B.C. on Gender: The Truly Detestable Summer Festival

Yes yes yes it's the summer festival
The truly detestable summer festival

- Edwin Collins

No Man of Womyn-born-Womyn

We're so darned complicated. Untidy, too. We don't stay neatly in those categories.

Maybe that's why so many of us resist labels. It's the old maxim, "Question Authority." I guess, as a lifestyle, that's not a bad one. At least it might keep authority from sleepwalking over us.

And when, as sometimes happens, we find that we are authority, it might keep us honest. It might help us remember that when lines are drawn sharply, they often cut. And sometimes people bleed.

- Elise Matthesen, "What's So Funny About Bisexual Separatism?"

One of the recent blurbs that I posted on this site was a critique of Anne Lawrence's support of the theory of autogynephilia. I took great pains, at the time, to point out that I'm not critiquing Anne Lawrence, who has done many great things for transsexual women on the 'Net.

So, it's with some trepidation that I sit, now, in front of my computer, ready to write another critique of Anne Lawrence's actions. But, y'know, her actions are hurtful, and I feel I must speak out. Anne is fond of quoting Audre Lorde, who said: "My silences had not protected me; your silence will not protect you."

"Hurtful". That's a pretty loaded word choice. But, y'know, I can think of no other descriptor. Perhaps, Anne should take a cue from the lovely and wonderful Elise Matthesen: "when lines are drawn sharply, they often cut. And sometimes people bleed."

Okay, so what has Anne Lawrence done? She has posted a statement about the Michigan Women's Music Festival. There's some history you should be aware of.

Pat Califia says this best:

Nancy Jean Burkholder, an electrical engineer from New Hampshire, had attended the Michigan festival in 1990 without a problem. But for some reason, in 1991, another festival-goer asked Burkholder if she was a transsexual, and she told the truth. Despite the fact that she had yet to enjoy a lesbian relationship, the postoperative Burkholder defined herself as a lesbian feminist. In what must have been a frightening display of force, security guards ejected her from the festival grounds at midnight, without allowing her to contact any of her friends or collect her belongings.

As a result of this action, a feud was born. On the one hand, we have Lisa Vogel and "Boo" Price, the organizers of the for-profit festival, who argue that the event is for womyn-born-womyn (by which they mean, as far as anyone can tell, womyn but not genderqueer womyn).

Transexual Menace logo

Why should a transexual be a menace to you?

On the other hand, we have Riki Anne Wilchins, who is the executive director of GenderPAC, and the founder of Transexual Menace. And my hero, to boot. Riki argues that the festival policy is discriminatory, and should be challenged.

And now, Anne Lawrence and others have entered the fray, by posting a statement about the Michigan Women's Music Festival. They write:

We believe it is time for the Festival to welcome transsexual women on the same basis as any other women. We also believe it is inappropriate for transsexual women who have not undergone sex reassignment surgery, or for male-bodied/male-identified persons, to enter or request to enter the Festival. Women, transsexual and non-transsexual, deserve the opportunity to gather together in a safe space, free of male genitals. Bodies do matter. Male genitals can be so emblematic of male power and sexual dominance that their presence at a festival designed to provide safe women's space is inappropriate. People with male genitals who enter the Festival risk offending and oppressing other attendees; we urge them not to do so.

It is perhaps unsurprising that key signatories to this statement -- people like Davina Anne Gabriel and Anne Lawrence -- are post-operative transsexual women. They believe that it is time for the festival to welcome people like them, but not others. Interestingly, it is this very notion of exclusive identity ("we are women, but you are not") that Riki Anne Wilchins rallies against.

The lioness, Elise Matthesen writes:

Identity is a fine and lovely and lifesaving thing, a lot of times, and I am delighted to hear another human being find his or her voice and speak their truth, and I'm delighted to see what changes we can make when we find others like us and work together.


"Others like us." There's the rub. I forgot that when we find comfort in "us" and "them", we are sometimes uncovering the unacknowledged chasm of differing experience and other times we're retreating from kinship with people not so different after all, or kin because of their difference, because of what they know about how to live their different lives that might directly apply to our lives. Sometimes what they know is the only thing that will save us or comfort us, and we sit divided from each other by the lines in the sand, dying of thirst next to a pitcher of water.

