allies: the good, the bad, and the womyn who made it work

Of the workshops on offer at Michfest, there was one particular series I was interested to attend, and that was a week-long intensive focused on the intention vs. inclusion debate that so frequently divides womyn who would otherwise make the pilgrimage to the Land. While I didn’t end up reversing my initial opinion (not that I ever expected to) I did get a lot out of it and feel it was one of the best organized workshops I attended all week. That being said, it hardly went off a few without roadblocks along the way, so here are the ups and the downs of the Allies in Understanding workshops as I experienced them.

The series ran from Tuesday to Saturday, always one of the earliest meetings of the day, so I made the extra effort to get to bed with enough time to wake up early; I only ended up missing one session mid-week following a particularly rowdy evening at the night stage. The trio of womyn running the workshop did a fantastic job doing what they set out to do, which was create  a safe environment where womyn of varying perspectives could come together and hear one another. It was, far and away, the most respectful iteration of the debate I’ve ever encountered. Womyn, regardless of where they fell on the issue, gathered together and spoke their truths without fear of being attacked for it. Womyn from a variety of viewpoints held space for one another, heard one another, and hopefully came away with a broader understanding of their sisters. And we accomplished all of it without ever hauling out hateful slurs or threats of violence, both of which I’ve encountered tenfold in every other venue that’s attempted to hold this conversation.  Anywhere else I’ve seen womyn express positive feelings toward Michfest’s intention, or the intention of any female-only space, and even among womyn I’ve seen who do not support the intention but are open to discussing it,  there are only two outcomes: outright harassment of the womyn involved and/or total shut down of any dialogue being had, leaving womyn from all sides feeling unheard and confused.

As someone with a history of being open to having this discussion, and more importantly as someone who has suffered negative consequences for having done so, I had low expectations for this workshop but I have to say I stand happily corrected. The organizers were dedicated to safety and respect, they laid out firm groundwork for having this conversation in an open manner, and they were sure everyone got to speak genuinely. They had thought-provoking exercises to engage us with, in groups and pairs and on our own, to challenge our thoughts and help us navigate where our sisters with differing views were coming from. They clearly had put a lot of effort and heart into creating that space, and they did an outstanding job of it.

I say all this first because the rest of this post is geared toward “the other stuff”, the hurdles and the stumbles. I don’t want to give the impression that the workshop was a utopian discussion space where everyone left on the same page and no one experienced discomfort there. Despite having an aura of respect and an intention all its own focused on “radical listening”, there were times of difficulty. Some womyn felt the structure of the activities was inherently poor, others made assumptions that led to misunderstandings, and there were inter-generational bridges to be crossed and not everyone in attendance was prepared to do so. And, of course, the sole transwoman in attendance caused waves that led to several womyn feeling “mansplained” to and talked over. I want to touch on these hindrances as I experienced them below.

My first encounter with an unfortunate misunderstanding happened right off the bat when a few twentysomethings like myself sat down near me.  I’d actually find out later in the workshop that I was the youngest attendee as a womyn in my mid-twenties, although otherwise the group was a mostly even mix of 20-60 year old womyn. Anyway, after cheerfully introducing ourselves and making some Festie smalltalk, the two womyn closest to me made the assumption that I, as a young feminist akin to them, would be adamantly anti-intention. They made a few derisive comments about how the old dinosaur womyn would be very pro-intention while we, the young hip kids, were “with the times” and into the idea of inclusion. Before I could correct them we were moved to begin discussion activities and split apart. Later we gathered into a circle and went around turning to one another, revealing a truth we held with relation to the intention of the workshop, and the womyn on the receiving end would repeat your truth, and either affirm it–“I share your truth, sister”–or not–“I do not share your truth, sister, but I hold that it is true of you.” The womyn beside me told the circle that she needed female-only spaces in her life and I held her truth as my own, agreeing with what she had shared. While doing so I caught the eye of one of my age-peers who had made the assumptions of me earlier, and her gaze was narrowed, confused. She and her similarly liberal feminist friends did not talk to me any more following that, in or outside of the workshop.

One of the recurring activities we attempted was lining up based on one criteria so we formed a spectrum of sorts with extreme endpoints and a large, ambiguous middle section. Once we had our line, we were instructed to “fold” ourselves in half, so the two endpoints came together and everyone partnered with the womyn opposite her on the other side of the line. I think this was a good idea in theory but it played out rather badly in practice. When we lined up according to our support of the wbw policy, with pro-intention womyn at one end and anti-intention womyn on the other, I stood at the pro-intention end, not the very last in the line but close to it. When it came time to fold in and break off into groups, I ended up in a foursome with one other womyn from the pro-intention side and two from the other end of the line…which basically meant we were four womyn with very firm opinions on polar opposite sides of the issue, with little to talk about as common ground. And, what’s worse, it created a lot of groups toward the middle composed of womyn who were entirely neutral, or didn’t know, or wanted to hear from those with solid viewpoints before making up their minds, which clearly they couldn’t do when surrounded by other womyn just as unsure or apathetic as they.

