When I was in college, I had a really terrible magazine writing teacher. She was hired as a “working professional,” so while she might have been a successful writer for independently-run arts and culture quarterlies, her idea of teaching was busy work and aligning ourselves with her ways of thinking (“Harper’s Bazaar is the bane of existence”).
But the one thing that teacher gifted me with before getting the ax from our collective review of her at the end of the semester was the assignment to read Michelle Tea‘s “Transmissions from Camp Trans.”
The Believer just posted the entire article on its website in celebration of their 10th anniversary, which allowed me to read it again without searching for it in my bottomless trunk of overly-highlighted and notated pages saved from that time in my life. Having just come out as a lesbian earlier that year, this was my first foray into reading Michelle Tea’s work. Obviously that led me to devouring her memoirs, writing a biography about her for my LGBT History Class and interviewing her for a fashion and art magazine I freelanced for at the time. But not only was it my first meeting of Michelle’s pivotal work, but of the idea that gay women can be some of the queer community’s worst enemies.
“Transmissions from Camp Trans” is the true story of Michelle’s visit to the woods of Michigan (my home state) where, every year since the 1970s, womyn born womyn gather to create the community that is severely their own. It could be my own. It could be Michelle’s own. But it’s a very exclusive party that I’m not sure I want to be a member of, despite the fact that it’s one that, at its core, celebrates many of the things I cherish on a daily basis. Michelle explains it perfectly in the opening of her essay:
While womyn’s music is the festival’s alleged purpose—the guitar stylings of folksters like Holly Near and Cris Williamson as well as post-riot-grrrl acts like Bitch and Animal, the Butchies, and Le Tigre, to draw in the younger generation—the real purpose is to hunker down in a forest with a few thousand other females, bond, have sex in a fern grove, and go to countless workshops on everything from sexual esoterica to parading around on stilts, processing various oppressions, and sharing how much you miss your cat. The festival aims to be a utopia, and in most ways it hits its mark.
That’s where this essay from 10 years ago details how transwomen are not allowed to attend “Fest,” as she’s affectionally called by those who know and love her. Michelle details (beautifully, tragically) how a transwoman named Nancy Jean Burkholder was thrown out of Mich Fest in 1991 and how the trans community and allies formed Camp Trans, a much smaller site across the way, in protest of the imposed rule.
A lot of women inside the festival want to keep trans women out. Some staunchly insist that these individuals are not women but men in dresses trying to ruin the feminist event. Others concede that trans women are women, but because they were born boys and may still have penises, the festival is not the place for them.
A lot of words have been spoken and written about this issue, and yet in 2013, the policy was reinforced by the fest’s founder Lisa Vogel, who maintains that she wants to keep the fest phallic-free. This year, long-time Mich Fest performers the Indigo Girls said this would be their last year playing the well-paying gig unless it changed its policy, and started a Change.org petition to help their cause. Other musicians who are booked or have been on the Mich Fest stage in years past also say they don’t agree with the transphobia that goes on, but they believe in the rest of what the festival stands for, which is, at its heart, celebrating women in a safe space with other women. Ideally, it’d be a lesbian mecca if you’re of the separatist ilk and enjoy living off the land with little technology or privacy while bathing or fucking.
And to be honest, in the past year or two, I’ve thought about going. I had friends who’ve went, my wife has entertaining stories from the year she attended with an ex, and the musical line-up is always getting more interesting. (This year, Lovers, THEESatisfaction, MEN and Emily Wells are among the booked artists.) I tried to think rationally about what it was Lisa Vogel started in the state I grew up in back in 1976, how she just wanted to create an alternative reality for people like her; like me. But then I re-read Michelle’s piece, where she went from Camp Trans to Mich Fest and tried to find where they might have a happy meeting place, but there wasn’t one.
Growing up only two hours from where it went on, no one ever talked about Mich Fest. No one really talked about gay people at all, much less gay women. Outsides of “tranny” jokes, trans people were invisible. I can’t be a part of that tradition. I’d rather have that really hard discussion, even though I don’t have the answers.
I feel a little bit better knowing that Michelle Tea didn’t have the answers either. All these years later, I still do. If I experienced these things firsthand, I fear I’d have the same confused conclusion, and that might be much more disappointing than my self-righteous writing professor. Yes, I’m a womyn-born-womyn, but I’m also human.