Letter to the Community

April 11, 2013

Letter to the Community
On March 28, an activist named Red Durkin posted a petition on Change.org asking artists and attendees to boycott the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival until organizers fully and openly welcome all self-identified women.  This petition has intensified a long-running debate about and within the Festival, a debate that has often included intense misrepresentations about the political heart of this gathering.  There is no doubt that complex political debate is healthy and necessary within our communities; however, a boycott, within this context, fails to advance resolution and only seeks to exact damage.  As the Festival’s producer for her full 38 years, I write today to clarify the festival’s herstory, intention and my desire for understanding within our communities, as well as to clarify where I stand on these issues. I have listened, I have talked, I have struggled, and I will continue to do so. I do not fear our differences.  But I do fear the harm being done to the space held so dear by so many – the space known around the world as “Michigan” – by the way this conflict is playing out.  And thus I hope you will consider what I have to say with an open heart and open mind, as I pledge to continue to listen to the diversity of voices in this struggle.
Why We Gather
The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is a soulful gathering of womyn from all over the world, created 38 years ago during the height of feminist organizing.  Built from the ground up by womyn’s innovation and womyn’s labor, filled with art, performance, play and discourse – we live together for a week in the woods and create community as we know it in no other form.  There’s freedom on that land that womyn living under patriarchy rarely touch; freedom to walk in the woods at night alone without fear; to be clothed or not clothed depending solely on comfort and personal style and without judgment; to move and work and play and love without the socio-cultural constraints that uniquely push down on all womyn, all the time.  For these reasons, Michigan remains vital and vibrant even though countless other institutions from that burst of consciousness are gone.  For these reasons, there’s no real debate about the value of the Festival – it is precisely why passions run so strong on all sides of this issue.
When we started Festival 38 years ago, we did so to make a home and a space where we could grow our own definition of female identity.  At the time, the mere idea of a female identity autonomous of male identity was revolutionary.  Over the course of nearly four decades, we have continued to discover, (re)define and live out what it means to be womon-identified and to recognize and honor diverse gender expression among womyn.  Every August we do the work of growing into a community inclusive and meaningful for womyn from diverse class and cultural experiences, different abilities and ages – a community alive with a value system grown from the core of radical feminism.  Over time, some clear collective values have emerged:  communal cooperation; a willingness to show up and listen; an ethos of love, compassion, and active care for others; an undercurrent of strength and fierce resiliency; and a commitment to remain teachable.  These values are the foundation of the Michigan community.  These values reflect the intention of the space.
About the Intention
The Festival, for a single precious week, is intended for womyn who at birth were deemed female, who were raised as girls, and who identify as womyn. I believe that womyn-born womyn (WBW) is a lived experience that constitutes its own distinct gender identity. 
As we struggle around the question of inclusion of transwomyn at the festival, we use the word intention very deliberately.  Michigan holds this particular lived experience of womanhood as honorable, meaningful, unique and rich.  Our intention has always been coupled with the radical commitment to never question any womon’s gender.  We ask the greater community to respect this intention, and to value the complexity and validity of every gender identity, including that of WBW.  The onus is on each individual to choose whether or how to respect that intention.  
Rejecting Transphobia
I reject the assertion that creating a time and place for WBW to gather is inherently transphobic.  This is a false dichotomy and one that prevents progress and understanding.  I believe in the integrity of autonomous space used to gather and celebrate for any group, whether that autonomous space is defined by age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, gender, class or any other identity.  Whatever spaces we carve out in our community to encourage healing and rejuvenation should be accepted, and we should support each other in this endeavor.  Nobody should be asked to erase the need for autonomous spaces to demonstrate that they are sisters in struggle.
Clearly, our community struggles with the wide-ranging opinions that have formed around this question.  Womyn who love the Festival deeply have intense feelings on all sides of this issue.  There have been a great many good, loving and smart discussions between womyn who profoundly disagree, and 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 transwomyn as womyn while not dismissing or disavowing the lived experience and realities of the WBW 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. 
We must find ways to be allies in this discussion.  I know that for some, WBW space seems flatly incompatible with honoring and supporting transwomyn within the larger womyn’s communities.  Regardless, we must listen to those who believe in the power of every womon’s voice, and commit to stay in a process with open hearts, open minds, and abiding respect even when that conversation gets incredibly hard.  Space for WBW and a true solidarity with the trans community can and does co-exist.
Our Commitment to Each Other, My Commitment to You 
The extreme positions being repeated, stoked, and disseminated on the internet do not represent the complex wholeness of the Festival voice, and they overshadow the more measured communication that will heal this divide.  I call to each one of us to approach this issue in the purest example of sisterhood, to wrestle with the extremely difficult questions of our relationships with one another, and to do so always with compassion and abiding respect. 
I commit to promote, foster and participate in continuing discussion on and off the land in hopes that we can all move towards greater understanding of each other’s perspectives.  I will, however, turn my focus away from the destructive voices that do not seek progress, but only stoke division.  As Festival works to survive and thrive into her fifth decade, I will do everything in my power to ensure that she continues as something beautiful, more complex than ever and yet true to the principles that spurred me to start this celebration in the first place.  
I invite you to join me on this ongoing journey.
Lisa Vogel
MWMF founder


