What Is the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and What Happens There?

Illustration by Alison Bechdel. Click to expand.
Click to expand

Illustration by Alison Bechdel, from the 1991 Dykes To Watch Out For Calendar.

In certain lesbian circles, it’s understood that the question “Have you ever been to Michigan?” refers not to afternoons in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti, but to attendance at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a weeklong gathering that has been held every August since 1976. In recent years, the event has received more media coverage than ever before, as transgender activists and allies have protested the festival’s policy of limiting attendance to “women-born-women.” (Boy children over the age of 5 stay at Brother Sun Boys Camp, just off “the land,” as the festival site is known.) Eager to hear more about how that controversy has affected attendees—and to learn how technology and the mainstreaming of lesbian lives have changed the event—I called my friend Dawn Kirby, a Muscle Activation Technique specialist from Lansing, Mich., two days after she returned from her 28th festival. Here’s what she told me.—June Thomas

I’ve been coming since 1984, and I’ve only missed two festivals in that time. The only reason I’d stop coming is if they stopped producing it.

It’s eight days of camping—I was a worker this year so I camped in Workerville, but in recent years I’ve been pitching my tent in the Over-50 camp site. There are also camp sites for women who are differently abled or chem-free and sober, for families with children, and there’s both a quiet zone and a “loud and rowdy” area. The kitchen provides three vegetarian meals a day, but if you want snacks or camping supplies, the Cuntree Store is open from 10 a.m. to midnight. Craftswomen come from all over the country to sell shoes, soaps, sex toys, and just about anything with a rainbow on it. There are more than 200 workshops on every conceivable topic from same-sex adoption rights to raw diets, anal sex to the Enneagram. There’s a Butch Strut and a Femme Parade. And, needless to say, there are musical performances every day. Back in the day, it was mostly folk singers like Holly Near, Cris Williamson, or Sweet Honey in the Rock, but nowadays there’s a huge representation of musical styles. All the performers are women.

I would go to festival if there was no music. I would go if there were no workshops. I would go if there were no craftswomen. It still would be the festival experience. The music is part of it, but it’s far from the biggest reason I go.

There really is no other place like it on Earth where you have the camaraderie, working together, listening to each other, problem-solving, processing. It just doesn’t exist anywhere else, and I love it. It feels like a family reunion. I don’t really have that feeling with my biological family. This is the one time when I get to sit around with my sisters.

Probably the biggest difference from when I first started coming is that festi-goers are older. In the ‘80s, we probably had five RVs. Now that’s the most congested area on the land—and second is the Over-50s campsite.

I think our current challenge is to encourage young women to come to festival. So many of them are choosing not to come based on their political beliefs about including transwomen, without ever having spent time on the land. We need to find a way to encourage them to come and make a decision based on their experience.

This year there were more than 3,000 women on the land. I think the biggest year was 1985, the 10-year anniversary, when there were 10,000 women. It’s been declining since then. About 98 percent of the women at festival are lesbian. There’s a sense that because we’re so much more visible these days that festival isn’t necessary. Very few of my friends who went in the early days go anymore; they think that it’s a lot of work.

I mean, you’re camping for a week, and you have to bring all your gear in. You’re putting it on a shuttle; you have to get your tent set up. And there’s a 100-percent chance that it will rain in August in Michigan. The issue this year was that it was 48 degrees at night. It’s cold. You know, tents aren’t really insulated. So there’s a physical hardship—and I get that as women start aging and become less healthy, it’s a challenge. As much effort as they put into making sure that everybody’s needs are met, I think some women think it’s just too much effort. And then there are the crazy people like me. I don’t care. If it snowed in the middle of August, I would be there.

Festival is more intergenerational than it used to be. We had three generations of one family this year—the grandmother had been coming forever and brought her daughter; now her daughter’s bringing her daughter, which was really sweet. It gave me hope for the future. We’ve had more than 300 girls at recent festivals. Of course, there have always been girls on the land, but today it’s more common to see lesbian families.

Other changes? There are warm showers now. There are fewer naked festi-goers. Partly that’s because most of us are older. I know I’m carrying around some extra weight, and I don’t feel so compelled to run around naked. But digital cameras have had an effect, too. There is a huge push to remind women not to post photos on Facebook without asking. They had a campaign this year where you could wear a sticker that said, “No to Photos,” but you see them online all the time.

In all my years I’ve only had one festival fling, and that was with a lifelong friend. It turned into a relationship. The common knowledge is that if you want to hook up, you go to the Cuntree Store at night stage. But I’ve been to the Cuntree Store, and I’ve never seen anything. Years ago, there was controversy about S&M, and I think part of the resolution was that they created the Twilight Zone. That’s supposedly a place where you could go wild and crazy. But I’ll tell you, I went several years ago, and there was no one there. There’d been all this hype over the years. I thought, “There’s going to be fisting! There’s going to be whips! There’s going to be orgasms!” There was a hula-hoop-ing stripper. It might have been an off night, but it was disappointing.

The only men allowed on the land during festival are guys who truck in ice and produce and the pumpers who come to empty the Porta-Janes. Years ago, women would yell, “Man on the land!” when they came, to warn other women of their presence. No one does that anymore. I would say the biggest shift is that the women on the land are much more friendly to the men, and the townspeople are much more friendly to us. We’ve reached a place of cooperation. We need them to suck our Janes; they need our money. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

The thing that bothers me about the movement to boycott festival because of the policy of excluding transwomen is that anyone who goes to festival, regardless of where they are on the issue, is labeled transphobic. It really doesn’t matter if you support changing the women-born-women policy. If you go, you’re labeled. The biggest problem is for performers. A friend of mine was going to perform on the acoustic stage, and once the lineup was announced, she got such pressure from her fan base that she chose to pull out. They’re mostly college women—and she said they were just devastated that she would consider going to festival. She wasn’t responding directly to the boycott but to the devastation of her fan base.

Would it be easier to just drop the women-born-women requirement? Sure, but I don’t know that as women we ever choose the easy route. I see this as an opportunity to grow as a community, to figure out how to not engage hatefully with each other. After all, labeling performers as transphobic, regardless of their work in the queer community, threatens their livelihood.

I don’t consider myself transphobic. I feel you can support trans community, support interaction of trans and queer politics, and you can want separate space for women-born-women. To me, they’re not mutually exclusive. I feel like we have a right to say, “We need this space” and not be attacked for that.

Festival feeds me. I feel like I need to go there to survive the rest of the year. It really is a replenishing of my spirit. It’s nice to take a step back and feel safe, feel comfortable in your body, feel connected, rejuvenated, and then go back into the world.

If you have memories of attending the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival or thoughts about the festival’s policy of limiting attendance to women-born-women, please send them to slateoutward@gmail.com, in 300 words or less. Email may be quoted in Slate unless you stipulate otherwise. If you want to be quoted anonymously, please let us know.