Guest post by Sapphocles
Last year, I sent the following directly to Lisa Vogel as well as posting it to the MichFest and Facebook Womyn MichFest boards. I got loads of supportive responses from individual women, but nothing from Lisa, unless you count the shutting down of any discussion of this issue on the “official” MichFest boards as a sort of response. Or the blind eye that the she and the other organizers seem willing to turn toward Scout and other long-time Festies who have gotten caught up in the whole trans* delusion. As much as I hate to admit it, MichFest no longer feels like safe space to me.
I am posting this partly because I need to share my non-experience of MichFest this year, and partly because I know I’m not the only one who had these kinds of thoughts and feelings. My reactions may have been a bit more extreme than most, but I suspect that is only in a canary-in-the-coal-mine kind of way.
First, a little background.
I am a butch lesbian who has never had the option of passing as anything else. As a kid, I was made fun of for my size and my total lack of “feminine” traits. As an adult, I’ve been mistaken for a man more times than I can count, including once when I was accosted in a Mississippi casino by a male security guard who followed me into the ladies’ room because another woman thought I didn’t belong there.
Like far too many of us, I have a history of childhood abuse. In my case, though, the perpetrators were primarily women: a psychotic live-in grandmother who violated my body in many sadistic ways, an alcoholic mother who was herself too damaged to intervene or even acknowledge what was happening, and a female teacher who sexually exploited me when I accepted her offer of help with my family issues. That teacher was the first in a series of self-identified “straight” women with whom I became romantically involved, always on the condition that I attempt to suppress and/or disguise my butch identity as much as possible, at least in public, and that we not name ourselves lesbians, even to ourselves.
In the late 1980s, when the last of these relationships ended, I attempted suicide, and ended up in the psych unit of a Catholic hospital. Improbably enough, my life began to turn around when a pastoral counselor in this hospital gave me a book by Mary Daly, and told me that he thought embracing my lesbian feminist identity would be key not only to my recovery, but also to my survival. Slowly, I began to discover the womyn’s community and assume a place in it.
Although I had heard from friends that MichFest was a place like no other, it wasn’t until I actually set foot on the land that I understood the truth of this statement. For the first time in my life, I had the experience of being in a place where I was assumed without question to be a woman. Until then, I didn’t have any idea how invisible and unsafe I felt every single day, simply walking through the world. While I also felt the relief that I have heard other womyn talk about in relation to the threat of male violence, it was the basic validation of my butch female self that was so incredibly liberating for me. I returned a half-dozen times in the 1990s, and my experiences at Fest played a huge part in the healing that occurred as I became first comfortable and then proud to be a radical semi-separatist lesbian feminist.
Several years ago, I returned to Michigan after a decade-long absence in which other forms of self-exploration had for me taken precedence over Fest. I was surprised that the energy was so palpably different from what I remembered, but I attributed this to a combination of my having aged and so many of the younger women having been steeped in post-modernism and the queer/gender theory that I had by then come to regard as too silly to be harmful in any lasting way.
Living in a university town, I had also become aware that my opinions and attitudes about trans issues are no longer politically correct. Distilled perhaps to the point of oversimplification, my belief is that people who identify as trans are attempting to solve the wrong problem — that trying to change such an immutable characteristic as their biological sex rather than challenge the constructs of what it means to be male or female in a patriarchal society cannot possibly resolve the very real dysphoria they experience. At the same time, I believe that trying to solve the wrong problem is not only a right that we all have, but something that most of us do in the process of becoming who we are. I am not transphobic; I do, however, feel entitled to think of transfolk as other than womyn, and to assert that boundary in attempting to preserve what little womyn-only space remains in our culture. I also believe that transmisogyny is real, rampant, and as unacceptable as any other form of violence against womyn.
Last year, this issue became much more personal for me. At the Festival, I was surprised by how quickly and completely the feeling of safety I have always felt on the land evaporated as a result of the Night Stage demonstration and, to a lesser extent, the various acts of vandalism that occurred during the week. After the Festival, my fear turned to anger as I learned more about the pressure that many young butch women are now under to transition, and about what I’ve come to think of as a Transgender Borg that has slowly but surely co-opted each of the footholds that we “second-wave” feminists struggled so hard to establish, particularly in academia. Not only are we are losing a whole generation of butch womyn, but every transition further marginalizes those of us who have spent much of our lives learning that being butch and being female are not mutually exclusive.
This year, I was thrilled that so many womyn were willing to stand in support of the Festival intention, and I looked forward to meeting some of the like-minded womyn I felt I had come to know through the MichFest boards and the Womyn MichFest group. I was excited that there would be a very visible way of expressing support for maintaining the space that we have built for ourselves, and that many womyn were no longer feeling it necessary to remain silent in the interest of being nice, making others comfortable, and/or shielding themselves against the slander of transphobia.
But then, a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to Fest. I had no sooner arrived than I began to experience some of the most severe symptoms of PTSD I have ever had. Because of the nature of the abuse I suffered as a child, my PTSD symptoms are not ones that can easily be managed in an environment like Fest. They are, however, ones that I have finally learned strategies for handling. Since I was pretty sure I could get things back under control, I suggested that my friend go on without me, with the understanding that I’d stay in a hotel in Ludington and come in to the Festival as soon as I was able.
Tuesday turned into Wednesday turned into Friday turned into Sunday, and still I could not get to a place where I felt safe and confident enough about being able to care for myself on the land. Unlike the handful of other times I have been incapacitated by such symptoms, this time there was no obvious trigger, only that this very charged Festival was under way. As I attempted to process what was going on for me with my therapist and a non-Festie friend, I began to understand better what my triggers were. In part, my fear was that, as a single butch womyn who prefers to camp away from the crowds and noise of “downtown,” I would be an obvious target for any trans activists who were seeking confrontations. I was also afraid, though, that if I did encounter any problems I might not be able to get the help I needed from other womyn on the land. In the context of so many transfolk and their allies openly violating the boundaries, I could no longer trust that someone as butch as I would be recognized as female by other womyn. Not only would this have been unthinkable to me when I had come to Fest in the past, but it replicated my childhood trauma far too closely for me to be able to work through it in time to come into this year’s Festival. To feel suspect on this sacred land in the same way that I have no choice but to live in the rest of the world was not something I felt able to tolerate.
Hearing about the “Wanted” posters developed and other efforts that were made during the week specifically to reach out to womyn like me gives me hope that I will be able to find a way to come back next year and once again feel safe at Fest. Sharing my experience is one step in this process. Another is asking those of you who are on the fence to consider that transfolk are not the only ones who have issues related to inclusion when it comes to MichFest. And, unfortunately, this is one of those issues for which there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. The real question is not whether you are trans-positive or transphobic, but whether you support trans inclusion that by definition comes at the expense of butch lesbians like me.