When is a womyn not a womyn? That's the question that has transfixed lesbian newspapers and email lists since this year's Michigan Womyn's Music Festival in mid-August. A long-simmering controversy over who may attend the venerable feminist gathering came to a head, so to speak, when transgender activists at August's festival bared their penises to attendees.
In doing so they violated a ban that's held firm throughout the fest's 24-year history. Founded by radical separatists at the height of '70s feminism, "Michigan" became legendary as an event where "womyn-born womyn" camped out, listened to folk music, and ate communally-prepared vegetarian stew without fear of encountering patriarchal oppressors. The cry "Men on the land!" is traditionally used to notify festival attendees of any danger.
In recent years this policy has inspired protest from transsexuals who believe they have as much right to radicalism as the next girl. Up to now they've confined themselves to staging a rival gathering, "Camp Trans," directly across from the festival's entrance. But this year several activists entered "the land" itself.
The tizzy that resulted was due largely to the fact that two individuals saw fit to expose their penises in the showers. When "word began to spread that there were men on the land who had shown their penises" (as organizers put it), a battery of facilitators and peer counselors were dispatched to "provide constructive opportunities for the expression of the full range of thoughts and feelings generated by these events."
Recently the activists retaliated by having Tony, who was in the showers, detail his/her actions on the group's Web site. A self-professed "tryke," or transsexual dyke, this person explains, "the skin of my forearm was re-arranged on my female-born body to make a penis." S/he goes on to outline the sequence of events leading to the organ's unveiling. Unfortunately, the screwball quality of this narrative has done little to soften the radicals' wrath.
"As my luck would have it, after taking off my shorts, I couldn't figure out how to turn on the water," Tony explains. "To make a long story short, a woman did it for me. The water was freezing, so the womyn [sic] in the shower next to me, after trying to throw warm water around the curtain, said, 'Come on over here where it's warm.' I did and now the world thinks I walked around with a hard-on the whole time I was there."
Erect or not, it seems that one rule holds hard and fast at the Michigan Womyn's Music Fest: No penises welcome!
Etelka Lehoczky writes regularly for Salon and the Chicago Tribune.