Friday night I thought I had them beat: I was a trans woman at Michfest, and I was having an awesome time. A gospel singer was performing a song she wrote in the civil rights era, and she had all three thousand of us sing the refrain. The song said “don’t mind” their ignorance, “don’t mind” their hate, just don’t engage them at all and get on with living your life. It seemed like a perfect solution to deal with all the “Womyn Born Womyn” (WBW) types, and I decided to make “don’t mind” my motto.
In theory, it was a sound strategy. I knew there used to be a lot of drama about BDSM on the Land, but everyone with irrational fears about it eventually piped down once they realized that all their whining wasn’t going to make it go away. So if trans women like me could ignore the haters and enjoy fest just the same as everyone else, we’d eventually win the same acceptance… right?
The philosophy fit in with the purposefully upbeat attitude I’d been working on all week. I’d paid $440 for my ticket, and I had joined the long line of cars waiting to get in at 6 AM Monday morning. I was undeterred by the WBW bumper stickers, and I got through the gates by 3 PM to receive my orange admittance bracelet. I decided to haul my gear through a one-mile trek to my campsite instead of waiting for a shuttle, and I set up my tiny one-person tent. I’d figured that I’d worked so hard to get here that I damn well better enjoy myself.
If you asked me why I was there, I’d have told you a friend of mine was involved with Trans Womyn Belong Here (TWBH), and I was interested in all the stuff they were doing this year. That’s certainly part of the truth, but I’m not enough of a trans activist to go all the way from Massachusetts to Michigan to just be part of a protest. The real reason I was at Michfest was that I was still trying to figure out if I really was attracted to women. (Note that this is over four years after bottom surgery -it takes me a while to work out these sorts of things.)
Of course, I knew that Michfest wasn’t the end-all-be-all of sapphic desire, but it seemed like a good fit for me. I liked camping, I liked folk music, I liked vegan food, and I liked being naked in the woods. Michfest was made for queer women to celebrate their shared sisterhood and give each other lots of orgasms, so why not try tiptoeing into that community and see if it felt right?
On the other hand, I sure wasn’t going to turn my back on activism. It really was inspiring to see hundreds of cis allies wearing TWBH T-Shirts and buttons, and I wore my own every day. I was impressed how many TWBH organizers were fest workers and risked harassment for being so outspoken. Michfest is probably the toughest queer space in America to be an ally to trans women, so it was kind of amazing to see how many cis people were still willing to stick their necks out for us.
On the whole, TWBH probably outnumbered the WBW folks, but they had the establishment on their side. On several trees, the fest organizers put up some politely passive-aggressive posters to make sure trans women know we’re still unwelcome. They also had a deviously clever campaign of “wanted” posters to subtly let trans men know they’re unwanted. Most performers were silent on the issue, but a few gave a shout-out to all the WBWs in the audience.
My first real interaction with that crowd came on Wednesday’s workshop designed to facilitate dialog. It was run by cis women on both sides of the issue, but the ones on “our side” weren’t affiliated with TWBH. The organizers got us all paired up with someone on the other side, and they started us off by suggesting we tell our life stories. (My partner mostly talked about coming out after marrying a man and having kids; I didn’t have time to give my story.) Before speaking to each other about the issue, the organizers had “model conversations” designed to demonstrate how to respectfully and sensitively talk about this issue. I personally thought it was the Hannity and Colmes of queer politics: the WBW supporter would make outrageous and incendiary claims while our supposed defender would offer meek equivocations. At the end, they shared a nice hug.
Suffice to say that I was already quivering with rage when the second WBW “model” suggested that letting trans women attend Michfest would let any man in a dress come here and rape their children. Our advocate gave an I-hear-where-your-fears-are-coming-from-but-politely-disagree type response, and I was done. After the hug, I asked our advocate for a word in private, and I let it all out.
I have to admit that I was dramatic. Through tears I asked, “How could you let that woman call me a pedophile? How could you hug her? You are not my ally!” The WBW advocate come to us and tried to explain that she wasn’t talking about me. Right in her face, I told her: “I am a trans woman! Who are you talking about if you aren’t talking about me?”
Through all of this passion, I did get one argument across: the WBW advocate was making the same baseless smear that homophobes used to make against lesbian schoolteachers. Is there any point in talking to someone who’s that deluded and hateful? Can you really call yourself an ally if you’d hug someone like that?
I left them both and wandered away from the workshop area. I wiped away my tears, but enough sadness was visible for a few kind strangers to ask me what was wrong -most everyone smiles at Michfest. The one person I really opened up to was a women of color I’d met a few days before. She told me that a grown woman has no business crying over something like that, and she probably has a point. After all, there were a several other trans women at the workshop, and none of them stormed out. And since I myself am still learning how to be an effective ally to people of color, maybe I should have cut my cis ally some slack.
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