Every August since 1976, a music festival has taken place near Hart, in Michigan. This festival is organised, built, staffed, and attended exclusively by women, and over the years has grown in size. It now receives a turn-out of thousands of women each year.
(Brief aside): The festival uses the word ‘Womyn’ rather than ‘Woman’ in order to reflect the feminist idea of female independence from patriarchal language structures. That ‘man’ is still used as an indefinite pronoun (eg. ‘It’s one small step for man’), alternative spellings such as womyn, wimmin, wom!n, etc., both highlight and resist reference to women from a male baseline or norm.
Sadly, due to the way the festival is run, what could be an empowering event for all women is actively discriminatory. The Michigan Womyn’s Festival is for ‘womyn-born womyn’ – excluding women who were DMAB (designated male at birth).
How do the organizers of the festival justify this? Below I tackle some of the most common arguments I found for the trans woman excluding policy.
Photograph by James Cridland
1. ‘Trans women don’t grow up being read by people as girls, and so don’t have an embodied experience of the patriarchy in the same way as womyn-born-womyn.’
One woman’s experience of oppression is never going to be the same as that of another woman, I think we can agree. Everyone’s life experiences are unique, and there is no clear, unifying ‘female experience’. The closest thing one could reasonably claim to be shared by all women is the possession of a female gender identity – which trans women have. Many trans women indeed have declared that they have felt their gender identities in this way for their entire lives, though I think it’s important to note that one’s gender identity isn’t made ‘less legitimate’ through being questioned by oneself at any particular time (would a cis woman be any less of a woman if she has questioned her gender identity at any point in her life?). Women of colour, disabled women, and other groups besides will experience ‘being women’ in different yet entirely valid ways to the white, upper-middle class, cis, educated narratives that dominated much of the discourse of second wave feminism from whence such a philosophy originates.
Also, many trans women do have much direct experience of sexism and patriarchy, through being read as cis women by those around them. Based on the arguments above, this should not be read to imply that a more normative, ‘feminine’ appearance is to be viewed as a more legitimate form of woman. Trans women often face horrendous barriers to being taken seriously as women, which involves interplay between patriarchy and cissexism. This cannot be meaningfully separated out, and thus there is serious room for the argument that all trans women have an acute embodied experience of the patriarchy.
2. ‘Trans women have experience of male privilege.’
So do trans men, and yet they are welcome at the MWMF. Oh yes. These are individuals who identify as men, present as men, are men, and are afforded male privilege, yet still have access to the festival. This not only makes the claim of the festival being for ‘womyn-born womyn’ downright false (at best, it’s for ‘womyn-designated anyone’) but also firmly undermines the arguments put forward in points 4 and 5.
Experience of a particular type of privilege isn’t someone’s fault, it is simply something to be born in mind. A white womyn should bear in mind her race privilege. Able-bodied/minded womyn should be aware of their privilege compared to disabled womyn. If a person was not always (seen as) disabled, does that make them ‘less disabled’? No. This is an imperfect comparison, and is purely illustrative – certainly one cannot simplistically claim that how a person has been viewed by others strips them of the legitimacy of their identity. This is to erase their identity, using one’s own privilege to do so. Does the genital configuration of one womyn give her the right to claim womyn who are different to her are not womyn? No. And indeed, doing so is the very definition of ‘cis privilege’ – where sex designated at birth is presumed more legitimate than that which is identified, and lived.
3. ‘Oppressed people have the right to make their own safe spaces in the way they wish, without explanation.’
Well, that depends on where you are and what you’re doing. For example the extreme-right wing, racist, sexist, and homophobic UK political party the BNP was forced to change its constitution to accept people of colour. This was an obvious example of a group discriminating (illegally) against racial minorities. Whilst MWMF may not have breached Michigan or US law, this is still an example of a privileged majority (cis women) excluding a marginalized minority. The fact that cis women experience marginalization and discrimination doesn’t justify their performance of oppression in the name of safe space creation. The argument rests on viewing trans women as not being ‘real’ women. The very existence of the identity category ‘womyn-born-womyn’ makes the political statement that there are womyn who weren’t ‘born womyn’, and that they are therefore ‘other’. This ‘othering’ sets up a false dichotomy, that there are two distinct categories, those ‘born womyn’ and those not, and that your validity as a womyn is decided based on which category you fall into. I have written about the flaws with attempts to define identity based on biology here.