  1. thistlespace · ·

    I like this, but I don’t agree that “space for WBW and a true solidarity with the trans community can and does co-exist.” Where? Only by glossing things over and avoiding conflict in my experience. That’s not “true solidarity.” Also, I don’t want to feel solidarity with a movement that is inherently co-opting feminism and using it to harass women. I can’t wait for Sheila Jeffreys’ book to come out called “Gender Hurts: a radical feminist analysis of transgender.” I have been so disrespected and threatened by so-called “trans liberation” activism in the past year that it is time that womyn come out more strongly, and more clearly against the false premises asserted by this misogynist wave of social movement in our global and local communities. By-the-way, it is mostly white heterosexual men who have been trying to teach me about my transphobia and the concept of trans liberation. I may receive threats of violence for this stance, but if we stand together my sisters, we can support, protect and defend ourselves with the true pride of womyn-loving-womyn. Thems my two cents. I hope to attend Michfest this summer! It will be the first summer I go since the year 2000. In solidarity with Cathy Brennan and all of my sisters opening their eyes, ears and hearts!

  2. thistlespace · ·

    Also, women-born-women are socialized under patriarchy to always be “looking out for the underdog” or otherwise to be kind and nurturing to all others outside of herself. Like Mary Daly, I feel it is important for each of us to develop and nurture an in-born Self that emerges only after one’s eyes are opened to the damage patriarchy has left on her soul. I take a more militant stance than what is espoused above. I hope other womyn will join me at Michfest and beyond, to stand up,


    “Third world” countries are more advanced than us in their fights against capitalist patriarchal hell. It’s funny how supposedly we live in the most progressive and free country in the world, when in reality, it is the belly of the beast that is white male supremacist rule. It is a particularly hard nut to crack.

    I commend Lisa Vogel for her continued stance to maintain the clear intentions of Michfest to be WBW only space. She has not buckled under the enormous pressure she endures.

    I also understand the need to be diplomatic and cordial when one is a founding organizer of such an awesome institution formed in women’s movement herstory. I myself, was quite diplomatic when writing “Musings on Manarchy in the Midwest”, a zine about being accused of being “transphobic” by a bunch of (m)anarchists. This was before I even knew the word “cis” or “transmisogynist”. I had never been accused and we had “solidarity” in our ranks as anarchists until I proposed a workshop at the Anarchist Book Fair in the Twin Cities on anarcha-feminism.

    It is aMazing to me the worlds, thoughts and visions that have spiraled out of that single potent experience when most of my so-called anarchist comrades, either came out publicly or privately against me personally. And this, after putting in years of organizing efforts for anarchy on the streets and in our hearts — for us to be anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian and non-hierarchical in our relations. For us to build community based on cooperation and mutual aid.

