Setting the Record Straight About MichFest

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Photo by Katie Yieland

The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival operated an intentional community for women in the woods starting in 1976. During that time, the festival became legendary in the lesbian community. But now, wherever you read about it online, even from sources supportive of women-only space and of founder Lisa Vogel, you are likely to encounter at best unmalicious but ultimately harmful inaccuracies, and at worse distortions, lies, and probably libelous nonsense.

We sat down with MichFest founder Lisa Vogel to set the record straight in her own words about the Intention, womyn-born-womyn space, and why MichFest ended after 40 years.

AfterEllen: What was the intention of Michefest and how did it develop?

Lisa Vogel: Well how it actually started, and this isn’t really discussed a lot, when we began the festival in 1976, there really wasn’t much of a presence of the trans community, but there was, for the first time, an interracial community of dykes living together at Michigan. It was womyn-only and we, as producers and organizers (and I say that lightly because we were so new at everything), would have womyn come up to us and say, ‘There’s a man on the land,’ and we’d go over and it would be a bearded womon. Or we’d walk over to check it out and really often it would be a butch black womon. And white womyn were not used to being around a diversity of black womyn. So much so that when I was approached, my first question would be, ‘what is the person’s skin color?’  and then if they said black, I wouldn’t even bother taking it any further, I’d just say, ‘sister you know, I think you need to check yourself.’

Our intention of never questioning anyone’s gender on the Land stemmed from that, and that was in the 70s, before anyone was really discussing gender [identity]. it was really clear that here we were; we had this womyn-only space and womyn were getting confused — if they didn’t know butch womyn or bearded womyn or black womyn, then they were IDing sisters as men. And so really our original focus on this started out as: we don’t want here to be any place where a woman is questioned. Cuz we’re questioned about our womonhood all the time. I mean I’m a butch womon; I’ve been questioned. So that was the foundation of it.

And then as we rolled into the 80s, and the very beginning of the appearance of more trans folks in the community, then people would start to come up and say there’s a trans person on the land and we’d go, ‘look, we don’t question anybody about who they are. We would rather have everybody here than have a single womon be questioned.’

In the late 70s early 80s, we came up with the term womyn-born-womyn. Our first kind of tag as a festival was, “A Gathering For Mothers and Daughters,” and that evolved into “A Gathering of Mothers and Daugthers, for  Womyn-Born-Womyn”. Since Michigan was around for a long time, you know the politics of everything shifted over those 40 years. We later clarified that: “womyn-born-womyn.” This is for womyn who were born and survived girlhood and still identified as womyn. And we always added that we leave the onus on each individual to respond to that as they will.

And as is well known, once in 1991 there was a trans woman who was asked to leave the land.  I wasn’t directly involved with that moment, but I take responsibility. I know the circumstances of it, and that was the only time a trans person was questioned or asked to leave by the Festival.

We read the accounts of it and in anyone’s memory from the festival, it’s not really how it happened, you know, we actually put her up in a hotel, the same hotel that we put the artists up in.

It was told in a very intense way that didn’t match what happened. I know the womon who was doing security, who handled it and she, at the time, didn’t even agree about having it be womyn-born-womyn space, but some womyn at the gate were bugging out about this womon’s presence, this trans womon’s presence. And one thing led to another. From that point on, that moment in 1991, Michigan was an organizing tool for the trans community. No one was interested to listen to what we were really about.

From that point on, that moment in 1991, Michigan was an organizing tool for the trans community. No one was interested to listen to what we were really about.

The first year that Camp Trans happened, Camp Trans was across the road. I got a call from the box office and they said, ‘Hey — a bunch of people from Camp Trans are coming over, what should we do?’ And I said just check in with them and say ‘We want you to understand the intention for this festival is for womyn-born-womyn and the onus is on to you to decide what to do with that.’ And they said, ‘And then what should we do?’ and I said, ‘then if they want to buy a ticket, you sell them a ticket.’

