Established in 1976, The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (or MichFest) is the largest and longest-running women-only music festival in the world. The event, which draws around 4,000 attendees, is staffed and attended exclusively by women — many of whom go nude or topless. But, as the definition of womanhood has expanded to include transgender and transsexual individuals, will MichFest remain for (naturally) female concertgoers only, or will it be forced to adapt?
The event’s entry policy has long been a source of controversy, but things seem to be coming to a head in the lead-up to this year’s festival, with a Change.org petition pressuring festival organizers to reconsider the restrictive entry policy, and urging the Indigo Girls to boycott.
And the band is listening. They responded by taking a firm stance on the issue, declaring that 2013 will be the last time they play MichFest, and that they will donate any profits from this year’s festival towards trans activism. “We have made it clear that this will be our last time at the Festival until MWMF shows visible and concrete signs of changing their intention,” band members Amy Ray and Emily Saliers wrote in a statement on their Web site. Another performer, Andrea Gibson, has decided to cancel her appearance altogether. In a statement on her website, the spoken-word artist attributes her decision to the “great deal of heartfelt feedback” she received upon accepting her invitation to participate in this year’s event.
The issue first came to light in 1991 when attendee Nancy Burkholder was asked to leave MichFest after revealing that she was transsexual. The festival’s official policy declares it open to “womyn-born-womyn” only, meaning men and transgender women are not allowed to attend or staff MichFest. This incident helped spark the Camp Trans movement, which holds its own protest festival across the road from MichFest every year, drawing 100-200 attendees. The Indigo Girls have been caught in the middle of the issue for some time. In 2005, Ray made an unsuccessful attempt to clear the air between Camp Trans and MichFest when she interviewed both sides. In the course of the interviews, festival founder Lisa Vogel defended the policy, stating “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.”
Will increased public scrutiny following the protests of performers, attendees, and a growing online community force MichFest to change its policy, or will organizers stand firm? Whatever the outcome, the controversy raises interesting questions about tolerance and gender identity.