    It was quite the blow and the blow-out. I have lost a lot of friends who were not real friends anyway.

    Thank you Lisa! You and your sisters from 38 years ago are real friends to womyn who need a safe place on earth to just be. There is a lot that can grow out of a natural, organic space that is safe for womyn. Thank you so much for standing strong. I appreciate you more than you can imagine hopefully — that’s how hard it has been for me to recover and heal from what happened to me. That is how strong the hatred towards me feels. I need some love! Bring on the love of Michfest!

    1. Yisheng Qingwa · ·

      Thistle… Secret agent style! I met you at the Crystal recently and you gave me your card… I will call you soon (I work all this weekend)! Hope that’s still OK! Wo xihuan ni. 😀

      How I wish I could go to Michfest. Maybe next year…

  3. Trans women can be allies to Lesbians and Women. Trans women allies:

    1. Recognize that sex matters.

    2. Respect that females will want to organize as females, and will not derail.

    3. Support female-only spaces.

    4. Support issues that impact females uniquely (e.g., reproductive choice) without derailing (a la Julia Serano).

    5. Don’t personalize feminist objections to gender identity theory.

    6. Speak out against violent threats made by trans activists against females.

    7. Recognize that sometimes we will disagree – and that’s ok.

    8. Do not view female sexuality as a political obligation (e.g., lesbians need to “overcome” their aversion to penis to “affirm trans women’s realness”).

    I know exactly one trans woman who is an ally to Lesbians and Women. I suppose that’s a start.

    1. thistlespace · ·

      I had a trans woman tell me recently that “sex is what you do with somebody” when I asked them if there was a meaningful distinction between sex and gender. It made me feel unsafe, disgusted and scared to go out in public. I have NO safe WBW space in my life except at home with my cat. It hurts a lot. I think the womyn of Mich Fest understand this pain.

      I would re-write #1 to say “Recognize that sex matters in rape culture.”

      1. That’s disturbing. I’m sorry.

      2. thistlespace · ·

        I wish #2 was true here in Madison. Most of the WBW I know in Madison are actively against female-only spaces. I went to the “Midway to Michfest” event at Plan B last month and it was like floating on clouds of relief for a couple of hours. If there are any women in Madison reading this who would like to make more WBW spaces happen more regularly in Madison, please contact me! I am eager to set up a women’s open mic, or a women- only weekly practice of dance or any number of other regular women’s events and gatherings around town. Or if you know of any regular, weekly or bi-weekly WBW only spaces, please let me know! And yes! To that sister above, who wants to call me. Please do. As you can tell, I am feeling a bit isolated.

  4. Also, Lisa Vogel is amazing.

    1. Thanks for your well wishes Cathy. I am feeling a bit better now that I talked with a woman friend of mine. Don’t want to get too down on my hometown of Madtown! There are some really awesome women here. Hopefully, someday soon, we will get a WBW Sunday dance space going. For now, I will keep going to the one I started five years ago that allows men and trans women. It started off nicely with mostly women and respectful men, but I am feeling less and less safe there these days. ) :

  5. Anonymous · ·

    Thistlespace, thanks for your thoughtful comments. They remind me that although I disagree with Lisa Vogel’s statement that men must be called women, for a number of reasons that I consider crucial to the advancement of feminism, Ms. Vogel is speaking diplomatically and strategically, and her words need not be taken as her final thoughts on this matter. The bottom line is that she is upholding the WBW character of the Festival. I also wanted to mention that Madison each summer hosts Wiscon, the feminist scifi convention. Although men are permitted, there is plenty of opportunity to meet as WBW apart from the main convention. You might find some support there.

    1. thistlespace · ·

      Thanks Anonymous!

  6. While it’s great to see that she’s standing up for our right to WBW spaces, I feel like there is such a loss of strength in her assertion. A defeat, a submission to the aggressive, invasive men who reinforce the oppressive gender ideology and take from us the language we use to examine and expose it for what it is. Apparently even “female” belongs to men now, too.

