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Friday, September 3, 2010

Transitions In Radical Feminist Space - Exciting Prospects For Inclusion (2006)

From Slinghot issue 92

Sailor J Lewis Wallace

This was originally composed as a letter to members of my extended transfeminist community to fill them in on the events of Camp Trans/Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (MWMF) this August. I was at both festivals this year, and this was my eight year attending either Camp Trans or MWMF. These views do not represent the views of Camp Trans.

For the first time since official trans exclusion began at the festival in the early nineties, an out transsexual woman purchased a ticket and went into the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival without resistance from festival organizers or attendees. Across the street, Camp Trans had its own cultural festival of workshops, musicians, poets, trans and non-trans attendees of all genders, and celebrated its 16th year of protest and culture!

Did the trans exclusion policy of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival change? Is trans exclusion over?

I am sure in the year to come that much discussion will ensue within the broader queer and feminist community connected to Camp Trans and the MWMF about the festival's longstanding policy excluding trans people and specifying MWMF as a space for 'womyn-born-womyn' only. Here is what I believe to be the bottom line:

Trans womyn attended the festival this year without harassment, and the policy is no longer being enforced, by Festival organizers or participants. An out transsexual woman also gave a workshop on trans inclusion inside the festival for a group of about 60 womyn and the "Yellow Armbands", a group of feminist trans allies at the MWMF, organized within the festival all week for visibility of trans issues and inclusion of trans women. As far as I know, Camp Trans will no longer be explicitly protesting the policy. Trans people and allies will be at both the Festival and Camp Trans next year because the majority of the womyn at Festival are open to the presence of trans folks at festival, open to the fact that the times are a-changin', and open to a deeper dialogue about feminism, transfeminism, oppression and inclusion in womyn's spaces. It won't be easy, but it is happening. After all these years of fighting and debating, the transphobic status quo that once supported excluding transwomyn from womyn's spaces is no longer as powerful. The written policy, the word of Lisa Vogel and the potential vehemence of a few transphobes at the festival, simply do not matter as much as they once did. Transphobia in this womyn's community holds less weight now, and the tides are turning in this small corner of the radical world. A weight is slowly being lifted and this is a gift to all of us who have invested time and energy into building feminist space for so many years. Trans womyn are womyn, and we hope they will finally be welcomed as such in the coming years at the Festival.

I think it's important not to frame this issue in terms of a Camp trans victory over the Festival, or an end to the Festival as it has been. This change represents a positive advancement in the ability of different sectors of queer and feminist community to work together. It represents something positive for the future of both camps. It's time to celebrate that together.

Okay, so why does this whole thing matter?

1. The festival matters: The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival is the largest and longest-standing radical, feminist, womyn's separatist space in the world. Festival leaders have been consciously excluding womyn who identify as trans from their space for about 15 years, leading to a huge and divisive controversy in feminist and queer communities all over the US and some parts of the world.

2. Trans people matter: We are strong, amazing, influential people just looking for a place to be. Trans people negotiate a painful and direct marginalization on a daily basis to varying degrees in this culture. For most of us, just as many lesbians have experienced, there is no place to go, very little support, and no such thing as 'trans-friendly-anything' in the daily world we walk through. We are forced to isolate pieces of our identity and hide pieces of our past and present at almost all times, for many reasons. We spend so much time trying to prove our validity it's virtually suffocating. Transwomyn experience oppression from multiple angles as womyn in the world who also have a unique and marginalized experience as trans.