And then everybody from Camp Trans came in. My partner of 20 years was in that group that came across the road, so I know first hand from her, too. Now, that part of the story never is told. No one says, ‘They didn’t stop us from coming in.’ No one bothers to mention that.

Photo of Lisa Vogel by Brynna Fish

I assume you’ve read some of the festival statements. We’ve gone to great pains to say what our position is. And our position is: we do not question anyone’s gender. We are well aware that trans women and trans men attend the event, and they attend as supporters, not detractors of the female-centered space. But the people who have most deeply criticized us, have no idea what the festival is really about. They have no idea about the radical feminist space we created together. The intention that was meaningful to us did not translate into a policy of policing people.

Our position is: we do not question anyone’s gender. We are well aware that trans women and trans men attend the event, and they attend as supporters, not detractors of the female-centered space. But the people who have most deeply criticized us, have no idea what the festival is really about. They have no idea about the radical feminist space we created together.

Michigan became a tool that trans activists and gay activists could wield against a larger homophobic mainstream culture. They could say, ‘This is an example of intolerance even in our own community.’ Gay men don’t come from a radical lesbian analysis so they don’t understand why we believe what we believe.

AE: How did people who were never a part of the festival or the lesbian community co-opt it for their own agenda?

LV: The press covered Camp Trans wildly, and I would try to respond. [The portrayal] was in a way that is straight up misogyny — by the gay press and the straight press. We cannot forget how defensive everybody is about having womyn’s space. It was kind of perfect for the straight press and the gay press to have someone hammering us about having exclusive space that was supposedly [from] within the community.

All kinds of things happen within the gay male community that is exclusive of trans people, that is exclusive of womyn, that is exclusive of, for example anyone except bears. They have complete autonomy of whoever they want to include. It’s frustrating that this [exclusivity] is only held against womyn, I think it was used as a tool by the all-of-a-sudden exploding trans community to be pitted against these “nasty lesbian separatists.”

All kinds of things happen within the gay male community that is exclusive of trans people, that is exclusive of womyn, that is exclusive of, for example anyone except bears. They have complete autonomy of whoever they want to include. It’s frustrating that this [exclusivity] is only held against womyn.

You’ve been to Michigan. It’s made up of everybody, just everybody. But they overlooked the radically inclusive community. Because they don’t care about the radical gender expression of womyn. Michigan was the most radically diverse group of womyn that you could find in one space –  more than San Francisco, Portland, Brooklyn, Toronto — I mean you just never saw as diverse of a group of women.

And I really learned a lot in the last couple of years, when so many gay and lesbian organizations signed on to the Equality Michigan protest and boycotted the festival. Their fundraising focus, now that gay marriage is done, their best fundraising tool, is their sharp focus on trans liberation. There’s a ton of money, there’s a tremendous amount of legislative support.

There are very deep pockets. There’s a lot of controversy in my mind about where that money is coming from. The medical industrial complex, the many wealthy trans women in [tech and finance.]

The organizations — I was told off the record by more than one, ‘We can’t take our name off that petition because that will affect how we look and that endangers our funding’ — they signed up for this petition and made these type of comments so they could be on the right side of this issue. Because there’s also a very aggressive element in the trans radical community that attacks and goes for blood on anyone who doesn’t agree with their essential premise. And their essential premise is very focused on trans women and never on trans men. That very one-sided focus is also something no one wants to tease out.

None of these organizations wanted anyone to focus on them. Women who left the fest and got mad that these orgs had signed this petition and womyn who hadn’t even been to the fest in 20 years, started pulling their donations [to the LGBT orgs]. Some of these donations were big, and the push back from dykes was pretty significant. No one could actually hold in their head that these organizations were signing on to boycott a lesbian space.

These organizations came to me and wanted to apologize and make nice and I said, ‘Take your name off the petition.’ They made it clear that even though they would say to me that they wished they hadn’t signed it, they weren’t going to take their names off the petition.  I mean everyone is running afraid of someone who’s sitting in Sunnyville behind a computer ready to attack them. It’s given a small group of people a lot of power.