    “The Festival, for a single precious week, is intended for womyn who at birth were deemed female, who were raised as girls, and who identify as womyn. I believe that womyn-born womyn (WBW) is a lived experience that constitutes its own distinct gender identity.”

    I would like to think that Vogel means “gender identity” in the sense of sex identity, an identity we recognize as placed upon us by patriarchy and ultimately in need of deconstruction. But I can’t tell. I don’t know. I worry that she is reducing WBW to another “gender identity,” allowing the transgender male definition of gender to supercede everything we have come to know, expose, and critique about gender.

    1. This thread is the most exiting and thoughtful, bright thread I have been on in awhile in internetlandia. Thank you Womenofthepatriarchy! I sense there are great conversations going on amongst great minds that I may not be privy to, due to the isolation factor of patriarchy and how it targets women that stand up in particular. This leaves us no options as women to fight back. The only thing we can do is submit if we don’t want to be abused, beaten, raped or killed. I feel safe saying this here on Brennan’s page because of the other women feminist theorists and practitioners who have spoken up in this space. The only thing that worries me is that my name is not hidden and yours are…I hope it is okay to speak truth to power here. I mean no harm towards anyone as I try to analyze my lived situation from day one of my birth on this earth. Ahhhh! I hope we can find a safe place offline, to huddle and talk of our clandestine nature. Much love to my masked sisters! The anonymous warrior womyn!!! Check out this awesome video from an anarchist conference in England in 2009: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fjt5hHuFCzQ

      1. You are more than welcome to have these conversations here. I am spamming comments from trans people on this thread, although they *obviously* can read.

  7. thistlespace · ·

    Huh. That kind of chilled me to the bone. As if “peep holes” are an “obvious” right. Nana nana boo boo! But it is no child’s game when the stakes are this high and we are adults. I hope I won’t be attacked at Mich Fest now…fuck. Anyway, my mask so far, has been more of a theater stunt and in support of those who wish to remain anonymous. Just so you know, if you are watching me right now and feeling hatred towards me and hoping for violence against me, well then, I just want to say that is not right and is much worse than “silly”, which is what I would tell my third grade students. Yes, I am a childcare worker for a private company that values creative play and expression. I lead a dance troupe of 7 girls with a 19 year-old black womon as Top Dog at the front. We all painted black t-shirts with puffy paints and sparkles last week to get ready for our show this coming week. If that offends you, that the dance troupe is made up of only girls who were born girls and no boys are allowed, well…you don’t have to be there! You don’t have to watch us! You can just live and let live! It would be a beautiful thing! Cathy, thank you for your attention to detail and for being an excellent moderator and human being. I hope we can meet in person someday.

    1. thistlespace · ·

      Sorry I got so fear-based in the above comment…and angry…I know that Mich Fest will be a safe place for WBW as much as is possible in today’s over-the-top misogynist climate and acceptance of male violence and dominance. I don’t anticipate being attacked for things I have written online..I don’t anticipate talking about or thinking about trans while at the Fest. I anticipate and intend to be with womyn, singing, dancing and building our female, gyno-centered, sisterhood.

  8. Anonymous · ·

    When trans-women express desire to be part of a women only festival, they are expressing support of the idea of the right for one group to gather, to the exclusion of another group (i.e. to discriminate against one group).

    Yet, when it’s them that are being excluded the are no longer ok with this concept.

    If discrimination is so bad, why are these trans-women not screaming for the right of all men (including men who identify as men) to be able to attend.

    You know, in the name of inclusivity.

    1. Not sure why my comment came up as anon

  9. The fact that these trans-women want to attend Mich fest would suggest that they are ok with a festival which excludes one group of people, (men), but then when it’s them that is being excluded, is suddenly bad.

    If creating a festival for one group of people at the exclusion of another is such a heinous crime, then why aren’t these trans activists who are all about inclusivity” campaigning for the right of all men (including male identified men) to attend.

    This boycott has nothing to do with justice or inclusivity. It just a group of trans-women trying to make something that’s not about them, about them.

    1. sorry for the double post.

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