feature image via shutterstock.com
As the conversations continue about the announcement that 2015 will be the last year of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, it’s worth remembering that Michfest is neither the oldest nor the only such festival in the US, and that many, if not most, of the other fests out there explicitly welcome trans women.
While music is one of the driving forces that brings people together in these temporary spaces, there’s a lot more to it than celebrating the artistry of female and queer musicians. These woman-focused spaces are a chance to step to the side of male-dominated spaces, i.e. a big part of the patriarchy, even if you never specifically talk about politics while you’re there. The visions that helped shape the early fests — visions tied in most cases to lesbian separatism — were informed by a desire to connect hearts, minds, and bodies, and at least for a short time to test out forms of gathering, laboring, and organizing created by and for women.
Lesbian culture has for decades been characterized by creating space specifically for lesbians where none existed because not only was the larger culture entirely male-dominated, deeply misogynist and oppressive toward women, so too were most LGB organizations and spaces. Similarly, feminist organizations, particularly through the 1960s-1980s, actively sought to keep lesbians and the issues facing lesbians out of their spaces. Not to mention all the ways these cultures enact things like racism and cis-sexism.
A key piece of the pie in creating these lesbian spaces was also the way they actively provided space for women who don’t conform to heterosexist norms to still be acknowledged and celebrated as women, or simply as themselves. In other words, they sought to create a space where you could be yourself and not feel shamed for it, even if they didn’t look like women in magazines, didn’t shave, presented as masculine, used a wheelchair, loved in a way that didn’t fit a single category, etc, etc.
But, the reality is, there are no utopias. Stepping to the side of external oppressive forces doesn’t mean we escape oppression — we still have to contend with ourselves, our oppressions of ourselves and others, our repressions, our traumas. The people who created these fests were not perfect, and the same goes for the gatherings themselves. There have been many conflicts and calls to action over the years at women’s music festivals: about including children, about including male children, about BDSM and other sex practices, about confronting racism and/or creating space for women of color, about class privilege, accessibility, and, as many people know today, around gender identity and the inclusion of trans women.
However, that doesn’t mean that all women’s festivals or the people in them should be written off entirely, or that positive change and community can’t exist within imperfect systems when there’s room and time given to take on the continual goal of working toward an end to oppression. Caucus spaces are a critical tool for many people’s political work, whether it be to gather around affinities of race, gender, sexuality, class, age, ability, etc.
For many, these opportunities to gather represent a really important chance to connect, care for themselves, be caring toward others, and celebrate queer women and their varied cultural creations. For some people, particularly those living in areas without easy access to other queer women, the history and politics are less a factor than simply being able to be in a space, however short-lived, that is comprised primarily of queer women.
Below is a selection of some of the fests that are happening this year and that welcome trans women. While the festivals listed are heavily focused on and typically organized by queer women, people across sexual and gender spectrums are welcome to participate and attend. Feel free to add more in the comments.
National Women’s Music Festival
July 2-5, 2015
One of the oldest in the US, the National Women’s Music Festival (NWMF) started in 1974 in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, home of the an enormous University of Illinois campus, but over the years it has shifted north to Wisconsin. The NWMF is tied for oldest fest with the Midwest Wimmin’s Festival that takes place each year in Missouri in mid-May. Unlike most other festivals, the NWMF doesn’t take place outdoors. Instead it takes place in a hotel in Middleton, Wisconsin, which is a benefit for some and a bummer for others. If you don’t want to sleep there, you can camp at a recommended park nearby or use the community housing board they’ve set up to find a place to rest. Another difference with this festival is that they don’t cook or arrange meals for attendees, so you have to purchase them nearby or bring your own.
But true to heart of the women’s festival form, this four-day event is a showcase for music created and performed by women with a heavily lesbian bent. And, as is core to queer lady culture everywhere, there are workshops and skillshares and community dialogues galore. According to last year’s workshop schedule you could choose anything from “Tarot Exploration” to “D.Y.K.E. Trivia” to “Rollercoaster Relationship Recovery Skills & Strategies for LGBTQ Women” to “LGBT-Friendly Inter-generational Co-Housing.”