That first group up was…hard. The two anti-intention womyn closely mirrored I and the other womyn from the pro-intention side: one older, one younger. The younger womyn would not listen to anything we had to say supporting the intention. Everything we brought up, even when only speaking of our own feelings and experiences, were dismissed by her. I told her that even if the intention of Fest didn’t matter to her, and she didn’t need female-only spaces herself, it was wrong to take that away from womyn who really did need female exclusive places. The womyn beside me wondered aloud why, in a country with several trans-inclusive women’s musical festivals, and with so many outspoken, hardworking transactivists out there who could create their own exclusive space if they so wanted, why did Michfest have to change to accommodate them? Why not go elsewhere or make it for themselves, just as the founding mothers of Michfest did? It all fell on deaf ears; she repeated the mantra “well, transwomen are women so…” over and over regardless of what we said. In the end the best she could manage to prove she had been listening at all was putting forward the idea that maybe a future inclusive Fest could have a “wbw area” akin to the woc-only spaces, disabled womyn services, and older generational camping sites Fest already offered. When the other pro-intention womyn in our group asked again why Fest needed to change, why the whole Fest couldn’t be the one wbw area in the whole world without needing to shrink that exclusive space even smaller than it already is, she fell silent and refused to engage with us any further. Even her anti-intention partner was more willing to talk it out and ended up leaving with “some things to think hard on”, as she put it.

Finally, the elephant in the room. I knew transwomen attended Fest, and have for quite a while, despite the wbw policy. I anticipated crossing paths on the Land, and I knew a workshop on inclusion was a likely place to do so. Even in a sea of gloriously gender nonconforming, incredible womyn displaying every different kind of female body imaginable, the transwoman who attended the workshop stuck out like a sore thumb. I was immediately made uncomfortable by this individual’s presence. Michfest has no panty-checking policy at the gates, no one monitoring the sex organs of anyone coming onto the Land, just a polite intention of being for and by womyn born womyn, a gentle request to respect the space and not intrude if you are not, in fact, a wbw. The transwomen who violate this policy and come to Fest, who take advantage of the welcoming atmosphere, who insert themselves where they know they’ve been asked kindly not to be, show baldfaced entitlement to womyn and disrespect for our boundaries not unlike any run of the mill misogynist man I’d otherwise encounter. They do not have any qualms sidestepping womyn’s requests for privacy and they either lack the foresight of or simply do not care that their presence could have repercussions, like gnc womyn being misgendered in the one place where they could count on being recognized as womyn or womyn with histories of abuse being triggered. It’s a huge disrespect and it shows me the truth of male-socialization in transwomen and how it never just washes away when they come out.

I intended to excuse myself quietly from any pair-ups with the individual in question but I knew even doing that had the potential to cause issues in our group of so many mixed perspectives, so I grew nervous every time we were split into factions. I felt unsafe and on edge  each and every time, not knowing if my desire to discuss the issue only with other womyn would make me a target. It changed the tone of the discussion for me.

Thankfully, I lost myself in the large group that attended every day and we never encountered one another, but that isn’t to say I didn’t hear of what went down in the groups I wasn’t a part of. The womyn who were in the transwoman’s group had plenty to say as we left the workshop, including one womyn who stopped attending after feeling very dismissed by this person. In their group they had tried to discuss how female human beings face a host of issues exclusive to our biology–menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, abortions, etc,–and they desired spaces where those issues could be centralized and discussed openly. They brought up shared girlhood, including social psychology studies showing how boys are given more attention in classrooms, how girls are taught to minimize themselves from a young age, how male children are encouraged for their loudness and activity with praises of being “leaders” and showing “assertiveness” while female children behaving similarly were called “bossy” and “a handful”. They brought up commonality with other born females who are raised as girls, and how Michfest needed to be that one safe space in the world where no matter how you present, act, or look, you are affirmed as a womyn simply for being a female, with no other requirements to be met.

