Music » Music Stories

More Than a Woman

A local transgender protests the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival's less-than-welcoming entrance policy


Simon Fisher -- trans activist, drag king and sax player (he often plays with local avant-punk trio the Star Death) -- is a man on a mission. Scratch that: He's a trannyboy on a mission. Fisher, who used to be a member of the Chicago chapter of the Lesbian Avengers, doesn't consider himself male or female. He changed his name and prefers the masculine pronoun, but he retains his female reproductive organs and doesn't plan to undergo testosterone therapy or phalloplastic surgery; right now, he's comfortable being in-between. He's not complacent, though. For the past three years, the new St. Louisan has helped organize Camp Trans, an activist group that camps outside the grounds of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival to protest the "womyn-born-womyn only"/"no penises on the land" policy.

Now in its 27th year, MWMF offers five days of music (last year's lineup included Jill Sobule, Le Tigre, Amy Ray and the Butchies, Bitch and Animal, Dar Williams and Lea DeLaria), workshops, sports and camping. Last year, nearly 6,000 women attended the event, which takes place every August on 650 acres of private land. Unlike Ladyfest and other gynocentric music festivals, the MWMF doesn't allow men -- not even boys over age 5, who are segregated to another camp, and not even recorded male voices (although an exception was recently made for Glen Campbell's rendition of "Rhinestone Cowboy"). Since 1978, MWMF organizers have also excluded transgendered people -- both female-to-male and male-to-female -- although many of them attend anyway, thanks to the don't-ask-don't-tell clause, which means you're only busted if you waggle your dick at someone or loudly proclaim that your vagina's actually an inside-out penis.

Fisher, who is 23, first went to the festival in 1999, when he still identified as a dyke. The next year, he went back to stage an action on behalf of Camp Trans. "They don't ask your gender at the gate; they just assume you're going to respect the policy," he explains. "We made all these signs with non-womyn-born-womyn identities on them -- 'transguy,' 'boydyke,' 'intersexed,' 'M to F' -- and we went in during the lunch hour, where there are maybe 800 or 900 women eating at the same time. We just held up the signs in this silent protest. We had almost 300 women standing with us, which was really rad. So, basically, we said, 'Well, we're out, these are our identities, so it must be OK; the policy must be over.'"

Well, not exactly. When a plainclothes security guard learned of Fisher's trans identity, his natural-born vagina wasn't enough to save him from expulsion. "I said, 'My gender doesn't conflict with this festival's purpose,' but I got kicked out anyway. I was sobbing. I mean, this is my community -- or it was." Fisher and his fellow activists were then paraded through the festival and forcibly evicted from the grounds.

That's when Camp Trans really took off. Since then, some members of the trans community have organized a boycott of bands that support the MWMF's womyn-born-womyn policy. Fisher took a lot of heat from his peers when he performed with the Star Death during their brief tour with the Butchies last year. "I got called a scab," Fisher says, laughing. He says he talked briefly with members of the Butchies, who claim to be trans-supportive, but he's disappointed by their failure to address the issue of trans inclusion at the festival. "The Butchies are the biggest act at MWMF -- 3,000 people go to see them. They can't say one thing about trans people? If you're a rock star in the lesbian community, you cannot be pro-trans and not say anything."

Despite what MWMF defenders argue, Fisher says that no one at Camp Trans wants to destroy the festival: "That's not what we're trying to do. But you can't imagine the passion people feel for that week in August -- it's like religion, this white lesbian feminist mecca, and they'll do anything to protect it. And who are we to come in and say it's fucked up? We're not interested in taking it away. We want to make it better. And trans inclusion is one way to make it better."

Fisher doesn't want to attend the festival anyway: "It's my belief that Michigan should be a women's festival, and people who identify as women -- no matter what kind of women they are -- should be able to attend. But it's not my space. I don't have $350 to spend on a ticket, I don't feel comfortable with the way that race is examined at the festival and I'm not comfortable with the way S&M people are oppressed there. Even if Michigan had trans inclusion, it would be uncomfortable for me. But I'm going to fight like hell for people who want to go who aren't invited in yet."

Fisher is organizing a midyear meeting on March 1-3 to create a mission statement. The Bent Boyz (St. Louis drag kings) and the Star Death are among the featured performers. To register, call 314-664-8633 or e-mail [email protected].

A few quick endorsements: Eltro bring their buzzy, droney, thoroughly captivating down-tempo electrowave to the Way Out Club on Saturday, Feb. 16. Acclaimed jazz vocalist, former Dizzy Gillespie collaborator and MaxJazz recording artist Mary Stallings performs at Jazz at the Bistro Feb. 13-16. On Feb. 14, the Misses make their raunchy debut at the Hi-Pointe. If their live set is half as good as their press kit (huge milk-chocolate lips always make a good impression), they won't disappoint.

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