What Michfest Means to Me
“You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember … You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”
–Monique Wittig, from Les Guérillères
I’ve long harbored these suspicions that a lot of what I think of as “me” is a reaction to my conditions. As a trauma survivor, I have not only wondered at what I would be like without my damage, but have worked like hell to find out, as much as that’s possible.
As a survivor, I am a huge success story. I was a dissociated, addicted, intimacy-avoidant self-harming agoraphobic with obsessive/compulsive behaviors and a messy interpersonal life, to put it kindly. For many years now I have been dramatically recovered—clean and sober, stopped self-harming, am able to travel widely and love hard, and am high-functioning with the exception of some anxiety.
All of the work I’ve done to get here has benefited me, of course—my life has been transformed by it. And yet, the knowledge of my own power had always remained hovering somewhere around me, nebulous, never quite touching my skin. While I had accomplished all of this healing and integration before I ever set foot at Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, I had not glimpsed the truth of who I really am and what I am truly capable of, until I got to the Land.
I was not crushed by my anxiety at the Festival. I did not feel awkward. I knew there was nothing wrong with me. Knew this.
On the Land, the power I’ve been cultivating for so long dropped down to reside within my body for the very first time. I glowed with it. It rose off of me like electricity.
In mensland, one of my worst anxiety triggers is public speaking. At Fest, I co-presented a workshop called Detransition Perspectives. I spoke to a larger-than-expected audience of women about some of the most intimate details of my life: words not easily spoken to the most trusted therapist, sponsor, lover, or friend. I heard myself projecting these words with casual authority to a crowd of women I’d never met before, in trust. And I could trust them. It was not that they all knew, from direct experience, what I was on about. It was that they were listening and empathizing so hard, with so much love, that their care was palpable. They were not an audience but witnesses. They spread their wings over me in shelter. They cried when I couldn’t afford to. They held space for me. They cared.
In fact, they received my trust and accorded me respect and even a kind of status for having offered it. Status does not operate in a familiar way on the Land, but apparently one way it can be attained is by offering generously and intimately of yourself. Have you ever felt that your life was being wasted, sucked out of you? Have you felt that what is yours uniquely to contribute is wasted on the world at large? That you labor too long and for no real purpose? That what is true and beautiful in you is lost on the people you’re surrounded by? At Fest, what you give is received so open-heartedly. What you are matters and is seen.
When Nedra Johnson sings in her brilliant new song, August Moon, “We know we are love,” that is not a platitude. However it may sound to cynical ears outside the Land of the Living Matriarchy, this is the fundamental truth of Michigan: nothing I had ever experienced in my life prior to the Festival prepared me for the way that I was treated there. I have never in my life been so loved, respected, appreciated, cared for, listened to, and held—as a whole, complicated, messy, difficult, jagged Self. At Michigan, for the first time, I was not indigestible. I was not a contaminant. Nobody sought to “normalize” me in any way. I was held, as-is, without judgment or expectation of change. There was no sense that I was “too much,” too intense, too dykey, too loud, too mouthy, too strange, too anything.
Norms don’t function, at Michigan, the way they do in mensland. I had assumed that at Michigan, norms might be reversed; i.e., where straight is the norm out here, lesbian would be the norm at Fest. It’s true that there are far more lesbians than straight women at Fest; it is true that this culture is lesbian-feminist by origin; but it’s not true that the norms are simply reversed. It’s not a preservation of existing power structures with a simple exchange of nouns; it’s an entirely different way of norming altogether. At Fest, the norm is multiplicity. The norm is that there are always more than two sides. The norm is that there is room for you, me, her, them, her, her, her, and her—to all be valid and real and respected. Contradiction and conflict are not a threat. There is no scarcity of legitimacy, so it’s not made into a hierarchy where you have to fight each other to win it. There is a bedrock assumption that women will not throw each other away over their differences, even when they are painful to navigate. I would say that the bonds are more familial, but I have seen the nuclear kind of family explode over far less. On a related note, it generally sucks to be the “only” of something in a group, but I actually found even this type of experience to be palpably different and less hopelessly alienating at Fest.
