I value separate spaces…

[This originally came from an online conversation. It does not use the SSCAB/DSCAB language from my previous post. It’s way shorter of a blog and less academic sounding, more personal and about my experience of the Womyn Born Female space that is the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.]

I value separate spaces of many kinds. I have participated in lesbian only, People of Color only, Women of Color only, black women only, black lesbian only, all women only, Womyn Born Female only. I get something different from each. I don’t particularly value queer space, but I don’t begrudge those who do taking it. For me “queer” tends to mean anyone at least half-way freaky deaky (like kinky straight folks think of themselves as “queer” now). It doesn’t speak to me as a lesbian at all. I think we, meaning lesbians, get lost in the LGBT alphabet soup. But that’s me. I think there is value in coming together occasionally or even regularly if that is what works for you. I just tend to find “inclusive” by way of “queer” doesn’t always mean the concerns of women will be addressed. For me this goes back as far as Queer Nation in NYC in the early 90’s. The issues being addressed were very white gay male focused. It’s part of why some of us women broke off and started Dyke Action Machine.

I value Womyn Born Female space because my life is informed by the fact that I was born female. It’s not just informed by my identity as a woman, but also by my female body. I did not understand that until I was in what was consciously determined Womyn Born Womyn space. (I prefer to use WBF over WBW, because I think it is more accurately spoken that way, as in “Womyn [gender, which is socially constructed]  Born Female [sex, physical body]”)

I first learned about Michigan in 1986. And I learned in that first conversation about it that it was “Womyn Born Womyn” space. I had never heard the term before. The specificity struck me and the friend I was with… we both responded like “daaaaaaaaaaayum.” And I can’t say that, at the time,  I responded that way because it sounded offensive or transphobic. I’d never even heard the word transphobic before. It was more that whoever put this gathering together consciously narrowed it down like that. Damn.

My first festival was in 1989. And because I understood it to be Womyn Born Female space I was conscious to consider why that might be meaningful to me. But many things struck me that I didn’t have to even think too much about. I was so impressed with everything about the festival. The production quality was amazing. It was as good as or better than any big concerts I had been to in my life. And I was more than impressed. I was SURPRISED. And I remember stopping myself and asking, “Why am I surprised?”

If anyone had asked me if I thought women/girls could do anything men/boys could do, I would have answered without hesitation “YES!” I had been fighting “girls can’t” my whole life. I literally had “girls can’t” said to me everyday of my childhood. Girls can’t play football, basketball, baseball, climb trees, play with trucks, throw a ball, do math, be good at science, take and be good at shop, play guitar… I mean on and on. And I fought it everyday. “But I am PLAYING football, therefore girls CAN play football.” I mean, seriously daily.

So I really thought I BELIEVED that girls could do anything. But what I found out was that some of that stuff had gotten under my skin and into my head and my beliefs about myself and other females. I realized that when I heard recorded music, even if the band was all women, I had some idea that if there was a guitar solo, a guy probably did that. And like I saw the stages and big tents and the sound booth and the lighting at Michigan and I imagined that guys had come and put that together. I had no idea prior to Michigan that I really thought that way. And so Michigan made me really understand that I had so much healing to do around what it means to be female and what I went through growing up, BECAUSE I am female. I realized I had internalized the messages “girls can’t” and the reflections in media and culture that inform our sense of possibilities and limitations and was applying those beliefs in my life totally without being conscious about it.

– – – – –

Sort of as a related aside, one time when I was in my late teens and living with my father, his mother, my grandmother came to visit. Gram was an opininated matriach for sure. And she had a real thing about hair. She was a hairdresser. And, because of racism, she had really internalized the idea that since we had the technology to straighten our hair as black women, we should. Straight hair is beautiful and good. Nappy hair is not. She could deal with natural hair on some level, but it had to be very well kempt and definitely not braids (dreadlocks, totally nothing she could even imagine).  I was wearing my hair then similar to the way I wear it now when it’s out and that is kind of wild and curly. So one day while Gram was visiting she sighed and said to me…”I’m going to tell you something…cause I love you.” I knew to brace myself, because surely something weighted was coming. Then she said, “You used to be pretty…” And I was like, “Daaaag Gram. This is about my hair?” And she nodded. So I replied, “A lot of people like my hair.” And it was true that I did get a lot of compliments on it. But she held strong to her opinion. “They are lying to you. I’m telling you the truth, because I love you.” I was able to redirect the conversation, responding with the hook of a Louis Jordan tune we had been listening to by singing, “But I’ll die happy.” We laughed it off and I went and had my day. But later that night I was lying in my bed and I thought to myself clear as if I said it out loud, “Wow. That’s fucked up my friends lie to me.” And I shook and shocked myself thinking that, because it did get to me. IT. GOT. TO. ME! And that is a parallel experience to how all the messages get to us as girls even when we were girls who thought we were actively resisting those messages.