The reality is that Michigan already did not have the support of the gay community and we were an embarrassment to the gay organizations, who were all trying to be mainstream. And we were not trying to be mainstream, we are trying to live a different ethic and a different politic. No we won’t fly an HRC flag. No, we won’t do that.

The reality is that Michigan already did not have the support of the gay community and we were an embarrassment to the gay organizations, who were all trying to be mainstream. And we were not trying to be mainstream, we are trying to live a different ethic and a different politic. No we won’t fly an HRC flag. No, we won’t do that.

AE: I wonder how Festival goers received Camp Trans. Did women share their reactions to Camp Trans with you?

LV: I think people were all over the board. The Festival community is not monolithic. And nothing about the festival community demanded a certain adherence to a particular point of view to be whole within the community. To the contrary, we felt like in order to have the kind of community that we wanted, we wanted to work more to understand differences, be willing to live with the tension of differences. So stating our intention was for this to be a space for womyn-born-womyn,  there was a fair number of womyn who disagreed with that. There were a larger group who agreed with it and the largest group of all could care less either way or maybe not that they couldn’t care less, but that they didn’t engage in it — they were at festival and unless something bad happened to them, they were good, they were happy.

AE: My experience at Fest was exactly as you were saying — an incredible diversity of background and experience. I only saw it from the perspective of an attendee though — Was there a difference between the workers and the larger festival in terms of the beliefs about the Intention?

LV: I would say the womyn who really wanted the fest to be womyn-born-womyn space [without trans womyn]  would say everybody wanted that, or most people want that. And womyn who wanted trans womyn welcomed and sought after would say the majority wanted that too. I don’t find that longtime workers were different from the rest of Fest, but there was a real and passionate variety of points of view on the crew.

Another myth of support for the Intention is around age. I personally know many young womyn who were serious about womyn-born-womyn space and I know womyn in their 70s arguing for a welcome to trans womyn. I don’t know if you made it to any Allies in Understanding workshops. I only made it to one, it was the only workshop I actually went to in 40 years. I was very moved by witnessing that age diversity in itself. To see the young sisters talking about what it’s like you know going to a womyn’s college and struggling with the college changing its guidelines to self-definition and I saw really elder sisters talking about how trans womyn are revolutionaries and this is part of the revolution.

So there’s not an answer, there’s a complex conversation to have. But with the intensity of the attacks on both sides, it’s the right wing side of both conversations that’s stopping the conversation from happening more deeply and moving forward.

So there’s not an answer, there’s a complex conversation to have. But with the intensity of the attacks on both sides, it’s the right wing side of both conversations that’s stopping the conversation from happening more deeply and moving forward. There are plenty of sisters who support the festival that scare me a little bit. I don’t have a personal need to drum up bigotry about a group of people. I have criticism but it needs to stay in the realm of criticism and analysis or we’re going to have more and more problems getting our message across about self-determination and sovereignty. It’s a very complicated situation right now where everything is heading. Michigan was really the first event/institution attacked, systematically.  Many other spaces have been closed.

AE: People think that the only thing that ended Fest is the question of: Is the intention bigoted and can MichFest survive or is it on the wrong side of history? It was destined to close because of its inherent bigotry. You and other sisters organized a massive fucking city out of the dust for 40 years and at a certain point you pass the torch. I don’t doubt the magnitude of artists and funders pulling away from Michigan but I wonder if part of it was letting your baby grow up and go out into the world.

LV: The truth was it was a combination of things. I can’t deny the pressure and the focus on the festival made producing the event more difficult. It went from being an always more than full time job to a massive full time job with a complicated political situation to handle. I can’t tease out how much of that was the cause. Forty years of a run of doing anything is a long, long time. I started when I was 19 and I was gonna turn 60 and I had attempted for the last 15 years to reorganize the festival so I didn’t have to work equal to two full time jobs in a year. It was fantastic in my 20s and 30s, it was getting a little hard in my 40s, and in my 50s it was really fucking hard. And I was unsuccessful at doing that, of making the changes to peel back to a regular job.

