or, three days at a trans inclusive music festival
Getting together with some friends I haven’t seen in a while has been a frequent occurrence while preparing for our move. Given that I have lived in Toronto for the past seventeen years, a lot of water has gone under the bridge with a lot of people, and it has been more than cool to reflect on those times. One such amusing memory that I recently revisited was about the time that myself and two male friends, escorted by a female friend, camped out under the stars with thousands of feminists of every stripe, at a female centric (though all gender welcome), music festival.
Yes, this will require quite the set up.
You may recall the early nineties, when a controversy that had been brewing in the feminist community finally reached a boil over. I’m referring to the battle between “women born women” and “women born men, who are now women”. Today, in 2017, we have a handy little short form for what we now call trans-exclusionary radical feminists. That being the somewhat ironic moniker of TERF. One of the issues that helped cement the line divisions that unfortunately have not gotten much better some twenty plus years later, was a debate over who should be allowed to attend the Michigan Womyns Musical Festival.
Sadly, it became one of the ugliest divisions in feminist ranks, mainly between said TERF identified women and mainstream, or “other” feminists (I realize mainstream may be a problematic term). In the early nineties, it was a division felt by anyone close to the movement.
The issue centered around whether, for the purpose of event access, women born women had the right to all female (as they defined it) identified spaces. In other words, women born anatomically women, not men born men who then became, or were becoming women. While a case can be made for theoretically plausible arguments on the TERF side of the issue, such as women who were once men having a clear history of, and problematic duality with male privilege, entitlement, and the benefits of patriarchy. The same privilege, entitlement, and benefits that women born women simply did not, nor could not experience.
I understand the issue is complex, and at the risk of both oversimplifying and mansplaining, I’m just not convinced that a transgender male to female individual in the middle of sex reassignment surgery is really all that privileged by patriarchy. In fact, I’d say they are not, nor would they be accepted or welcomed by it. Instead, they’d likely have a good chance of being potentially hurt by it. As in the eyes of patriarchy, these “men with a gender disorder” have the unmitigated gall to fan the flames of disrespect for the sacred and essential gender roles that patriarchal dominance relies on. So, not only were trans individuals profoundly oppressed by patriarchy, the cruel twist of fate here, was that they were being, in effect, excluded from participating as their identified gender. By other women.
Why, you might ask, am I rambling on about female centric spaces and trans exclusion when I began talking about a camping weekend? Well, it kind of sets the scene for what’s to come. I know, quite the circuitous path to get here, but stay with me.
So, getting back to 1994, my friend Karen, a long time straight identified attendee to the Michigan Womyns Musical Festival, had made the decision not to attend that year, showing solidarity for the women not born women who had been barred from attendance. Karen felt strongly that not allowing trans women access to the festival was to reenact a similar style oppression of women, just on a different framework. And that, is how myself, Karen, and my best friend Steve, ended up at a counter musical festival in Saugatuck. The one which boycotted the trans exclusion policy by allowing both genders to participate fully. Oh, did I forget to mention Daniel, a straight friend from work, who, for reasons that still remain a blur, somehow ended up coming with us?
Signs that the fourth addition to our merry band of festival goers was not the best choice began in earnest on the drive down. It started as Karen gave the obligatory warning to the three of us, several times I might add, that if we were attending this thing with her, it was mandatory we check our male privilege and entitlement at the gate. And really, that was something Steve and I saw as fundamental to attending, being the oh so progressive, pro feminist gay boys we thought ourselves to be. Of course Daniel, well meaning straight boy that he was, proved himself rather clueless to complicated gender paradigms, when he sincerely asked, “Male privilege, what do you mean?”
Sound of crickets chirping.
It was at that point Steve and I shared a glance, groan, and eye roll while attempting to sink under the car seats; our gay male, progressive viewpoints on all things feminist in stark contrast to straight boys question.
That weird, uncomfortable tension just seemed to get worse as Karen described what the female centric vibe was all about. My guess, though she still denies it, was that she was just fucking with Daniel. No one knew it, or would have predicted it at the time, but I think she had a soft spot for him, given that ten years later they would be married. Anyway, whatever her intentions were on that day in 1994, she had the naive straight boy scared shitless with this little gem.
Steve and I shared another look, both of us praying Daniel would just be quiet. No such luck. After a lengthy period of silence, he offered “Okay, that sounds different. How far is Detroit”?
Well, he didn’t end up fleeing for Detroit. And Daniel surprised all of us with being such a fast learner. Since I’m sure it was quite the visual, when, three days later, Karen looked on with befuddled amusement as her three male festival partners, bare chested, shirts tucked into our shorts like the thousands of women at the festival, seemingly oblivious to outdated gender typical concerns, belted out the chorus to the song below, arms clasped in feminist solidarity with our bare breasted earth sisters.
I suppose you had to be there to get the full effect …
A shorter version of this story originally appeared on my personal blog, bluealto.net, in January, 2009.