– – – – –

There are so many limitations and expectations forced on us. For some women perhaps all of that works with their natures. But for those of us that it doesn’t, its quite brutal. I am a woman with a low voice. And I grew up being made fun of because of it. And I learned to speak higher to avoid getting shit for my voice. That is something I have been able to heal in part, because of Michigan. Judith Casselberry, Edwina Lee Tyler, Alexis P. Suter, Ubaka Hill, Maxine Feldman and more… I’m not the only one!

At Michigan, I learned that women can be quite hairy. I am not really hairy at all. But it was very meaningful to see women fiercely rocking beards and hairy legs. And I imagined for years that they just let themselves go for fest. I had no idea that they were so daring as to present like that out in the world. Like, what is natural for women, is unacceptable socially. We are so guided and forced into standards of beauty that are impossible for most of us. And at Michigan I saw women defying the status quo of gendered expectations and defining “woman”  by finding, healing and being themselves, as opposed to allowing “woman,” as it is socially constructed and understood in mainstream society, to define them.

And we tend to be trained from childhood… from babies really to protect ourselves… our virtues… we begin learning (many, maybe most of us) as babies to “sit like ladies”… with our legs closed. This is not just manners. It’s preparing us to appear less inviting… less available for unwanted sexual advances. We don’t learn to know rapists in such a way that our instincts are honed to detect their identities as rapists. The best we can do is to understand that men and boys (who we understand as anyone male) are all potential violators. We need to be careful… don’t walk down certain streets, don’t stay out late… don’t get too drunk, never go out alone… women guess and try so hard to avoid assault and yet 1 in 5 in the U.S. have been sexually assaulted. And 90 something percent of the time sexual assault of females is at the hand of males. So our instincts are honed to know, as best we can, when we are in the presence of males. I think this is both nature and nurture. It’s quite animal really to know sex this way.

I didn’t know until Michigan how ON I was all the time. Like, I think probably most women who go there for the first time end up a few days in suddenly realizing they are not afraid. Like, there are no males there. That survival instinct that kicks in everywhere else and is conscious of males in our presence doesn’t get triggered… even though there are bearded and sometimes very butch women. THAT thing does not get tripped off in WBF space. And it’s such a relief. And I mean that it is one I would not have expected. Because when I realized I was not afraid is when I realized I am normally afraid all the time. It was the absence of that fear that made me realize I had it in the first place. Its a profound realization. It was for me anyway. It’s like carrying a huge pack of rocks on your back and it being there so long you don’t even realize you are carrying it. And then someone says “hey… you can put that down now.” And you don’t even know what they are talking about. And then when you actually take it off… you can’t believe how big and heavy it was… you can’t believe it was just your normal.

I understand that many people cannot process the idea of me considering myself a trans ally when I also say that I value WBF space. I feel like if I were to deny that I find value in it when I do in order to not hurt feelings or to avoid being framed as transphobic, THAT would actually be transphobic. Not all WBF want or need WBF space. I do. Many others do. It is our healing space. The value we find in it is not about the hatred of anyone not intended to be there. I can be a better ally and show up to support inclusive events when I am more whole and healed myself.

People, anyone really… but especially oppressed classes of people, have a right and responsibility to create healing spaces as they need toward their healing. I believe in the healing powers of separatist spaces. I believe in them because I know they have been a part of my own healing. And I feel so strongly about them that I think the only people who have a right to change the intention of a given space are those intended. And for those I am included in, I would vote to hold as originally intended if only one person in the group said they still needed it as such.