Lisa Vogel, the founder of MWMF has said this about the festival:
Supporting womyn-born womyn space is no more inherently transphobic than supporting womyn of color space is racist.
Except this draws a false parallel… unless you refuse to accept trans women as being women at all. It’s more like supporting a women of colour space that decides that women of colour with one white parent don’t count, because their appearance and experience may be different. Attempting to say ‘oh you are a woman, but you don’t fulfill this sub-definition we’ve created for inclusion in our space’ fundamentally discriminates against a minority, rather than providing a safe space from a majority, or oppressive influence.
4. ‘Many womyn-born-womyn have been the victims of sexual assault and rape at the hands of men. These women may feel threatened by the presence of trans women.’
This argument could implicitly rest one any of several potential meanings. One interpretation may be ‘these women may feel threatened by trans women who possess penises and are capable of penetrative rape, or cause triggering simply through the presence of the organ’. At MWMF, phallic sex toys are visibly for sale, and there are workshops pertaining to much sexual activity, ranging from masturbation to fisting. As has already been mentioned, trans men are allow allowed to be present who not only may possess a penis but may also present entirely unambiguously as male. What this therefore says is that trans men are not a sexual threat in terms of their ‘maleness’, but that trans women are. This erases the legitimacy of both group’s gender identities – trans men are ‘other’ from cis men by this understanding.
This claim could imply that a cis woman’s discomfort is more valid than a trans woman’s right to be recognised. This would sound utterly unacceptable if presented in terms of race – ‘a white woman who has received abuse at the hands of a black woman may feel threatened by the presence of black women’ is not a reasonable argument for the exclusion of black women, and that’s without the fact that one is implying that trans woman = man = rape.
Is the implication that one can ‘spot’ a trans woman through their appearance, which could be ‘male and threatening’? I’ll let the images below cover this one.
Jenna Talakova, and Buck Angel. Guess which one would be allowed entry to Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival? Hint: it’s not the woman. How the festival actually establishes the men they allow entrance are trans, I have no idea. Also to my knowledge, neither Jenna nor Buck have ever had any association with MWMF, and this point is purely illustrative.
Note: I’d like to reiterate that appearance is not a good justification for legitimizing or erasing a person’s gender identity. The images of the people above who experience and exhibit being female and being male in visually normative ways simply help to highlight the absurdity of the classification system used by the organizers of the festival.
The account of Alice Kalafarski tells of a trans woman’s experience at MWMF, highlighting how upsetting and offensive WBW arguments really are – and can be read here.
5. ‘Allowing trans women to enter would allow men to put on dresses and claim a female gender identity and enter the space.’
Men already enter the space. This is apparently okay though, simply because they were designated female at birth. Accommodation is also (rightly) made for male children, so long as they’re 10 years old or younger. Crucially though, this argument rests upon a ‘slippery slope’ based logic (or lack thereof). This is the assertion that:
If we allow A to happen, then B will happen too! Therefore, A should not happen.
This does not address the issue at hand, but derails the voice for trans women to be recognized as much as cis women by shifting attention to a hypothetical claim with no basis for concern.
As Alice Kalafarski’s account details, MWMF does seem to form strong, laudable policies regarding acceptance and awareness of race and ability. That there are apparently plenty of people who attend the festival and make a point of sporting ‘Trans Women Belong Here’ T-shirts and buttons doesn’t seem to have changed the situation, and in my eyes only problematises the sincerity of a trans ally who will declare a disgust with policy and yet still willingly engage with it. I will leave you with a powerful quote from the ever-eloquent Julia Serano:
My female identity is regularly reduced to a “debate” by non-trans queer women who would rather spend a week with their friends in Michigan than examining their own cissexual privilege. What’s even more disappointing to me is that there are a lot of FTM spectrum people out there who do the very same thing. They hypocritically expect their friends, families and co-workers to respect their male- or genderqueer-identities for 51 weeks out of the year, then for that one week at MWMF they take advantage of cissexual privilege (which presumes that one’s “birth sex” is more legitimate than one’s identified and lived sex) in order to enter women-only space. Their insistence on “having it both ways” marginalizes me as a trans woman: it delgitimizes my female identity in both the lesbian and the transgender communities of which I am a part.