Like a whole bunch of dykes, I grew up listening to a lot of the Indigo Girls. The soundtrack to my teenage years and more than a few awkward make-out sessions in the back of some girl’s Jeep Cherokee was formed in large part by their music. I learned every note on their eponymous album, and because of them and four nice white boys also from Athens, Georgia, I learned what the word eponymous meant well before I had to know it for the SAT. I learned a deep and abiding love for flannel, even.
I grew up on the music of people whose tunes felt like they were talking to all of us awkward gay girls. The Indigo Girls, Dar Williams, the Melissas (Etheridge and Ferrick), Tribe 8, Team Dresch, Laura Love, and Joan Armatrading all figured in there somewhere…there were others but they don’t spring to mind. Some of these artists have played the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, a CAFAB-only event open to people of all genders as long as they were assigned “female” at birth. Some (Ms. Etheridge and Ms. Armatrading) haven’t played Michfest. Some of them have, and none of it really hurts worse than the Indigo Girls because if not for some of their songs, I’m not entirely sure I would have survived high school. I was a visible dyke from my first day there to the day I graduated, and mercifully I went to a high school where that wasn’t too weird. We used to joke that you can count the straight girls on the soccer team with two hands at the beginning of the season and one hand at the end.
But I lived in an abusive home in a small town, and leaving the protective bubble of school and its environs led me back into that rathole. My mother hated me for being gay, I lived just far enough afield from school that I had a long, nasty walk over a creepy bridge to and from school before I even got on the bus, and, oh yeah, I was still pretty filled with angst about being trans, which I had been taught to believe was an illness and a flaw. The days that I pretty much hid in my room with the door locked and barricaded, stuck on my headphones, and turned Rites of Passage or Indigo Girls up really loud were many. This music was part of what gave me the tools to, well, save myself.
I once described the idea of an artist who means a lot to you who thinks you’re evil for existing as being “Amy Ray Syndrome”. I think I was talking about the passing of Adrienne Rich, who wrote beautiful and meaningful poetry…and hated trans women to the point she shilled for Janice Raymond’s exterminationist manifesto The Transsexual Empire. Ms. Ray wrote and sang some stuff that’s truly important to me, both in the Indigo Girls and on her solo work. I wrote her a pretty impassioned letter back when you wrote letters about playing Fest and why policies Fest advances really hurt trans women even off the Land, and I imagine her agent of the week threw it in the trash. I never heard back. Ms. Ray doesn’t comment on the matter, nor does Ms. Saliers, the other half of the band, but when you keep profiting off something that openly hurts people like me, that’s enough complicity for my blood. If you play Michfest, you know exactly what it stands for.
I can tell you about how much every last one of these songs meant because they kept me company for long, lonely walks across the creepy bridge, or in the break room at work after someone had called me a “dyke” when i shaved my head. I can tell you about how it felt to take the Peter Pan Bus up to Amherst to see the Girls live at Amherst College. We showed up so early that we got in front of the line, we sat in front and I felt like I was right under Amy Ray like a peasant in the presence of fuckin’ royalty, down in the first row…when she hit the pedal at the beginning of the electric part of “Touch Me Fall” my hair kind of stood on end, my heart wibbled a little…it was about as beautiful as I could ask for. In those days, I didn’t even know about “the policy” of Michfest excluding trans women, nor did it ever cross my mind that these people who wrote music that moved my soul, my butt, and sometimes my tear ducts were on board with espousing such a thing. There’s other music that mattered, but nothing was quite the same, nothing was “Land of Canaan”…either version, the song that really summed up how I felt when my then-girlfriend cheated on me, nothing was “Kid Fears” and the vague sense of unease about my life and my insistence it wasn’t really abuse put into song. Pain from pearls, indeed.
I have made it no secret that I was educated well in second-wave feminist ideology, and if you strip out the racism, classism, transphobia, ableism, and white ethnocentrism that made for trouble, there’s a lot of good points in there about the systematic devaluation of women, our bodies, and our lives. Some of the reason my brand of transfeminism sounds different is that I don’t think the second wave needs to be tossed out with the bathwater so much as it needs all the good things preserved and the bad things discarded. The loathing for sex workers? No thanks. The idea that trans women should be “eliminated”? Well, I’m obviously not down with that, either. But I don’t dismiss the second wave concept out of hand, as a lot of things like domestic work being work with actual value and the idea that the male gaze shouldn’t control the presentation of all women in the media are great concepts that later waves have ignored.
I’m not advocating one should be a housewife, of course…I want nothing less than to be a housewife, but if a woman so chooses, I’m alright with that, and her work does have significant value. Similarly, I want no part of the male gaze and am outright repugnant to it, but if a woman chooses to opt in to seeking that, so much the better, but the male gaze should not be the minimum standard for women in any way. In neither sense is there one right answer other than kicking the patriarchy to the side of the road where it belongs, and that means patriarchy in all its forms. We need to be tools of our own liberation, not tools of the patriarchy.
