee could be in order.  Or,  they could adopt a new policy to unconditionally invite transwomen into the Festival, but we're just not allowed to use the bathrooms.  It might get a little messy, but I suppose it could work.

In case any of the organizers are concerned: I wouldn't attend this thing if they sent me a gold plated ticket and gave me a Barco Lounger right on stage, so they have no need to fear that this trans-woman will "disrespect" them.  The fact is, based on this kind of wishy-washy thinly disguised prejudice I never respected them in the first place. They owe our entire community an apology.  Perhaps then we can talk about respect.