Michigan Womyn's Music Festival
The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, called "the Original Womyn's Woodstock"  and often referred to as MWMF or Michfest, is an international feminist music festival occurring every August since 1976 near Hart, Michigan, in a small wooded area in northern Oceana County known as Whiskey Creek near Crystal Township, Oceana County, Michigan. The event is completely built, staffed, run and attended by women.
- 1 History
- 2 Functioning, activities and services
- 3 Production and performances
- 4 Controversy surrounding the inclusion of trans women at the festival
- 5 Documenting the festival
- 6 The Michfest Half-Way Soirée
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
America's first "women's music festivals" began appearing in the early 1970s, starting with day festivals at the Sacramento State and San Diego State University campuses, the Midwest Women's Festival held in Missouri, the Boston Women's Music Festival, and the National Women's Music Festival at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. These first regional women-only events exposed audiences to feminist and openly lesbian artists, most of whom operated independently of the mainstream recording industry. Festival gatherings offered an alternative to urban bars, coffeehouses and protest marches, which were some of the few opportunities for lesbians to meet one another in the early 1970s. The feminist separatism of the spaces was a direct outgrowth of and solidarity with the activism created by black power and other racial solidarity movements.
Foundation and early years
As a private, women-only and clothing-optional camping event, the Michigan festival was founded in 1976 by 19-year-old Lisa Vogel, who, with sister Kristie Vogel and friend Mary Kindig, planned an event along the lines of the recent Boston Women's Music Festival and the Midwest Women's Festival.
In 1982 the festival, then in its seventh year, moved to its present 650-acre location near Hart, Michigan, attracting the largest audience to date (upwards of 8,000 campers.) Gradually, the festival added an acoustic stage (and an August night open mic stage) in addition to day stage and night stage programming. After much discussion, cement-paved walkways were added to ease women with mobility challenges and baby strollers. Barbara "Boo" Price became Lisa Vogel's business partner after the 1985 festival and was increasingly involved with production until the two parted ways in 1994, during a decade which saw many unique challenges to the festival—including the production of a 10th anniversary double album in 1985; the growth of the festival to five days (with new intensive workshops) by 1986; the extraordinary thunderstorms of the "Harmonic Convergence" year in 1987; an outbreak of shigella in 1988 (the swift handling of which was praised by both local and national health inspectors).
During the 1990s, the festival updated structurally and musically to expand styles of stage performance for a new generation of performers, adding a runway to the Night Stage, a mosh pit, and acts including the Indigo Girls and Tribe 8.
Writing from a personal perspective for the Village Voice in fall 1994, festival artist and kitchen worker Gretchen Phillips expressed a nearly universal reaction to her first festival--"I had never seen so many breasts before, so many bare asses, so much damn skin on such a vast terrain. I decided to make that weekend all about studying my body issues"—and went on to include another frequently cited reaction: "I've always used Mich as a place to charge my batteries for the rest of the year, planning my life around being there in August and learning my lessons, both fun and hard." Playwright Carolyn Gage would later give voice to another key appeal motivating campers to return: "At Michfest, she can experience a degree of safety that is not available to any woman any time anywhere except at the festival. And what does that mean? It means she achieves a level of relaxation, physical, psychic, cellular, that she had never experienced before. She is free, sisters. She is free. Often for the first time in her life."
Functioning, activities and services
Attendance at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival ranges from 3000 to 10,000.
Women build all of the stages, run the lighting and sound systems, make the trash collection rounds, serve as electricians, mechanics, security, medical and psychological support, cook meals for thousands over open fire pits, provide childcare, and facilitate workshops covering various topics of interest to the attendees, who are referred to as "festies". Hundreds of women spend upwards of a month out on the land building the festival from the ground up because every year the festival is torn down, leaving the land as close to how it was found as possible.
Community decisions are made through worker community meetings where the youngest members of the community are given as much access to participate as the oldest. While men are not allowed at the festival, male children age 4 and under are allowed within the festival. Childcare for girls and boys aged 5 and under is provided by Sprouts, and for 5 and over girls the main venue is "Gaia Girls". There is also a teen tent. Brother Sun Boys Camp is available for boys aged 5 to 10.
Production and performances
The festival creates a high-tech production with four working stages in an extremely rural outdoor venue.
Controversy surrounding the inclusion of trans women at the festival
The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival maintains an informal policy (commonly known as "the intention") that only women who were assigned female at birth should attend. Festival organizers ask that men and trans women do not attend. The festival's term for its intended attendees is "womyn-born-womyn" (WBW): women who were assigned female at birth, raised as girls, and currently identify as women. The intention first came to popular attention in 1991 after a trans festival goer named Nancy Burkholder was asked to leave the festival. Burkholder refused to answer if she was a transsexual when asked by festival security near the festival's front gate.
In a 2005 interview with Amy Ray, co-founder and owner Lisa Vogel discussed the intention within its informing political framework:
I feel very strongly that having a space for women, who are born women, to come together for a week, is a healthy, whole, loving space to provide for women who have that experience. To label that as transphobic is, to me, as misplaced as saying the women-of-color tent is racist, or to say that a transsexual-only space, a gathering of folks of women who are born men is misogynist. I have always in my heart believed in the politics and the culture of separate time and space. I have no issue with that for women-of-color, for Jewish women, for older women, for younger women. I have seen the value of that and I learned the value of that from creating this space for so many years. So the troublesome thing is, in the queer community, if we can't, not just allow, but also actually actively support each other in taking the time and space that we need to have our own thing, then to come together, in all of our various forms, is going to take that much longer. And I understand how certain activists in the Camp Trans scene only see this as a negative statement, and I think that there's a lot of connection that's getting lost. Because, I really think that folks aren't understanding how crucial this space is, as it is, for the women who come here. And, maybe that's just it.