Another critical difference between mensland and Michfest is the music. There is a reason womyn’s music gets treated as a joke out here. Out here, music can be a lot of things: entertainment; an aesthetic badge of belonging within a subculture, where the aesthetics are supposed to convey a message about your identity; the sonic equivalent of art to match a sofa; the receptacle for your entire emotional experience which is disconnected from every other part of your life; or, rarely, something closer to religion. At Fest, that last meaning is brought into play in an expanded way, a way that is not divorced from the rest of the culture of the place, but that acts as its fully integrated, beating heart. The artists at Michigan are not “the entertainment;” they are something like Priestesses. Again, you are not engaged as a passive audience, but as witness and participant. These women are the soul of the Place, and some of its most powerful leaders. They create with each other in a way that conjures ideas of alchemy—they transmute reality. Simply, they are making magic and inviting you in. Across genre, the performers practice a deeply female art, and it is indescribable. Elemental. Outside of time, and resonant in a way that feels ancestral. This is more like what music was before it was ever recorded, before it was ever supposed to make money, before it was about ego in any way. It really doesn’t matter if you think you “like this kind of music” or not. It is holy, and it changes you. It was so transformative that I now understand “the Land” in a different aspect, more of a verb—it is the ground that grounds us; the place where we can finally Land—into our individual and collective bodies.
That grounding, rooted in deep self-knowledge of female realities, is born of the continuity of female knowledge and power built over the Festival’s near-40-year history. It turns out that when you stop demonizing your elder women or patronizing them as ignorant dinosaurs, and you go hang out with them in the woods instead—they show up and mentor you in ways you thought only happened for boys in novels and movies. Real mentoring. How they managed to convey what they did over the course of a measly week is beyond me—but the Old Womyn of Fest went to bat for me, showed up for me, paid a higher quality of attention than I’ve ever known, and fed me—emotionally, spiritually, conversationally, with their creative offerings, and with steak cooked rare so that I was well nourished while doing heavy warrior work. And they did this not because it’s old women’s job to be caretakers, but because they were inviting us in, with pride, to take part in what they’d built—because they know that what they have fought to make is worth passing on, and they want to invite our hands to help carry it forward into the future. I used to dream about this kind of support and offer of legacy, but I’d met enough of my former heroes to consider it a pipe dream. Come to find out, sheroes are another matter entirely. I had so much support that it was hard to absorb. I can’t overstate the impact of being surrounded by packs of wild, brilliant, gorgeous, Old women.
So much of female socialization is the kind of trauma that precludes any sense of a future. To see wild Old women in a state of matriarchal nature is a phenomenal antidote. They showed me a future worth having. They gave me so much to admire—the toughness born of their resilience; the way they’ve honed their skills at listening, thinking, loving, politics, life; the way they’ve deepened into themselves; the way they inhabit their bodies; their attunement to their strengths and limitations. All of it was beyond beautiful and it moved me somewhere entirely new.
When I was a teenage Leslie Feinberg fan”boy,” I read that essay she wrote about Michigan. The language about border policing and wrong bodies made me feel so afraid. I believed what everyone in that scene said about Michfest—that they’d panty-check anyone who seemed “off” or “wrong”—and if there was one thing I dead knew about myself then, it was that I was the embodiment of “off” and “wrong.”
Without getting too personal, I grew up with a significantly atypical female body. In my “queer” subculture, I was taught—and I believed—that I would not pass muster to enter the supposedly purist gates of the Fest, on this basis. This is not to mention that with Leslie Feinberg making the critique, there was also the implication that if you didn’t comply with directives on male-defined “femininity,” you would not be welcome. I believed the lie that a gender-defined space was required for my liberation. But the fact is, where the focus is “gender” I will always be relegated to the position of human Rorschach blot. In fact, at Fest, where the boundary is sex-defined, I find the only possible space to be free of that burden.
This is the thing I have to say about what the Festival’s Intention means to me: as a female outlier living in mensland, I learned over and over that I was Wrong, and that I could not belong. Not woman enough, not man either. Because men define these things a certain way. A woman is not just an adult human female—oh no. Men have a lot more parameters than that! And it’s never enough to be a woman, you have to be the “right kind,” too. The rules for what makes you “right” enough are always changing, of course—it’s a moving goalpost on purpose to keep us all off balance, constantly checking ourselves. They are the ones running the world like a gauntlet of panty-checks and whole-body-checks, besides—let’s be clear on that. They are the ones drawing borders and policing them. They are the ones leaving so many women out in so many kinds of cold.
At Fest, there is no wrong way to be a human female. The entire goddamn point is for as many human females to gather as possible so that we can see the richness of our diversity, all of the different ways that a woman can be. Because of this, Fest is the ultimate HAVEN for female outliers—physical outliers, “gender” outliers, dykes, and other Others—as much if not more than it’s a haven for women who fall squarely into what mensland recognizes as such in an uncomplicated way.