One of the hardest conflicts I’ve dealt with since coming to terms with the fact that I can’t just pretend to be cis for the rest of my life is that I need to figure out my feelings about artists, and by this I mean any artist who plays Michfest and isn’t criticizing the living heck out of it and speaking truth to Lisa Vogel et al about Michfest’s CAFAB-only policy which includes scores of men and excludes scores of women at a music festival billed as being for women is that I’m not really sure I can live with myself if I’m giving these artists money. What I used to write off as a difference of opinion matters too much to me because so many policies that exclude trans women from spaces root their justification in the fact that Michfest retains this policy and still enforces it even if they’re trying to claim they don’t. CAFAB people are allowed to attend even if they’re men, but trans women aren’t allowed. It’s hard to see any event that openly welcomes some men but not some women as being about women at all. In fact, it’s about supporting the idea that some women are disposable.
I’m sad to realize I can’t ever in good conscience support artists who play Michfest uncritically, because they go from Melissa Ferrick (who at one point said she wasn’t going to play, and now does so) and whatever Kathleen Hanna’s latest project is to up and coming acts like THEESatisfaction where I really want to shut up and give you my queer PoC money, but why do I want to do that to an artist who supports policies that say I’m worthless and that say I indeed ain’t a woman? The idea that there is room for “disagreement”, a tired canard that gets repeated frequently on the Michfest bulletin boards, is really not doing anything good for any of us, because “disagreement” comes at the cost of supporting frameworks used to justify discrimination, to justify hating women like me. “Disagreement” is just another way to say “shut up, trans women and everyone who supports including all women at Fest.” Just because the artist personally may or may not hate trans women, the silence remains bloody complicity in that hatred. I learned this from second wave feminism: in feminist struggles you can’t ever be silent, you can’t ever stop screaming because otherwise you know what’s going to happen to you. I can’t live with myself supporting someone who supports as rabid and hateful of a trans-exterminationist as Lisa Vogel and the shockwaves her policies send down the line to “women’s spaces” across North America which openly encourage the presence of men and the exclusion of women and ground their policies in Michfest’s policy. And yeah, Amy Ray, this is what you stand for and this is why I’m hurt you choose complicity with a policy which says I am worthless. Is this a bad time to say I wanted to grow up to be, like, half as cool as you? Is it a bad time to admit my bad high school riot grrl band was trying to figure out how to punk the shit out of “World Falls”?
As Dar Williams once sang, “(w)ell, sometimes life gives us lessons sent in ridiculous packaging.” And yes, though she’s now supporting trans-exterminationism uncritically, she has a point there: we don’t always get to understand the why of any of these things. Ms. Vogel refuses to discuss, refuses dialogue, and refuses to debate, choosing to say we’re excluded because we’re “men” at the same time that Michfest openly welcomes men. It’s ridiculous packaging, and if it happened in a vacuum, that would be one thing…if Michfest didn’t advertise so aggressively in the dyke community that I am a part of and didn’t have an effect on things like providing homeless shelter space to trans women or the door policy at your local queer sauna, maybe this would be an isolated bunch of men and women in the woods in Michigan, but the reality remains that this isn’t all it is. When it comes to the idea of inclusive space for all women, I guess our dreams, well, “went up in dreams.”
Artists make political decisions all the time, and I understand that you have to eat, that you need to promote your record, and that Michfest is a pretty good paycheck all things considered. But nobody bothers to actually say that to us and go play Michfest and protest the shit out of the fact that their policy excludes some women, nobody is willing to just level with us and say it’s a business decision. The little part of my heart that got the crap kicked out of it when Dar Williams showed up on the lineup a few years back still hurts a little, but the repeated kickings from the old-school queer artists hurt a lot. It’s hard, bloody hard, to reconcile that an artist who makes something that matters so deeply to you, that made music that probably helped save your damn life, hates what you are through passive or active action. The open transmisogyny of artists like Bitch is one thing, but the silent complicity of the Amy Rays of the world is just heartbreaking. It hurts and it sucks because I know that Ms. Ray and Ms. Saliers probably don’t think about this stuff much but I also know they’ve accepted that complicity and what their answer is.
But, Ms. Ray and Ms. Saliers, you once told us that “(i)f I have a care in the world, I have a gift to bring.” And you know what? Such a gift would be speaking out against excluding any women (and welcoming any men) into a music festival which falsely billed as being for “women only.” I don’t expect some magical sea change overnight, but maybe, just maybe, someone’s willing to speak up. And then I’ll believe you don’t hate me when you’re playing Michfest. I know you have to make ends meet but can’t you make ends meet and stand up for all women at the same time? I know you have to make your money, but it’s time that you stop making blood money without criticizing it, and Michfest’s position makes every last penny you make on the Land nothing less than blood money.