The 'I' in the Pyramid

I was converted to feminism about nine years ago. Before that, many of my objections to it were based on all-too-common misconceptions about feminists. But I still have objections to certain forms of feminism. Here's a post I made to the Usenet, once, in response to someone who wrote some knee-jerk reactions to the word 'feminist'.

Many years ago, I even espoused that particular position [that feminists merely retrench gender stereotypes]. I consider it fortunate that I made friends with someone who was good enough to explain to me that the clear majority of feminist theory isn't a retrenchment of gender stereotypes. That friendship encouraged me to actually read a number of feminist texts.

Now, I recognize that there are a wide variety of "feminisms", each with fascinating positions on a wide variety of topics. I still have certain philosophical reservations with certain forms of feminism, but these days, I articulate those reservations considerably differently.

For example, a friend of mine made a rather succinct observation: she said, "what if feminism managed to get equal pay for equal work, and still, nothing was right with the world?"

In another, much more theoretical example, I question whether or not a form of feminism that places the identity of "woman" at the core of its politics has automatically failed to rectify an oppressive ontological effect of the patriarchy. After all, Audre Lorde once said that, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."

And, in a much more day-to-day example, I sometimes find it unfortunate that the occassional feminist group will present a position in a language that alienates many people (male and female) who don't belong to that particular group, or who aren't fluent in a particular political vocabulary.

Despite many such reservations, I happily call myself a feminist. Well, perhaps "pro-feminist", if not "a feminist", since I prefer my labels to be adjectives.

One of the key ideas that I really disliked about the feminism that I was exposed to prior to becoming a feminist was, basically, essentialism -- the idea that there is one thing and one thing only that defines womanhood. Different women have had different ideas about what that one thing is: some feel that a vagina is the essential characteristic, some feel that XX chromosomes are the essential characteristic, and some even feel like the ability to have babies is the essential characteristic (which is pretty insensitive to the many women who want babies, but aren't able to conceive). And Lisa Vogel and "Boo" Price believe that being born and raised as women (whatever that means) is the essential characteristic.

But there are also feminists who aren't essentialists. There are feminists like Judith Butler, who push on the borders of the identity -- who raise interesting questions about what it really means to be a woman.

So when I read people like Anne Lawrence say:

We, the undersigned transsexual women and friends, find both Vogel's and Wilchins' positions to be untenable, anti-feminist, and ultimately oppressive of women, both transsexual and non-transsexual.

I find myself thinking, "wow, their feminism differs radically from mine." I find this position philosophically indefensible. It is essentialist and nothing more, and I thought that feminism had moved on quite a bit from that. Imagine my disappointment.

If this were solely an argument about dueling ideologies, then I'd simply weigh in on the side of the non-essentialist feminists and shrug my shoulders.

But there's more to it than that.

Several years ago I was opining about how wrong I think exclusive groups are, and Siobhan said to me: "sometimes it's not a question of right and wrong; it's a question of need."

And suddenly I was, as Elise ever so lovingly says, having my butt kicked by the Universe.

I guess the fundamental idea that I hadn't managed to get my head around was why 'safe space' is so special to people. Right or wrong, some people need to heal, and sometimes that healing is most effectively accomplished in a safe space of like-minded people. I've come to believe that this is why forming identities is so important to so many people. There's a lot of healing of a lot of hurt that needs to take place.

Take the Michigan Women's Music Festival fer instance:

I've lived as a woman for long enough to understand some of what it's like to be treated as a woman. I know that our society allows every woman to be the object of intense scrutiny. I know that beautiful women are expected to be flattered when complete strangers profess their attraction to them. I know that fat women are expected to be grateful when complete strangers tell them about a new diet scheme. Knowing what I know about the constant scrutiny of women I can see why women-only space is so sacred.

I've also spent time in clothing optional pagan summer festivals; I've seen the townsfolk fight amongst themselves to come on to the campsite to empty the garbage cans so they can have a chance to gawk at the nekkid bodies. And that's kinda yucky. And I can understand why "penises on the land" would evoke that yucky feeling, and a feeling that one can never get away from that intense objectification. What's more, it doesn't take a lot of extrapolation to understand that in the minds of many women, transgendered people -- especially pre-operative or non-passing transgendered people -- make a space seem like it is no longer women-only.

And, really, I'm torn. I see the need for safe space, and I see the consequences of that need.

The pragmatic part of me would probably espouse a position similar to Anne Lawrence's statement. If I weigh the emotional needs of the thousands of festival-goers against the needs of a relative handful of transgendered women, the part of me that thinks in terms of "greatest good for the greatest number" compels me to side with those who would exclude transgendered women.