The transwoman’s response to every point they brought up? “Well I experience that too.” They claimed to agree with everything being said in the group…because their experience was also “female”, their socialization was also “girlhood”, they also “identified” with the womyn there. There were arguments as the womyn who spoke rightly felt unheard at best, appropriated at worst, but it made no difference. They left at the end of the day with nothing resolved and at least one womyn feeling like the conversation had alienated her to the point where she stopped coming after that. The transwoman was not practicing the “radical listening” we’d been instructed on and would not allow for anyone’s truth that did not align with their own. There was no attempt at understanding and there was never any admission that no, you could not have experienced these female-exclusive things because you are not, in fact, biologically female.

I strongly felt like this transwoman used Fest to affirm an identity with no thought to anyone else, and used the workshop to put out a narrative that womyn’s experiences as females can always be co-opted and obfuscated by males. Insisting that the womyn in the group had no commonalities that they shared that they, as a biologically male person, did not was a dismissal of every womyn there, a slap in the face of Michfest and the workshop’s safe space both. I’m thankful I wasn’t in that particular group, because I doubt I would have returned after encountering an attitude like that.

These setbacks did not completely ruin the workshop for me, and I feel I came away having learned a lot. So many womyn spoke truths of why they needed spaces like Fest, for such a diverse numbers of reasons. I’m more positive than ever that I, as a young womyn, need to defend these places, fuel them, and create these spaces where there is a deficit because if I need it, surely others do too. I connected with older womyn who made me feel more heard and understood than I can ever recall having felt before. More than one feminist from a generation preceding mine told me she was relieved and encouraged by my presence. I’m glad to have attended.

I’d say it was an overall positive experience that was marred in part by some ignorance and some plugging your fingers in your ears and humming loudly. It’s encouraged me to seek out more ways we can have these conversations respectfully and genuinely, where questioning womyn might come to hear one another and feel heard in return. I’m not sure if conversations like that are possible anywhere but in the safety and welcoming atmosphere of Michfest, but like my sisters in attendance that week, I’m willing to try.

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the husband

I told my mother that I was gay just a few days before Christmas when I was seventeen, the pair of us posed before our newly erected Christmas tree, the twinkling lights reflecting in the tears on my cheeks. In the immediate aftermath of my homosexual declaration, she claimed she “never knew”, had never had an inkling that I might have been gay. She told me my coming out had completely blindsided her and that was the root of her doubting it all. She compared my being a lesbian to other identities I had recently adopted in my teen years–“first you’re a vegetarian, now you’re a lesbian” was her exact turn of phrase–and insinuated that much like other adolescent monikers I had applied to myself, this too would fade. The goth stage went away before I left for college, my vegetarianism transformed into near-full veganism as time went on, but the lesbian thing never went away.

After several years of tension that included my partner and I never visiting my parents, my mother slowly came around, realizing she’d rather have a gay daughter than a daughter that never came home for the holidays. As we navigated the rocky territory of her gradual acceptance, she made some amendments to the statements she originally made on the night of my announcement all those years ago. She admitted that as she thought back through the years of raising me, there had indeed been signs–I never once had a boyfriend or expressed even the slightest interest in boys, I had papered my walls with pictures of Laura Croft from Tomb Raider despite never once having played the game–but she had always dismissed them because I was, as she affectionately put it, “a weird kid”. She didn’t see these developments as indications of my budding sexuality but as evidence that, as in so many other areas, I just did not fit the model set forth by my peers. My mother was happier painting a picture of “marching to the beat of a different drum” rather than recognizing the “Future Dykes of America” initiate sitting in her living room.

For a time we bonded over this rehashing of my childhood and Where’s Waldo-esque hunt for sapphic clues throughout my youth, but eventually my mother grew pensive during one of our conversations and admitted, finally, that there was one nagging memory that she had never been able to write off. She told me that when I had been young–younger than I can even remember, as it turns out–I had always fielded the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question so frequently lobbed at little kids with one simple answer.

What did I want to be? I wanted to be a husband.

The adults in the audience always got a kick out of it, this tiny girl child adamantly declaring her intentions to become a husband one day. My mother said she assumed, at first, I said this because I liked the reaction I got; I was a hilarious child (who grew up into a pretty funny adult, I’d wager) who easily made others laugh and loved doing so. Eventually though, she came to find I was saying this even when nobody laughed, like when one of my elementary school teachers was gravely disturbed by my “aspiration”. I said I wanted to be a husband and, for all intents and purposes, it sure looked like I meant it.

