Michigan Womyn's Music Festival
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The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, often referred to as MWMF or Michfest, and called the "Original Womyn's Woodstock", was an international feminist music festival held every August from 1976 to 2015 in Oceana County, Michigan, USA, near Hart Township, in a small wooded area referred to as "The Land" by MichFest organizers and attendees. The event was completely built, staffed, run and attended by women. Attendees described attending the event as a powerful and unique experience for them.
Lisa Vogel, founder and organizer of MWMF, described the intention of the festival as being for "womyn-born womyn". Controversy about Michfest's objective to be a space for womyn-born-womyn led to protests by trans women and the 2014 call by LGBT civil rights advocacy group Equality Michigan ("EM") to boycott the Festival, which was joined by the Human Rights Campaign, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National LGBTQ Task Force. The festival held its final event in August 2015.
- 1 History
- 2 Functioning, activities and services
- 3 Production and performances
- 4 Controversy about transgender people
- 5 Photography
- 6 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.
In a 2013 "Letter to the Community", Michfest founder and organizer Lisa Vogel explained MWMF's womyn-born womyn intention as a women-only space: "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."
Foundation and early years
As a private, women-only 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 long-term 650-acre location near Hart, Michigan, attracting the largest audience hitherto (upwards of 8,000 campers). Gradually, it 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 access for 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. The 1980s saw many unique challenges, including the production of a 10th anniversary double album in 1985, the growth of the gathering to five days (with new intensive workshops) by 1986, the extraordinary thunderstorms of the "Harmonic Convergence" year in 1987, and 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, artist and Festival kitchen worker Gretchen Phillips said: "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 "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 later said: "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."
MichFest celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2015. On April 21, Lisa Vogel announced via Facebook that it would also be the last festival. An opinion published in The Advocate by a festivalgoer speculated that the ongoing controversy regarding trans women was to blame. Vogel wrote in her statement:
There have been struggles; there is no doubt about that. This is part of our truth, but it is not--and never has been--our defining story. The Festival has been the crucible for nearly every critical cultural and political issue the lesbian feminist community has grappled with for four decades. Those struggles have been a beautiful part of our collective strength; they have never been a weakness.
Functioning, activities and services
Attendance at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival ranged from 3,000 to 10,000. Women built all of the stages, ran the lighting and sound systems, made trash collection rounds, served as electricians, mechanics, security, medical and psychological support, cooked meals for thousands over open fire pits, provided childcare, and facilitated workshops covering various topics of interest to the attendees, who were referred to as "festies". Hundreds of women spent upwards of a month out on the land building the festival from the ground up because it was torn down after each event ended, leaving the land as close to how it was found as possible.
Community decisions were made through worker community meetings where the youngest members of the community were given as much access to participate as the oldest. Community service support included ASL interpretation at every performance, mental and physical health care, AA meetings, camping for disabled women, as well as a tent solely for women of color. While men were not allowed at the Festival, male children age 4 and under were 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 teen circle. Brother Sun Boys Camp was available for boys aged 5 to 10.
Production and performances
The Festival created a space for performers of all genres to share their music. While many artists had earned mainstream success after their performance at the festival, the Festival supported diverse performances. Genres include classical, jazz, folk, hard rock, acoustic, bluegrass and gospel. The Festival created a high-tech production with three stages in a rural outdoor venue. Musicians and artists who performed at the festival represented a range of lesbian and womyn's art and music, from Sarah Bettens, Laura Nyro, Hattie Gossett, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Tracy Chapman, Holly Near, Team Dresch, Kathleen Hanna, Tribe 8, Sia, Staceyann Chin and many more.
Controversy about transgender people
Controversy over the Festival's determination to remain a space for cisgender females led to protests by trans women and their allies, and a boycott of the Festival by Equality Michigan in 2014. The boycott was joined by the Human Rights Campaign ("HRC"), the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation ("GLAAD"), the National Center for Lesbian Rights ("NCLR"), and the National LGBTQ Task Force ("The Task Force").