And I think anyone, intended or not intended, within the boundaries of a given healing space trying to force a change in the intention for that space is being abusive. I don’t mean its abusive to just bring up the question like, “This group is intended to be black women’s space, anyone up for changing the intention to be for all WOC?” But I mean actually disregarding an intention and bringing people outside the intended group or any other kind of forced way to change the intention of a healing space…be that a petition that frames the intention as hateful and or intimidation of any kind etc. What is happening with Michigan in terms of actively intimidating artists and attendees (appealing to currently billed artists to cancel their participation,  calling other venues they are billed at and having them cancelled there with threats of boycotts to those events as well, demanding apologies for ever having performed in the past, getting fired from jobs, being denied jobs for attending, calling clients of attendees and asking them to no longer work with them etc.)  is absolutely abusive and dismissive of the needs of those intended. My other blog “SSCAB/DSCAB: Reconsidering the Conversation” goes more into the background and politics around all of this, you may find it useful.

I don’t know how to do anything to make the abuse stop. But I feel it is important to stand in the truth of my experience and my own needs and values around what is happening in terms of the framing of Michigan as anti-trans. For me, it is important that such an ugly and inaccurate framing not be allowed to stand unchallenged by the voices of those of us who understand and hold dear Michigan as a healing and loving space, specifically determined for WBF. As Audre Lorde said it, “My silences [have] not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”

So again, I want to make clear that MWMF is really an incredible experience. It’s not just a music festival. It’s not comparable to anything mainstream like Lilith Fair or any other big music festival. Yes there are well produced concerts and so it serves as entertainment. But there are no outside sponsors, no Coca Cola stage or Budweiser stage. Everything is done by the hands and hearts and intentions of WBF for the love of WBF.

But I think for most attendees the real value of Michigan is what it allows us to access within ourselves.  It gives us the time and space to recover and reclaim the things that we are told are not valuable, because they do not fit into the prescribed gender roles we are assigned as people who were born female — like my low voice, body and facial hair, we get to see our many different shaped bodies as strong and beautiful on our own terms that don’t necessarily fit the standard of beauty as defined by our ability to please men. We get to own our talents with carpentry, plumbing, playing musical instruments, running sound and lighting, garbage and recycling,  tree trimming and land maintenance, as well as handling childcare and tasks that are traditionally assigned to females in ways that honor that work and talent of the women who do it… This is women managing a small town made up solely of females who are finding our truest and highest selves without permission or apology.

We are young and old, of varying physical abilities. We are females of many ethnic, economic, cultural, religious and educational backgrounds sharing our experience, strength and hope and celebrating our living in a world in which we understand “we were never meant to survive”  as whole and complete human beings. This, despite the very popular and negative rhetoric, is what Michigan really is about. It’s a loving and celebratory space for WBF to examine how our lives are informed by the fact that we were born and assigned female, in a way that I haven’t found possible anywhere else. If you are a WBF who finds that appealing, I hope you will consider attending or supporting the festival and the artists who perform at fest in whatever way you can.

Here is a link for tickets: http://michfest.com/tickets

Here is a link for donations and tickets in memory: http://michfest.com/donate

Here is a link to the Facebook page of the WANTED project: https://www.facebook.com/WantedInvisibleWomen

And here are some videos (in one youtube playlist) that you might also enjoy:


Hope to See You In August!!!

20 thoughts on “I value separate spaces…

  1. Nedra, this is a powerful and resonant piece for which I thank you for sharing. I have also searched my soul about this issue because I am home at MWMF and I have trans friends who feel overlooked or shunned. I never want anyone to feel either of those things. As a baby dyke, I felt those things and would never wish them for anyone. I was also, once upon a time, a lesbian separatist and totally get what you’re saying about needing sacred spaces to heal. I needed that separatist time in my life. Today, sometimes I need women-only space, Lesbian-only space, chem-free space… These spaces help us to connect with who we are and recognize who we aren’t. I get that the trans allies want for MWMF to be inclusive so that the trans folks can have the healing that you & I get from that sort of space; I wish it was that simple. It isn’t and they can’t because they can’t know what it feels like to grow up with girl skin, being bombarded with girl messages. They just can’t.
    Thank you for sharing your hard-worked thoughts and experience so I could understand why and how I was so torn. I’m no longer torn. I honor your power of word & song.
    In solidarity- diana moon
    AKA Diana Kane