I’ve thought a lot about “the husband”. I told her story, which is my story, at Michfest on a few occasions, for workshops and while waiting in line and shooting the shit with anyone and everyone around me. Michfest let me become my most open, accepted self, and I was openhanded with everything I had, material goods and childhood tales both. Older dykes nodded knowingly when I described “the husband” as if they had known some version of that story their whole lives. They offered me sage smiles and a sense of understanding I didn’t know was possible. And I came to find there were other would-be “husbands” in nearly every group of womyn I spoke to; we all had some iteration of that narrative tucked away in our closets, a “husband story” wherein we were alienated, questioned, punished for expressing these innocent wants. I was humbled knowing they saw some of themselves in me, and in turn I realized I could see myself in them; I could see my future as an old dyke, a future I didn’t know was possible when I first declared I wanted to be a husband.

That obscured future is truly the root of “the husband” for me. That inability to envision who I could grow up to be, what I might look like as an adult and as an elder, defined “the husband story”. I did not actually want to be a husband. What I wanted from that fragile young age was to marry and create a life with a pretty girl, just like I saw on tv and in magazines and everywhere around me. And at the time, there was only one media-presented image of who married girls: husbands. Husbands married girls and took care of them, held their hands, lived in houses together with them. Husbands, and only husbands, did the things I wanted to do, so I wanted to be a husband.

A child has no concept of sexuality or identity, of representative media or nuanced political conversation. I did not have the language or mental faculties to understand I was a pre-lesbian, a girl who would grow up to be a womyn who loved womyn. I couldn’t conceptualize any of that as a kid, so in that very simple and very honest way that children do, I expressed those seeded feelings in the only words I had been given. All around me, heterosexual life was presented as the one true model of correct and acceptable behavior. I did not have models of lesbian couples to look at and I certainly didn’t see any old dykes on tv or anywhere else, cluing me in to what I might have become as an old womyn myself. I didn’t know womyn like that even existed until decades later. I had no frame of reference.

I sometimes wonder what my childhood would have looked like had I been a kid in today’s society. In the here and now, if I were a little girl and told people around that I wanted to be a husband, would I still be met with laughter or cringing? Or would trusted adults in my life have interpreted my simplistic child-talk to be evidence of my “true gender” lurking just beneath the skin? If my mother had raised her girl child in today’s world, might she have pursued that line of thinking, if it could mean her gay daughter was really another of her straight sons? She surely would have preferred it that way on the night I came out, so if it had been an option even earlier in my life, what then?

I dig a little further. If I had been presented with the option of being called by a boy’s name, dressed in “boy’s clothes”, allowed to do the things boys were allowed to do…wouldn’t I have taken it? Boys certainly had more freedom in their worlds, after all, and not just to grow into husbands. No one cautioned the boys about playing alone in the woods the way I liked to do. No one chastised the boys for being rowdy, for climbing trees, for running with abandon in the park. No one told the boys they were weird and disgusting because they let insects crawl in their arms, to look at the little feet and wings and feelers, during recess when their peers wanted to play double dutch. On top of all of that, my desires for these “boys’ things” over the “girls’ things” I was supposed to have a predilection toward left me feeling confused and outcasted even more as I progressed through childhood and especially during puberty. If someone told me I could have had all that freedom and escaped the uncertainty and ostracization, what reason would I have had to say no?

I don’t remember wanting to be “the husband”; her existence predates my memories. I do, however, recall my later childhood when all I wanted in the world was to be a deer or a wolf or any number of birds. I was a child fascinated by animals of all kinds and I spent the greater part of my free time out in the woods, motionlessly watching woodland creatures or else pretending to be them to the best of my abilities. When examined critically, “the husband” and “the animal” are both the same paradigm at their cores; they are an escape from constraint. The great appeal of slipping out of my human skin and becoming a nonhuman animal was that animals were not held down by any kind of gender roles or other social norms, they were free to live their lives, and they did so mostly ambiguously, a male animal indistinguishable from his female counterparts in many of the species I liked best. There lives were simple and also tended to be short, and that suited me just fine. Especially when I began to develop physically during puberty, when my body became public property and I grew needling feelings of hatred toward my female attributes, the draw of somehow “becoming” a nonhuman animal was intoxicating. I mention this side story not just because it is tangentially related and not because there is a huge trend of “transspecies” children out there, but because it demonstrates how fickle my desires were and how easily they evolved as I reacted to my environment and struggled through my turbulent adolescence. If I had been taken seriously as either “the husband” or more nonsensically “the animal”, irreversible changes could have been foisted upon me, an innocent child, by well-meaning adults in the name of progressiveness.