Some of that was pure finances. There were many things that influenced the attendance of the festival and certainly the trans debate was one of them. But Michigan was one of the few iconic, steeped-in-radical-feminism organizations that still existed after 40 years. Still committed to maintaining the same value system always. A lot of folks may have morphed into something that mimicked the mainstream ways of doing things and I was never interested to do that. The Michigan Community was not about that.  I did a mock up after the 39th festival, to look at how to make the fest financially viable after the 40th, what we would have to survive financially. It would have meant cutting so much. Essentially cutting all the things we know and love about Michigan that took so much money and people and labor, like having all three child care areas, having DART, having not a first-aid tent but a radical exposure to healthcare. All the things we did that held that container that made us all feel safe. That this is the world we want to be living in. 

Michigan was one of the few iconic, steeped-in-radical-feminism organizations that still existed after 40 years. Still committed to maintaining the same value system always. A lot of folks may have morphed into something that mimicked the mainstream ways of doing things and I was never interested to do that.

Now I could have done a music show and stripped out all that stuff, and I imagine some people would have come. But that’s not what I wanted to produce. Maybe if I’d done that starting in my 20s. But I had been there for the evolution of this thing we had all created. Each wave of womyn had different ideas and my job was just to facilitate the ideas that came from everybody. And that was why it was so cool. Womyn did not just come and go, ‘well that was cool.’ They had feedback. I read every single piece of feedback over the years. That was my commitment because I wanted to know. And we would make a list of possible things to work on. But I personally, after experiencing matriarchy and amazon culture, could not return to doing just a straight up music show.  I am not dissing anybody who just does a music show but I couldn’t do that there (the Land). I was working on looking at all of this right after the Equality Michigan boycott blow-up. It made it harder, for sure, but it’s not the reason. I know everybody likes to say Michigan would rather close than change, and that’s true, but not in the way they think. I did not want us to have the experience of disassembling what we built, I wanted us to go out amazon proud.

AE: How you were able to make the space without holding on to control? You have a vision for your project and it’s easy to hold on to that, so how did you allow this to grow and change while letting go of that control? 

LV: I’m well aware of what I gave to the community, I came up with some good ideas myself, but my true work and what I did well was constantly keep myself in check about seeing myself as a trustee. I know I was the owner, but I really saw myself as the trustee of the community. I got into that place with my roll kinda early on.  Some of it was that phrase ‘you can either be a good example or a bad example but you will always be an example.’ I had some examples of how I didn’t want to be, and that was people who wanted to be figureheads and not roll up their sleeves and get into it. People who wanted to take credit for everything, even something that complex, of course it’s hundreds of womyn pulling it off. For me it was a spiritual journey, facilitated quite a bit more when I got sober. I got sober pretty young.

I really saw myself as the trustee of the community. I got into that place with my roll kinda early on.  Some of it was that phrase ‘you can either be a good example or a bad example but you will always be an example.’

I had someone I knew who produced a festival back in the late 70s who looked me in the face and said ‘Do you know how much power you have?’ I was like, you scare me. I want a seat at the table. I do not want to be held separate from my friends, my sisters. When you’re an organizer for a long time you actually have to fight for that a little bit. You become a figurehead. Weird things happen, like you walk into a circle and people stop talking. You’re the “it,” not the girl. I just feel like it was the thing most important for me to stay rooted in.