Got a beard, a mustache? You’re not alone at Fest—lots of women will be wearing theirs openly, and plenty more will admire you—not despite it, either. Pass as male without T and without even meaning to? Welcome home; nobody will question your belonging here. To the contrary of the “panty-check” rumor, Fest is one magical place on earth where you will not have that “restroom moment” ANYWHERE. You know, the moment where some freaked out lady tells you that you’re in the wrong place and you feel you have to flash your boobs at her or talk so she hears your high voice or show her your ID so she knows you are not a man. For a detransitioned woman especially, NONE OF THE ABOVE MAY EVEN BE AVAILABLE OPTIONS ANYMORE in mensland, so it makes this Place absolutely unique in its ability to hold women of this experience.
It is possible to transition medically to the point where the general world will not ever recognize you as female anymore, or at least—not easily. At Fest, you can still be seen and recognized as a woman, if you just show up. In fact, contrary to the rumors, there are really only two laws of the Land—one, nobody can drive a vehicle over 5 miles per hour; and two, nobody can question anyone else’s gender on the Land.
There is no “WHAT ARE YOU?” at Fest. Fest is The Place where your very presence answers that incessant, eternal question so you never have to.
Oh. Except for one thing: because I know that some males decide to deliberately violate the intention of the gathering, I looked with suspicion at some of the other women there. I scanned their bodies for signs of femaleness, to calm my nervous system. That is SUPREMELY messed up. That is exactly how I hoped nobody would regard me. But because some males insist on showing up at Fest in violation of the intention, they sow this seed of doubt and fear. This hyper-vigilance that I could otherwise lay down actually went on overdrive—because if you are a male who deliberately violates female boundaries, then you are exactly who I am most afraid of, for very legitimate reason, regardless of your “gender identity.” And I say this not out of ignorance, but direct experience, including being an erstwhile member of the trans community. Sex is real and it matters; all males who violate female boundaries scare me. I will never feel safe around that behavior; I do not want to be coerced to attempt it. In that attempt I lose my very breath. In the words of poet Dionne Brand, “If I am peaceful…is not peace,/is getting used to harm.”
When I listened to Nedra Johnson sing, “First time I came to Festival, I learned I’d always been afraid/Finally laid that burden down; I could not believe the weight,” I so wanted to experience that feeling. I know how heavy this one is for me. That fear has been with me for longer than I can remember. It is older than language, in my body. But that’s not the burden I got relieved of; because I knew that there were some males present who clearly, demonstrably felt entitled to violate female boundaries. So I still carried that fear on the Land. Not as much as out here—I went for late night walks on the Land. But I didn’t go alone and I didn’t go unarmed. It made me sad that this felt necessary, but the violation itself is traumatic enough, regardless of any additional actions. That said, I took heart in knowing that I was surrounded by many women I would trust to respond appropriately if I needed help. That’s worth a lot. It is a material difference.
And I did get to put something very heavy down on that Land. The burden I got relieved of was shame about my body. So when I sing along to Nedra’s song in my T-scarred voice, I sing, “First time I came to Festival, I learned I’d always been ashamed.” I hope Nedra doesn’t mind the liberty I take with her lyric. I truly could not believe the weight of the shame I let go of There.
Being atypical, I really did not believe I belonged in the category of “female.” I grew up thinking I was a monster. It is really hard for me to talk about my body anyway, but when males, on the basis of their trans identities, claim to have been female from birth; when they talk about their bodies as outlier female bodies (for example, when they say their dicks are “just very large clits,” or when they say, “I am just a DIFFERENT KIND of female with a different KIND of female body,”), it actually becomes impossible for me to name my reality at all. They are using the only words I can use to explain my experience, and they are using them to mean the exact opposite of what I need them to mean, in order for me to be sayable, to even be thinkable. What they reserve for metaphor makes my literal naming incomprehensible. Regardless of “gender identity,” what they actually are is male; what I actually am is female. To deny this only makes any redress of our actual, specific grievances, impossible. And the distinction matters to me in large part because it was so brutally difficult for me to get to the point where I could know that I am female—that my differences may sometimes put me at a margin, but that I still belong in this word. That I am just as much a standard as any other female, in my way. I have known this intellectually but it is different to be at Michigan, mirrored by many other Selves who teach you by their Being. Now that I finally know this, not only in my mind but from within all the borders of my own body, I want to scream, “You cannot stand in the exact spot I am standing in without standing on me.”