And make no mistake: minority groups are constantly being called upon to forego -- to sacrifice, in a sense -- because a much larger group isn't yet ready to understand them. In my eyes, this is no different from the issues of black integration in white schools, or gays in the US military. "Please be understanding," the majority group says. "There are special considerations."

There aren't any really satisfying ways out of that situation, except education. I find it bitterly ironic that when Riki tries to push festival attendees to learn about how women sometimes contribute to the oppression of the transgendered, people call her "confrontational" and, well, basically have the same reaction as the men who were being pushed to learn about feminism many years ago.

My Life, Without Pronouns or Sufferance

[Being transgendered] means you live on sufferance. It means that you must constantly seek permission and approval for your TG existence. It means your femme self (or homme self for FtMs) lives and dies on the approval or disapproval of your partner, acquaintances or coworkers. [...]

Living on sufferance means that you are especially attuned to the criticisms and approbations of those around you. It means that the slightest sideways look, the merest lack of enthusiasm, the smallest real or imagined put-down, means that you run back into your closet and shut the door behind you.

- Miqqi Alicia Gilbert, "Living on Sufferance"

This whole festival issue gets personal, too. Here's an interview between Riki and In Your Face:

In Your Face: Then why go to a specifically women's event?

Riki Anne Wilchins: Two reasons. The first is a trans-identified woman I hardly know, who, when I was wrestling with whether or not to do a camp trans this year said, "that's another part of my life I've never lived." I asked her what she meant and she said, "There's an entire life I've missed -- groups I didn't go to, women's concerts I didn't attend, lesbian events I never showed up at. I told myself I was too busy or I didn't really want to go but the truth was I knew I'd be pretty unwelcome and so I stayed home alone. It's a whole un-lived life". Well, that's my story in a nutshell. The next day I posted the announcement about Son of Camp Trans. [...]

And, y'know, I've lived that. Here, in Toronto, we have dyke marches and women's bath houses that are open enough to include transgendered women. And I don't go to them.

I've listened to too many explanations about why someone who was born with the full priviledge of maleness couldn't ever really be a woman. And I've heard people that I once counted as friends tell me that transgender people don't belong in the GLB movement. I've deeply, deeply internalized an aversion to appropriating another's voice, or experience, or identity.

Sometimes I wonder to what extent my interest in notions of thirdness is inspired by a belief that the Third is an identity that no one else has claim to. I wonder if my long-standing preference for gender neutral pronouns when writing about myself on the 'Net is based in unwillingness to call myself 'she' without unanimous permission. I look around my web site, and notice that although I refer to myself as transgendered, I never call myself a transgendered woman.

The first time I began to think about this was almost nine months ago; I was visiting my friend, Tara, and we went to play a few games of pool in her apartment building's recreation centre. And suddenly she decided to show me the exercise equipment in the women's exercise room. She walked in, fully expecting me to follow.

And I froze. I thought: "Woman's space. Some people might disagree with my right to enter."

And then: "Tara didn't even question whether or not I should follow her. This is what acceptance feels like. She accepts me as a woman more readily than even I do." And it was a very sad-making realization.

And there's a part of me that knows -- knows -- that when these types of statements are made by people like Anne Lawrence, some part of me that lives on sufferance and that looks to others for permission to identify my own womanhood... well it quashes my need to be me. And that is the hurtful part.

Some people would tell me to just get over it. They'd say that I was too wrapped up in what other people think of me. But, y'know, I think that the part of me that is respectful of other people's boundaries (the part that Anne Lawrence is appealing to), and the part of me that seeks approval to cross a boundary are really the same part. If I didn't have that part of me, then it wouldn't really matter what rules the Michigan Women's Music Festival put in place, because I wouldn't feel obligated to respect them.

I wouldn't be so annoyed with Anne Lawrence's statement if she understood that. But she doesn't. Aside from a half-hearted comment that her statement won't please everybody, she seems to feel that this is a black and white matter of essentialist feminist theory and majority-rules politics. That her position is hurtful never appears to enter into her mind.

Copyright © 2000 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated August 14th, 2000.
Excepts from Anne Lawrence et al, Elise Matthesen, Miqqi Gilbert, Pat Califia and In Your Face are copyright © by the respective authors.
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