In response to the anti-Festival petition, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival stated: "MWMF is not just a party. It is a space wherein females—who have been subjected to all manner of degradation from the moment of their first breath—can unpack and put down the oppressions that are directly tied to that experience under patriarchy ... Equality Michigan has initiated a petition and call to action against the Festival based on misrepresentations, purposeful omissions, and selective editing of prior Festival statements on this issue." Lisa Vogel referred to the boycott as "McCarthy-era blacklist tactics". Michfest supporters responded to the shunning with social media posts, letters, and online media presentations such as "Myths and The Truth About the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival". NCLR and The Task Force withdrew their support of the boycott, and Equality Michigan's executive director resigned from the organization.
The womyn-born-womyn intention first came to attention in 1991 after a transsexual festival-goer, Nancy Burkholder, was asked to leave the festival when several women recognized her as a trans woman and expressed discomfort with her presence in the space. In August 2014, Lisa Vogel apologized for this incident, stating:
Over 20 years ago, we asked Nancy Burkholder, a trans womon, to leave the Land. That was wrong, and for that, we are sorry. We, alongside the rest of the LGBTQ community, have learned and changed a great deal over our 39‐year history. We speak to you now in 2014 after two decades of evolution; an evolution grown from our willingness to stay in hard conversations, just as we do every year around issues of race, ability, class and gender. Since that single incident, Festival organizers have never asked a trans womon to leave the Festival.
In a 2005 interview with Amy Ray, Vogel discussed the intention within its informing political framework and stated: "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."
After the Burkholder incident, a protest movement against the womyn-born-womyn intention was organized. Opponents contended that it constituted discrimination against transsexual and transgender people, many of whom identified as women and were legally female. In 1994, a protest camp was created across the road from the Festival called Camp Trans (and later, "Son of Camp Trans"). In 2006, a trans 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 objective was no longer in effect. In response, Lisa Vogel reiterated the Festival's adherence to the intention, and also confronted the distribution of misinformation and accusations of transphobia by Camp Trans, in an August 2006 press release:
"From its inception the Festival has been home to womyn who could be considered gender outlaws, either because of their sexual orientation (lesbian, bisexual, polyamorous, etc.) or their gender presentation (butch, bearded, androgynous, femme - and everything in between). Many womyn producing and attending the Michigan Festival are gender variant womyn ... We strongly assert there is nothing transphobic with choosing to spend one week with womyn who were born as, and have lived their lives as, womyn ... Supporting womyn-born womyn space is no more inherently transphobic than supporting womyn of color space is racist."
The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival staunchly defended its raison d'être, described by Vogel as "a predominantly lesbian community ... defined by lesbian culture" with "a focus on the experience of those born female, who've lived their lives subjected to oppression based on the sole fact of their being female." In her statement, Vogel added that "it is not the inclusion of trans women at Festival that we resist; it is the erasure of the specificity of female experience."
The protests against womyn-born womyn spaces resulted in some artists who had been invited to and/or performed at the Festival losing contracts or forced to cancel appearances because of their support, or their appearance of support, for the festival's intention. Other performers were physically threatened by pro-inclusion supporters, faced verbal harassment and bomb threats. In October 2013, filmmaker Sara St. Martin Lynne was asked to resign from the board of the Bay Area Girls Rock Camp for attending the festival (the organization's Festival-related team had raised funds for BAGRC).
In response to an April 2013 Change.org petition by trans activist Red Durkin asking performers to boycott MWMF until trans women were included, Lisa Vogel released a statement reaffirming the Festival's viewpoint:
"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."
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. Several artists, including Desdemona Burgin and Sara St. Martin Lynne have created videos and other art celebrating the freeing experience of the "Land." These productions specifically detail the experiences of liberation that females feel in escaping male dominated culture and spaces for the Festival. In 2014, a new website was created, compiling stories from women who attended the festival, about what the festival meant to them.
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 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 the 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; Tampa, Florida; Yellow Springs, Ohio and Bellingham, Washington.
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