In truth, I was a little girl with no one to model myself after, a tempest of feelings with nothing to stick them to. I was suffering from a lack of representation of the possibilities of womanhood, trapped in a world that put restrictions and blinders on girls from the time before they can walk. My desire to be “the husband” was a direct result of the lack of lesbians (and of diverse womanhood in general) in my surrounding spheres and my volatile protestations against the gender box I had been put it. I was still a girl even when there were no girls or former-girls like me around to look up to, but in this day and age my rejection of gender conformity would be more eagerly interpreted as my “boy brain” trapped in my (tragically) female body. I might have been questioned about what other “boy things” I liked and had my answers used against me to prove my pre-failure of womanhood. I might have had trusted authority figures with good intentions encouraging me to “be a boy” if that’s “what I was” and you know what? If the adults in charge of caring for and protecting me began referring to me as a boy or even subtly encouraging that idea in other ways, I surely would have absorbed it quickly. Even if I didn’t “feel I was a boy”, I might have parroted these statements because it’s what the adults did, it’s what they said and what they wanted to hear back, and I as a child would have wanted to please others by getting the answers “right”. I would likely have followed that logic to the letter as a little kid: girl likes stuff for boys, girl only sees male representation for things she likes, girl must really be a boy.

How many little supposedly-trans female children are out there inhabiting the same space I once did? That nebulous zone of gender nonconformity where the world tells you to act this one way and your refusal to do so indicates the wrongness of your existence? How many “are boys” because there were never any girls or womyn like them around to tell them their desires, their behaviors, their wants don’t make them boys, just another perfectly okay kind of girl? How many would grow up to be lesbians like I did, if they had that chance, if they hadn’t been indoctrinated from a young age with rhetoric that tells them they are “actually boys” because they want to run and wear pants and kiss girls?

If I had seen those old dykes as a kid, I might not have felt so alone. If I had been allowed to live freely, to engage in what I liked and avoid what I didn’t without giving a thought as to whether these things were “right” for my gender, I might not have been so confused. If I had ever even once been shown that girls can grow up and marry the girl of their dreams, and hold her hand and take care of her when she’s sick and share a home together, I might never have wanted to be the husband.

if you need it

Forewarning: the following introductory post will likely be a jumbled up mess.

I attended the 2015 Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival–the 40th overall and my first–as one of the “Forty Firsties”, a group of first-time attendees who received one of forty free 6-day tickets purchased by a collective of womyn who pooled their funds to help more womyn get on the Land this year. I am both deeply grateful for and humbled by their generousity, and owe everything to the womyn who contributed to that campaign, as I wouldn’t have been able to attend otherwise. I drove for nine hours, then waited a further nine hours in the queue of womyn waiting to get through the front gate, before setting up a tent in the pitch black of night in the middle of the Michigan woods with sweat pouring off of me and the biggest cloud of gnats I’ve ever seen buzzing around my face. I’m a die-hard insect fan and even I was grossed out by the experience. It was a wild first day to put it simply, and it wasn’t even counted as one of the official days of the festival itself.

A lot happened under that huge blue sky in the unnamed region of Michigan where Fest has been taking place for the last four decades. I’d heard Michfest described almost universally as “indescribable” prior to arriving on the Land, but I didn’t really have an appreciation of what that meant until I was there living it. It is indescribable. I felt like I’d lived on that Land for a hundred years by mid-week; I discovered things about myself in two days that I hadn’t been able to unearth in my previous twenty some years; I feel like in a lot of ways I became my truest self there. I saw, I felt, I did, I heard.

It’s a lot to process; I’m not sure I have the words to write it all down, let alone do the experience any justice. But even as I get overwhelmed at the very idea of translating those huge moments, hard realizations, and breath-taking beautiful sights, I’m reminded of the central theme of this year’s Allies in Understanding workshop series: what will be Michfest’s legacy? Can I stand by and let hateful people who have never been on the Land describe it with hyperboles and anger, never having a clue about what’s really out there? I don’t think I can. I might end up writing too much, but I’d greatly prefer that over writing too little.

I’ll be using this space to work through all things relating to my Fest experience. I need to write it down for myself as well as for anyone else that might stumble upon these posts and want to know the truth of Michigan rather than the lies. And more than that, I have to believe there’s a “next” for Michfest, a daughter that will rise from the ashes of the mother. I simply can’t imagine all those thousands of womyn on the Land last week will quietly dissipate into the woods and beyond, never to rise again. I’ll leave this first post with a quote from Fest, one that has hung heavily with me ever since I first heard it:

“If you need it, then create it, and sustain it.”

wordpress!

One thing I took away from Fest is the importance of at least trying to use wordpress, if only to keep in contact with some of the fantastic womyn I met there who are active here but less so (or not at all) on tumblr. Also, considering tumblr doesn’t really lend itself to long posts, I think this will be a better platform to unpack everything I experienced, felt, saw, and absorbed in Michigan. I’m still trying to process a lot of it.