  2. Right On, Nedra! Reading your words resonates so deeply inside, almost like a twin track w/jumps and turns and arpeggios (?) thrown in. I found fest in ’86 and have grown so much each and every year I’ve worked! (not missing a single year so far) I like your distinction btwn WBW and WBF and agree with it. You have painted this pic so clearly that I hope others can take them in and grow from your words. Thank you!
    Vick Tree

  3. Nedra, I so agree! I love how you frame the difference between WBW and WBF. There was a research study done in the 1970′s or 1980′s in which a baby was dressed in pink one day, carried in public by the mother, and all comments to her were recorded. The SAME baby was dressed in blue the next day, carried around, and the comments were recorded. The difference was stunning even though the infant would have looked identical in size and appearance in only 24 hours. As a pink-dressed baby, the recorded comments were, “oh, how dainty and lovely” and “how pretty” and “she’s going to be a heart-breaker one day.” The same baby dressed in blue got “what a slugger” and “isn’t he a big boy” and “he’s so strong!” It starts from birth. The born-male trans people got different comments growing up. Yes, they were probably hurtful comments, but they were different than what women-born-female heard and were trained to believe. You do an amazing job of explaining the fear of rape and violence at the hands of men-born-men that all women are trained to have also. I care deeply about trans oppression and transphobia and long for the day when all this gender-based oppression is gone, but every group needs separate space from time to time. Thanks for your open sharing. I think all readers will also see the intersection of race and gender oppression in this blog as you shared about your hair and your grandmother. I love your hair! I don’t know your grandma, but I would probably love her and I mourn for her disconnection from her natural-born hair.

  4. I get what you are saying but you dont seem to understand one thing, Trans Women are born Women, they have the wrong skin, and have to hide their “womaness” from the world, they have to take what makes them special and unique, all that makes them Woman, and cover it up, feel shame for it and be forced to fight for it more than anything. They end up dead at a higher rate than most other women, they end up in worse situations faster than most other women… and then there is The Land, a place of promise for all women, expect them… If being a woman is just in your breasts and whats between your legs, well that seems a bit sad to me…

    • Its difficult for me to believe you actually do *get* what I am saying. Its difficult for me to believe you actually read what I wrote. Because you might then have noticed that I spoke of women born female. This, of my two blogs on this subject, is what I consider the easier to digest. But I do think both bring up important points to consider. If you are really interested in discussing what I think please do read what I have written. I can’t put much energy into what seems like an attempt to bait me by reducing this down to that final sentence of yours. I do not approach this issue lightly. Your reply insults my intelligence. And I’m going to leave it at that.

  5. I absolutely love your post, Nedra. You put in words how I feel about Michigan, and why I think it’s so important that this sacred space is preserved for us as well as for our Gaia Girls growing up there. I also like WBF as a term. It’s spot on, because it’s our sex assignment at birth that throw us in the one bin, not the other. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Another “thank you”, to add to all those above. Michigan is the most inclusive place I’ve ever been. Given the wild-land venue, incredible amounts of time and energy are put into constructing boardwalks and ramps, to setting up areas for the hearing- and vision-impaired so that they/we have close-in access to the performances, etc, etc. There are even provisions for providing “scholarships” and traveling funds for women without the resources to otherwise attend. Even mothers get special attention, with on-site childcare provided for both girls and boys (once had a discussion there regarding cut-off age for boys [12, I think], other woman thought it was too young and risked making boys resentful for their exclusion, to which I argued it was a good lesson for boys to learn that not all spaces belong to them).

    Of all the women’s festivals I’ve attended, Michigan has had the most ethnically and racially diverse performers, some of whom have gone on to become my favorites.

    I’ve been greatly saddened by the dog-in-the-manger attacks on MichFest. Especially those making it more difficult for performers to share what is so desperately needed and graciously received by the wonderful myriad of women in attendance. I’ve moved from America, so it’s unlikely I’ll attend another. Still, I sincerely hope that it continues to exist for other women in the same way it has so blessedly been for me.