On the internet I don’t bother too much with this because I can’t prove I’m an atypical female rather than a male telling tall tales; on the Land it was different. Women saw me; they recognized me and they understood that what I said was true. They knew it was truth because truth Lands differently than bullshit. They heard my story and they knew I was talking about another variety of female socialization, not male projections, stories, lies, or narratives of any kind. There is a difference. The conflation of male trans experiences with the experiences of female outliers and with intersex people is erasure by appropriation. Many males with trans identities use intersex as a talking point for why they belong on the Land, but it really has jack-all to do with their argument and I suspect they know it. Women with AIS or CAH (for example) haven’t been protesting for inclusion on that basis; such a protest would be incomprehensible, because these experiences are already inherently part and parcel of the Intention. The boundaries of Fest are not identity-based, but about material, sex-based reality; providing haven and healing on that basis. Understanding women with intersex traits/conditions/DSDs as belonging There—if they themselves see it that way—is a given. Like I said, if anything, atypical and outlier women of all kinds have an even greater degree of haven.
So—outside of the mistrust and suspicion that is sown by males who deliberately violate the female boundaries set by Fest, there is no WHAT ARE YOU on the Land. What you are is a womon, and a sister, and the daughter of this Place. I say daughter because this Place acts like every idea you never let yourself have about a real Mother Goddess; every idea you never let yourself have because you needed Her too much to let yourself feel that when you didn’t believe that need could ever be met in this life.
You know that old therapy joke, If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother? You know how the national pastime of the USA is mother-blaming? You know how you have this well of bottomless need that you want to put on your mom even though she’s just one person doing the very best she can and it’s never going to be good enough? You know the old saw about it taking a village to raise a child?
Can you imagine being held in the kind of security that comes from being mothered by something outside of the bounds of time and space that constrained your human mother? Can you imagine being mothered by something that isn’t passing on patriarchal damage along with life-giving milk? Can you imagine being mothered by something that doesn’t require you to cut off pieces of yourself in order to receive the care you need?
I don’t have to imagine this anymore; I have known it. And because of this I can start to glimpse for the first time, flashes of an answer to questions like, “Who would I be if I had been raised with perfect love and support?” “Who would I be if I had not been harmed and twisted?” “Who would I be if I had never been measured against a toxic standard?” “Who would I be if I had not grown up fearing rape?” “Who would I be if I had not had to spend so many years on simply trying to survive, heal, and recover?” Those questions start to get a lot less rhetorical, in light of Fest. The nourishment seems to be unbound by space/time limitations—it seems to reach back to all of my past selves who most need to be fed.
What I am left with is this bitter question: “Who would I be if I had not been lied to and kept from this Place for all these years?”
I believe I would be speaking and singing in a voice nobody will ever hear again, a voice I altered with testosterone instead. I believe my body would be more typical for my chronological age, and not frequently disabled by chronic pain. I believe I would have had the chance to manage and learn the logic of the odd hormonal balance I carried before I disrupted and obscured it by adding T. I believe I would speak from the position of having recovered my sense of bodily integrity, instead of living with the knowledge that I colluded in my own erasure by medical “normalizing.” I believe I would be a hell of a lot less alone.
It is not possible to really know how to love yourself with abandon and without condition—until you have been loved that way first. And I have been loved that way—courageously, with the imperfect but divinely-inflected human love of the womyn of Fest, but also—perfectly, by the Fest Herself. She is more than the sum of Her parts.
I was not a “woo” person before this experience. I thought it was creepy that people capitalized “the Land.” I thought it was weird that people talked about Fest with female pronouns like a person. I thought it was all kind of corny and embarrassing. But this isn’t any sexy pagan/martyr mommy/flowy robes/demure white lady/Giving Tree/”holy tit”/pushover/has-a- male-consort Goddess I ever heard of before. This is the Lioness who eats the faces of her enemies; this is the All for whom we are never too much; this is the butch Goddess who only consorts with Us; the dyke Goddess who knows and needs our hearts; this is the best of us all, made electric by connection; the incredible gift woven of so many women’s lives; this is, as Staceyann Chin put it, “our collective cunt.”
This is finally Landing at Home, in Family, Tribe, Belonging, Self, Wholeness, Integrity, Truth and Trust. I don’t care if I sound like Dr. Bronner. This is real.
And I don’t care which dumb Gay, Inc. or sham “lesbian” organization (*cough* NCLR) tries to make it “wrong.” I need Her. We need Her. And She will go on, powered by Us.