That everything is done by women is an important thing to note. It's part of what makes this event such a powerful statement. Women can, and do, do everything that men can. Women are powerful. The exclusion of men in this is done purposefully to empower women. I have been told that is a great experience.
In recent years, as feminism has evolved, the festival has started coming under fire for some of its policies. The main policy under fire is one of wbw (womyn born womyn) only. The festival has historically not allowed any woman who identifies as trans (or any gender variant) to attend. There have been some who have attended because they 'passed' but a noted example of the exclusion of trans-identifying people was in 1991: Nancy Jean Burkholder was forcibly removed from “the Land” by event security.
Lisa Vogel, founder of the festival, has advocated keeping the festival as a wbw space in the face of the growing controversy and criticisms from trans activists. To support this position Vogel refers to the festivals founding; she says, "We started Festival to make a home 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." Its an important thing to remember the place the event has had in the history of feminism and women's rights. However I think this appeal is too much like an appeal to tradition and has its focus set in the wrong direction. The past, as we have seen in every rights based movement, is almost always the wrong way to look when it comes to ideas of inclusion.
Because of the resistance to allowing trans-women into the festival, many performers have made statements and/or boycotted. The most notable protest is that of the Indigo Girls. The group has garnered respect from women's groups by staying steadfast in many ideals and supporting rights even if it isn't necessarily in their own best (read monetary) interests. The Indigo Girls have stated that they will perform this year at MichFest but that it will be their last performance there until the policy has changed to an inclusive one.
This issue has marked a strong divide among many festgoers, and among the feminist community as a whole. The controversy seems to question basic assumptions about gender. Some people still have trouble recognizing that gender is a social construct and that someone can identify and be a woman even though they weren't born with a vagina. Many people still like to make gender about 'parts'. The festival does not necessarily do this as its policy distinguishes between different kinds of women; namely those who are born women and those who aren't.
The problem with this distinction seems to me one that makes an entirely wrong assumption. It seems to imply that women who identify as trans weren't always women. It seems to make the assumption that a woman is only a woman if they have acted as one their entire lives. But we know this isn't true. Many of the women attending the festival have and do bend the rules of gender. We have learned that there doesn't seem to be any one solid way of 'being' a woman other than identifying as one. Many trans-identifying people say that they have felt their desired gender since they were very young and so is it really all that different from a 'wow'? I would question whether or not a trans identifying woman was not a wbw or if anyone can truly be a woman born woman; after all, if gender is socially constructed it would imply you aren't really born as either.
This is where the accusations of transphobia come from. I can't say necessarily or definitively if the thoughts and actions are transphobic, but I am sure that they may be. Vogel has her own opinion on this. She writes:
"This false dichotomy 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."
So we have the above issue to contend with in modern gender discourse, but this controversy has raised another question. This controversy has raised questions about safe spaces (and if you haven't questioned this I believe you should). Above everything else, the festival is supposed to be a safe space for women. A place to rejuvenate and feel safe and discuss things about womanhood that they aren't comfortable talking about in other settings (ones with men/allies).
Many believe, as Vogel states above, that any space that is used to help members of a group should be supported. I agree, at least to the extent that safe spaces are important. Everyone should have a space where they don't feel like they need to hide, and where they feel it is safe to explore parts of them or their ideas. In a conversation with a friend of mine, it was brought up that many women will not bring up or talk about certain subject simply because a man (ally or not) is present. Specifically she said, "As soon as a man is there, even if it is an ally, it completely changes the dynamics of that conversation and a shitload of things do not get said."
I don't want to deny the importance such spaces had or have for women or other oppressed groups, but something I think is interesting to note is that much of activism is supposed to go towards stopping such things from happening. Feminism and LGBT rights are meant to help forge a reality where women or gay men or non-cisgender people do not feel silenced or as if they can't talk about something because of the mere presence of another kind of person.
For many this issue revolves around the role a safe space plays. To me, a safe space is a place where a person can talk or be/explore themselves without fear of being attacked for it. Using this definition, I think it is safe to say that an inclusive safe space is possible. To some people this has to do with an 'oppressor' being present, or a member of an oppressive group is present. To others (myself included) this has to do only with actually feeling safe with the people in the space.
When talking about an oppressor or member of an oppressive group being present we run into an essentially infinite regression. White men are almost always at the top of the pyramid, but is there a bottom? Would it be wrong to include a white woman in a safe space with black women? Would it be wrong to include a heterosexual woman with a lesbian woman? What about a lesbian with a bisexual? How inclusive then can safe spaces really be? How inclusive should they be?
If we look at the issue from the perspective that a space need only be somewhere that effectively allows people to feel safe there, then we are forced to conclude that it is certainly possible to be inclusive. Safety for such groups is of course the priority but I think its agreeable that inclusion is a positive (and probably important) quality as well. From this perspective we are forced to ask "if a group can be inclusive and still safe, why then should it not be?" I think you'll be hard pressed to find an acceptable answer. This doesn't only apply to the case of MichFest but all safe spaces.
Another way to look at the situation is from a human rights perspective. A conversation on this with my partner revealed that, within a human rights discourse, one might have a hard time justifying exclusionary practices considering much of human and civil rights have revolved around the inclusion of minority groups. Much of the discourse for this revolves around the idea of not being discriminated against, and that all people should be treated equally. It would seem that by excluding trans-women from MichFest does not treat all people, not even all women, equally.
Much of human rights discourse would say that you (the group or leader of a safe space) are obligated to treat others equally with respect to the group, even if that person may not. The risk that a trans-woman might infringe on the safety and wellbeing of another at the festival is a common reason used to defend the wbw policy. This argument I think is reductive and a waste. Just because a person may make something unsafe means that you are justified by not allowing the entire rest of the group? Feminists and other activists would never accept that reasoning for their exclusion from anything; why has it become acceptable in this context?
I also take issue with someone assuming that just being a trans-woman could make another feel unsafe. I don't want to invalidate people's feelings, but I wouldn't just rush to conclusions and say that it is the male-bodied woman's fault (it very well may be nobody's).
Despite all of this, I can't shake what my friend said earlier. If the mere presence of a man, or a member of an oppressive group, can stifle conversation, make people hold back and worry about their safety, then what is the solution? Its a difficult situation, but its one that seriously needs to be looked at.
Let me know what you think in the comments below.
You can read more on the controversy here and here.
You can learn more about MichFest here.