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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3 thoughts on “allies: the good, the bad, and the womyn who made it work

  1. Pingback: Moar MichFest – Radfem Repost

  2. I did not attend this workshop because I did not want my last fest overtaken by this issue. However, I am very happy to read that the experience has empowered you to do the work of speaking up for womyn’s space as a young womyn. It can often be difficult to be the “lone voice” in such discussions, but know so many of us have your back! Well written.

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