Even I Make Mistakes

29 Jun 2015

A stranger (with whom I’ve since been corresponding) wrote this to me:

I'm having trouble putting into words how much I loved Galileo's Middle Finger. It's like every cell in my body suddenly decided to scream "yes" all at the same time. The one false note, though, was your description of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Talk about something that has been the victim of misrepresentation. There's no "admitting only women born women" and there's no "shunning" of transwomen—there's a request to acknowledge that growing up and moving in the world with a female body is an experience that deserves to be at the center of the festival. [Your] website contact form is not the best place to go into more detail about this, especially since I don't know if you will read it. However, the lies and distortions about the festival and its producer, and the threats that she sustained, are EXACTLY in line with the awesome book you wrote. Thanks again for writing it.

I always appreciate readers’ factual corrections on my work, but that’s even more true with this book since it argues for the importance of getting facts right. Still, I was at first surprised to read this . . . until I realized it would indeed exactly fit the pattern I document in the book.

First, let me quote the line from my book to which the reader is referring, on pp. 64-65:

“Some feminist groups, like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, still shun transgender women, admitting only ‘womyn born womyn.’“

Asked by me for some evidence that I had this wrong, the reader pointed me to a couple of pages posted at the Festival website by Lisa Vogel, founder. Take a look at this one from 2013, where we read:

…there have been disrespectful and dehumanizing behaviors on both sides of the debate that demean all of our feminist political ideals. We all must stand up against hate speech, harassment and threats in any form, against any individual and against all of our communities.

I passionately believe the healing in our community will occur when we unconditionally accept trans womyn as womyn while not dismissing or disavowing the lived experience and realities of the WBW [womyn born womyn] gender identity. Sadly, the extreme voices on this issue have driven much of the discussion, and the aggressive rhetoric leaves little room for building the alliances that are critical to everyone’s survival, growth and integrity.

Then there’s this one from 2014:

We have said that this space, for this week, is intended to be for womyn who were born female, raised as girls and who continue to identify as womyn. This is an intention for the spirit of our gathering, rather than the focus of the festival. It is not a policy, or a ban on anyone. We do not “restrict festival attendance to cisgendered womyn, prohibiting trans women” as was recently claimed in several Advocate articles. We do not and will not question anyone’s gender. Rather, we trust the greater queer community to respect this intention, leaving the onus on each individual to choose whether or how to respect it. Ours is a fundamental and respectful feminist statement about who this gathering is intended for, and if some cannot hear this without translating that into a “policy”, “ban” or a “prohibition”, this speaks to a deep-seated failure to think outside of structures of control that inform and guide the patriarchal world.

What this suggests to me is that the Festival organizers have not—at least in the last few years—had a policy, ban, or prohibition on transgender women or men, but have instead stated what the intention is (to create a special space “for womyn who were born female, raised as girls and who continue to identify as womyn”) and have asked people to respect it.

Is asking someone to respect such an intention transphobic? I am having a hard time seeing how it is. When I go to certain support groups for intersex people, there are sometimes special sessions for sharing personal histories. The organizers always make clear these sessions are intended for persons who were born intersex, and for that reason, I don’t attend those sessions, even when a few participants encourage me to attend so that I can hear the experiences of those born intersex. By not being included in the intended audience, I don’t feel I am being shunned or treated in a phobic fashion. I think I’m just being asked to recognize that our experiences of oppression are different and require different safe spaces.

Over the years I’ve tended to think of the festival’s “policy” as weirdly essentialist. In fact, the line in my book right after the one I quoted amounts to this bit of sarcasm: “So much for Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that ‘women are not born, but made.’” My assumption was that the WBW policy of the festival was marking WBW as “true” women and transwomen as false women.

But I now think I had it backwards. The WBW “intention” refers specifically to the life history of cisgendered women like myself—born female, raised as girls, and continuing to identify as women. The insistence on the part of some transgender women that this construction excludes them seems to want instead an essentialist idea of femininity that is about “brain sex,” not about lived experience.

In any case, the “intention” as it has existed at least for the last few years certainly isn’t a policy of “admitting only ‘womyn born womyn” as I described in my book, so I have that factually wrong. I’ll see if I can get it corrected in the paperback version.

I will just add I think it is impossible to understand this history without understanding autogynephilia and the tensions the non-acknowledgement of it has caused in so many realms. (NB: This year will be the last y ear of the festival according to Curve.)

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