I’m writing some stories down and I remember the womon who inspired DART [Disabled Access Resource]. I remember the names of the womyn who got in our faces and pushed us to create services for womyn with disabilities, I remember the womyn who started the Womyn of Color Tent and so on and so on and so on. And in so doing they changed the culture of Michigan. I can’t say I didn’t resist some of those changes at first, but the beauty of Michigan was that we all had ownership and the diversity of Michigan was that we all had ownership. It wasn’t a white womyn’s music festival that black womyn played music at, women of color had ownership on the land. And in doing that, it changed the culture of Michigan. So I feel like — I’m a working class dyke — I had to work really hard the first 10 years. I did everything. I was on the stage building crew. Right down to the last year, I always did a couple of sano shifts cleaning toilets for the workers. I did that because I need to earn my seat. If I’m just pushing a paper and talking on the phone and showing up at meetings I’m that thing. But if I will go and pull on the tent rope and clean the toilets and do a garbage run, that actually includes me. I credit that to being working class and sober and not wanting to be lonely.

AE: What is it about women-only space that allows women to create the future?

LV: We all live in patriarchy and patriarchy has gotten a major boost lately, but I feel like we were also dealt a popular lie for a couple of decades that feminism was no longer needed. Smart womyn said they didn’t feel oppressed as a womon. And that was the most excellently crafted PR campaign that patriarchy launched. And they fuckin did it, they had it coming from the mouths of womyn. So we live in patriarchy. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are not seen, we are not valued. Certainly not the same as men. Right down to the antithesis of that: we are loathed and feared. If you get into a space where it’s all womyn whether it’s 10 or 10,000 the defensiveness, the protection, the guards that we live with every day and we don’t know we live with them, fall away and we start to discover our strength and our beauty and our commonality.

We all live in patriarchy and patriarchy has gotten a major boost lately, but I feel like we were also dealt a popular lie for a couple of decades that feminism was no longer needed. Smart womyn said they didn’t feel oppressed as a womon. And that was the most excellently crafted PR campaign that patriarchy launched. And they fuckin did it, they had it coming from the mouths of womyn.

In the 70s we would sit around and discuss how can we think in a womon-identified way when the only way I’ve learnt to think is male-identified? We actually thought about it literally like that. We were aware that we were in patriarchy and that our ways of thinking were patriarchal and capitalistic and anti-womon. We used to sit around and think those thoughts and push ourselves, very deliberately.

But that happens organically in womyn-only space. It just starts to happen. It might be how we consider our appearance. I can’t tell you the hundreds of letters I read over the years of women saying, ‘I never felt comfortable with my appearance until Michigan.’ And that’s simply because we saw the diversity of womyn and you think she looks great, she looks great, her crazy outfit looks fantastic, big womyn, small womyn whatever. But also the burden of being under the male gaze, the patriarchal gaze the very values that push on us to be something other than strong or open.

The essential thing is when we create space with just womyn, it allows us to appear as our true essential selves and that strengthens us. You know people always say Michigan ‘charges my battery for the next year.’ That was partly why it was such a hard decision to bring it to a close. That was true for me too, it charged my batteries. It charged my sense of self. And that wasn’t about work, that was about living in community. Womyn-only space — we need it, we need to create it. Small or big, to be able to support who we are and certainly for survival in this patriarchy. More than survival, you know?

Whether we are aware of it or not, we are not seen, we are not valued. Certainly not the same as men. Right down to the antithesis of that: we are loathed and feared. If you get into a space where it’s all womyn whether it’s 10 or 10,000 the defensiveness, the protection, the guards that we live with every day and we don’t know we live with them, fall away and we start to discover our strength and our beauty and our commonality.

AE: Do you have any advice for women forging women-only space in these troubled times?

LV: Well, believe in yourself. That’s an easy thing to say and a hard thing to do. When I started organizing Michigan, I was 19. I had never organized anything more than a kegger. Don’t feel like you have to be perfect. To be of service to your community is a beautiful thing and will enrich your life. Start small and believe in yourself. We’re in an instant world right now, right? Wrap your mind around what’s going to give you and your sisters the most liberation and try to create it. And there will be womyn who need it. There will be womyn who want it. I believed every womyn needed Michigan, but it’s wasn’t necessarily for womyn who needed it, it was for womyn who wanted it. I feel like something about the times we live in puts some pressure on people to come out and have whatever they’re doing be complete when they start, but don’t be afraid of failing. Whatever failing is. Go forward and create.

 

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