3. Unity matters: Spaces like Camp Trans and the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival are meant to be a breath of fresh air for people who live lives that are stifled by this kind of marginalization. Ideally, they give us strength to go back out in the world and engage in our fights for survival and justice. Many of us are part of struggle in various sectors of a left-wing progressive or radical movement to change the conditions of our lives and of many people's lives globally. Feminism and a struggle against heterosexism and transphobia are an integral part of building strength in this movement, and unity amongst womyn, trans and queer people and all feminists is about as important as it has ever been. We are living in a politically devastating time, fighting an uphill battle. It is desperately important right now to be fighting racism, transphobia, sexism, classism, and all forms of oppression that divide us within our movements, in order to build stronger unified fronts against the people who truly hate us, and hate all of us. The right wing in this country wants us to be divided, and they love that we fight with each other as much as we do. The divide between Camp Trans and the MWMF has long represented an extremely painful rift experienced by many womyn and trans folk, and the bitterness that is born out of never having a place of calm or a space to be slightly safer from everyday harassment. It is far easier, sadly, to tear each other to shreds than it is to build inclusive, radical safer spaces, even for a week out of the year. The growing ability to build feminist space together and to challenge and overcome transphobic fear within this space is hugely important in a broader political context. This doesn't mean that oppressive attitudes within radical feminism are over, but it allows an example of a time when oppressive attitudes have been challenged and changed. The spaces we've been building for so long exist intact, and we grow stronger every year.

4. Healing matters: Even those who are uncomfortable with the idea of trans womyn at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival must understand that this moment is a positive one, and one of healing. This uncomfortable moment will invariably mean growth. This piece of land and community of people in Western Michigan will support that growth to happen, for all who are involved. After seven years of participating in this fight, and ten years of connection to MWMF, I can say for the first time that I feel an immense amount of trust in Camp Trans and in the Festival. All I want is a space that is larger than a closet to chill in for a week. Gimme a field. Gimme some woods. Give it to me on my beautiful home turf of Michigan. And give it to my friends, who ARE WOMYN, who are feminists, who are part of this community.

What should we be talking about in our communities and preparing for next year?

The rumor mill works fast and a number of contradicting stories are in circulation regarding the events of this year. Please don't focus too hard on the details around the two trans womyn admitted this year--very few people were present and therefore very few people can speak accurately to those details. Take my personal recommendations instead!:

Let's talk about how Camp Trans, the Yellow Armbands, and a large amount of MWMF workers and attendees are looking forward to welcoming trans people onto the land next year, and beginning to truly work together to support the existence of another trans-inclusive womyn-only space. Let's talk about how happy this coalition of womyn and allies are, to be creating a more inclusive version of womyn's community that no longer excludes some of the most invisible and marginalized womyn who walk this planet. This is part of our path to healing, radical, feminist community.

If you have been boycotting the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival because of its trans inclusion policy, next year is the year to GO BACK TO THE FESTIVAL! For MWMF to work towards a genuine, grassroots trans inclusion, trans people and allies need to be there in full force, starting next year, from now on. The policy didn't go away, but its message is no longer the most important message. Folks with a better message need to be there to push this change along.

If you have participated in Camp Trans in past years, or always wanted to go, GO BACK next year! Camp Trans needs feminist, anti-racist trans folks and allies to continue building a space in those woods that can support political development, cultural festivities, and a continued relationship with the MWMF as the Festival's gates open up to the people who've been camping across the road. These coming years have been a long time coming and they are going to be some of the most challenging, and most celebratory years these spaces will see. Come on down and get a piece of the action.

Congratulations everyone, we are real!

Five years ago at Camp Trans I think it was hard for most of us to imagine that things were really going to change, and change so fast. Many people gave up or stopped participating for personal or political reasons. If you are not able to be in Michigan for any number of reasons, celebrate. Talk it up. Start talking it up now and talk it up until next year. Camp Trans and anti-transphobia allies at MWMF have ushered in a turning of the tides, through a lot of real, concrete work. It didn't fall out of the sky; boycotts, educational campaigns, media work, and endless heartfelt conversations for many years have built this change. Tell everyone how proud you are that people in your extended feminist community have pushed a true paradigm shift in the last fifteen years. Keep on working for change in your communities and keep on believing that change is going to come, and it won't fall from the sky (how nice would that be?) it will be created and cultivated by real people like us.

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