Support for the intention by festival attendees and workers focuses mainly on the different aspects of oppression felt by females living under patriarchy in contrast to trans women who were assigned male at birth and have lived and been perceived (albeit without consent) as boys and or men: "Being transgender carries its own oppression–there's no question about that. And no one should be checking genitalia at the door of MWMF. As someone who's spent years experiencing bi-genderism, I understand why transwomen would want to attend MWMF. But women are not the enemies of other women, whether those women are born women or transitioned women. Women are not the oppressors. It's a patriarchy out here."
Criticism and protest against the WBW intention
After Nancy Burkholder was asked to leave the festival in 1991, a protest movement against the womyn-born-womyn intention developed. Opponents contend that the intention constitutes discrimination against transsexual and transgender people, many of whom they say identify as women, are legally female, and have to cope with the effects of sexism and misogyny in their daily lives. Transsexual activist Julia Serano provided her perspective on the issue: "Some of the women who travel from all over the country to attend Michigan think nothing of wearing their suspicion or hatred of trans women on their sleeves, and they will often make extraordinarily ignorant and insensitive comments about trans women in their attempts to justify our exclusion. . .[The] idea that the femaleness of my mind, personality, lived experiences, and the rest of my body can somehow be trumped by the mere presence of a penis can only be described as phallocentric." Activists for including trans women have handed out pamphlets to festival goers waiting in line for admission, protested at the gate, and boycotted performers who have played at the festival. They also established an annual protest encampment near the festival known as Camp Trans, which became inactive in 2008. Several trans women have, since that time, attended the festival openly. In 2013, Festival producer Lisa Vogel was compared to George Wallace for her continued defense of the Festival's WBW-only intention. Several artists who have been invited to and/or performed at the Festival have lost contracts or been forced to cancel appearances because of their support or their appearance of support for the policy. In October 2013, the Bay Area Girls Rock Camp asked a Board member, whose Festival related team had raised funds for the organization, to resign her position for attending the festival without repudiation.
In 2006, a transsexual woman and Camp Trans organizer named Lorraine was sold a ticket at the box office. Supporters of trans women inclusion then issued a press release declaring, incorrectly, that the womyn-born-womyn intention was no longer in effect. In response, Lisa Vogel reaffirmed her support of and the festival's adherence to the intention. More recently, on April 11, 2013, in response to a Change.org petition organized by activist Red Durkin, asking performers to boycott the festival as a result of the WBW intention, Lisa Vogel released a statement again reaffirming the policy: "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.... 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."
In a September 4, 2013 statement recapping the festival, Vogel stated her hopes and desires for the community of womyn in light of the inflamed tensions around festival attendance:
The intention of Michigan as a space for womyn born female and the question of trans inclusion has been a painful issue within the Festival. It is important that we continue these discussions and truly build alliances across our complicated and multi-faceted identities and beliefs, based on truthful, compassionate conversation and radical listening. In Michigan, as well as in our home communities, the difficulties we have experienced having these discussions in a clear and open-hearted format has pulled a great deal of focus. It is critical that we remember -- as a radical, loving and diverse community -- that a just world for all humans is our common ground and our greatest good. This is a fundamental tenet I hold dear as founder and producer of the Festival, and as a radical feminist womon. I pledge to continue to foster and support discussions about gender identities and to renew the Festival’s commitment to focused community work around issues of sexism, racism, classism, ageism, ableism; issues that, in their own ugly ways, overlap, injure and separate us. This excavation must be an ongoing process in our intentional community; good work is never complete – we are always in process.
Documenting the festival
Lesbian photographer Angela Jimenez spent five years, from 2003 to 2008, documenting the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, specifically focusing on the workers who create the festival each year. Angela stated that "The worker crews are really at the heart of it and it's a really important part of history that's been happening for 34 years and I just felt like this is a story that we need to know," says Jimenez. Her self-published book, Welcome Home: The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival has been sold at the festival and is available online.
The Michfest Half-Way Soirée
For years, women created small gatherings outside of the festival and August in their own local communities, consisting mostly of small house parties and potlucks. After attending a festival in August 2004 and a pre-fest potluck, festie goer and entrepreneur, Lisa A. Snyder, was inspired to take the gatherings to the next level by creating a party that highlighted pieces of the festival in the middle of New York City. In 2005, she created the very first "Michfest Half-Way Soirée", a party that supported the local Michigan Womyn's Music Festival community, female musicians, and women-owned businesses. The worker community and festie community were encouraged to co-mingle and introduce new "festie virgins" to feel a slice of the festival energy, halfway to August. The benefit, the first of its kind (started by Snyder in New York City) also created buzz about the festival, appearing several times in Time Out New York  and most recently in February 2011 issue of GO in "The Very Best of New York City Music" section.
In the 2010s, additional locations for the Half-Way to Michfest Parties (sometimes also called Mid-Way Parties or Michfest Half-Way Parties) have begun to pop up across the United States. Known locations include Chicago, San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, Oregon, Boston, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Santa Cruz, California, Syracuse, New York, Long Beach, California, Western Massachusetts, and Bellingham, Washington.
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