For questions about who participates, here is what NWMF has to say about who can and does join in each year: “Attendees come from all genders and cultures, cutting across ethnic, racial, sexual, age, and ability boundaries. Likewise, Festival programming reflects many points of view; a diversity of ideas and topics are explored and discussed in a safe environment. Festival is an environment in which philosophies and politics are open for discussion, not mandated or judged.”
September 24-27, 2015
Some people are under the impression that the whole concept of women’s festivals is no longer relevant or needed, but the Fabulosa Festival stands out as a compelling counter to the argument that dykes don’t need or want to run around in the woods together anymore (A-Camp anyone?). After mentioning one of the oldest, it’s exciting to note that the Fabulosa is one of the newer fests, having started in 2006.
The crowd at Fabulosa is decidedly younger, there are almost as many DJs on the bill as singer-songwriters, and it’s actually a fundraiser for queer and feminist causes. But the model is very familiar: woods + camping + music + art + food for all kinds of eaters (they feed you at this one) + workshops for days. This one is all about the camping — they’ve got over 300 campsites near Yosemite National Park, and that’s where most people seem to stay, but you can also find spots nearby in recommended hotels or vacation homes.
And, like NWMF, if you’re interested in what they have to offer and are up for supporting the causes they are fundraising for, then they want you to come. Here’s what they have to say about who attends: “FABULOSA is 4 day inclusive, feminist fundraising gathering for women, their families, and good friends of all genders.”
Ohio Lesbian Festival
September 18-20, 2015
Going strong since 1988, the Ohio Lesbian Festival is one of the only fests that dares to use the word lesbian in their name, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there are limits to who is welcome. They put it this way: “one of the only remaining spaces dedicated to creating a festival for all womyn – lesbian, straight, bi, trans, etc; regardless of their age, socio-economic status, race, gender identity, religion or sexual orientation.”
This fest seems to attract a range of ages to Ohio’s regional variation on the camping, music, workshops, port-a-janes, and naked ladies (at least by way of burlesque if not otherwise) combination. Taking place on a grassy 160 acres and half an hour’s drive from Columbus, this fest seems a little easier to get to than some of the others, but of course it’s all relative to where you’re coming from. One of the reasons this fest might appeal to some is that is seems a bit more relaxed than some of the others, maybe it’s a dash of midwestern friendliness, who knows. If you’ve been, feel free to offer your own perspective in the comments.
September 25-27, 2015
This festival is the youngest of the bunch, having started only two years ago in 2013. It takes place at a private campground in Barrington, New Hampshire, which is about an hour and a half’s drive north of Boston. Run by the party promotion company LesbianNightLife, it sounds like it mirrors some of the large parties and events they host in Provincetown and Boston and is for ages 21+ only.
They list Burning Man as one of their influences and the photos from previous years emphasize the glow-in-the-dark atmosphere they’re seeking to create at their nightly dance parties. They’ve also got the requisite workshops and yoga classes that all the fests seem to have.
And in answer to the question, “Is Stargaze trans-inclusive?” Here’s what they posted on their FAQ: “Yes, Stargaze and LNL are inclusive, and we embrace the *entire* LGBTQ Community. We are welcoming to all female and male identified persons, regardless of natal origin. We ask that everyone be respectful and welcoming to each other at Stargaze, that’s what the event is about.”
Here are a few other fests worth looking into that both fit and break the mold in different ways:
- OUT/LOUD: a 1-day all ages fest celebrating queer women’s music taking place in mid-May in Eugene, Oregon and organized by the ASUO Women’s Center (get the most up to date info about the fest on Facebook)
- Iowa Women’s Music Festival: a 1-2 day fest for “all people and well-behaved pets” (the dates for 2015 haven’t been announced yet, but keep an eye on the website and Facebook for more info)
- Women’s Redrock Music Festival: this one really seems to emphasize the music aspect of the music festival and will take place in August of this year in Torrey, Utah
Again, feel free to share more in the comments.
On a very pragmatic level, women’s music and arts festivals have long been an important source of livelihood for musicians, artists, and queer craftspeople, many of whom have been able to supplement their incomes (often only marginally) or build fan bases or businesses from those travels. Learn a little bit more about the role of festivals in the development of the women’s music industry in the documentary Radical Harmonies, and get a little more background on the herstory of the early fests here. Which is to say, for those that do decide to go to these fests, it’s also a way to help sustain a group of artists who often aren’t given the chance to be sustained by the larger culture.