  7. Thank you for this. I very much appreciated your line:
    “I understand that many people cannot process the idea of me considering myself a trans ally when I also say that I value WBF space. I feel like if I were to deny that I find value in it when I do in order to not hurt feelings or to avoid being framed as transphobic, THAT would actually be transphobic”

    I’m so tired of folks throwing around the term “transphobic” just because I don’t want to hang in the woods with people who have balls. It’s my preference and it doesn’t mean I’m phobic, just like I prefer having relations with other women. It doesn’t make me “man/male-phobic”. I’ve been to Fest long ago in my baby-dyke years and had there been a set of balls camping next to me, sorry but no!

  8. Dear attendee’s of the Festival-

    I am that trans lesbian who feel isolated an hated in the early 1990’s. I was student at Beloit College when the woman was expelled in 1992 (My reaction, They think I am evil) . My first day in college, I was introduced to The Transexual Empire as the only source of information on trans woman within academia (My reaction, They wrote a book saying that am evil).

    I never asked be a man. At age three in 1975 Tulsa, Oklahoma I had no power to change my gender. I was trapped being a boy. Being socialized as a girl was my dream. So, when i hear the phrase ‘Women-born-Women’ all I hear is powerlessness and pain over something I cannot control.

    After 40 years of this controversy I cannot see Michigan as anything other than a special place for healing built upon transphobia. I know my pain blinds me to your happiness. Just remember- in this 40 years of the festival many women have killed themselves over the fear of being accepted as lesbians.

    • Hi Octavia,

      I have several thoughts in response to your comments. The first one is to wonder if you actually read my blog post or not. I can read what you have written and take away, for one, that that you have a lot of pain around feeling what you think is being thought of as evil (maybe particularly by womyn born female). I can see why if you believe that is true, it would be painful.

      One of the reasons that I wonder if you actually read my blog is that I have the sense one wouldn’t read it and come away with the conclusion that, I as the author, think trans women are evil. I can’t speak to the book you mentioned because I haven’t read it beyond a few often quoted snippets that seem likely to have been misinterpreted and some responses from the author that seem to affirm that. (http://janiceraymond.com/fictions-and-facts-about-the-transsexual-empire/)

      In your second paragraph you said, “I never asked to be a man…I was trapped being a boy. Being socialized as a girl was my dream.” And I wonder if you realize how much women/girls feel trapped being girls. I wonder if you realize being socialized a girl is actually a nightmare for many of those of us who are…I think you can only really say that because of what you imagine that to mean…the fantasy of being socialized as female might be beautiful. The reality is not. And it feels insulting really to hear it romanticized resentfully when I am still recovering my whole self as a result of the trauma of my lived experience of being born in a female body and assigned to the subjugated sex class.

      I understand that you feel pain and powerlessness when you hear “womyn born womyn.” I hear you feeling sorrowful because it is something you cannot control. I do empathize with the difficulty of those feelings. But what do you imagine is the solution? Is it eliminating the phrase? (I say Womyn Born Female because I think it is more accurate) There seem to be no words WBF are approved to use besides “cis,” which many of us do not identify with at all, to describe ourselves that trans women do not feel pain around. And “cis” only seems to be acceptable because it is paired with the idea that non-trans women are privileged over trans women. And that is in complete denial of sex class assignment with males being born and assigned into the dominating sex class and females being born and assigned to the subjugated sex class.

      It sucks that you believe Michigan was built on transphobia. It wasn’t. It was and is built on LOVE. Your fears and projections do not change that. The fact that you believed 20+ years ago that our want/need for WBF space was based and centered on trans women and hatred and that you still believe that today is sadly your own limitation. Michigan isn’t and wasn’t ever about anyone not intended to be there.

      You said, “I know my pain blinds me to your happiness.” And I think that the truth is really more like your pain is blinding you to our pain. You imagine our happiness as something that should also be yours. I don’t think you are blind to what you imagine comes with being female. You are blind to the reality. And I am not saying that as individuals we don’t have happiness. But as a class females are pretty fucked. And that is why you don’t seem to see.

      That last bit…the call for us to “remember that over the 40 years of this festival many women have killed themselves over the fear of being accepted as lesbians” – I mean really…that’s just manipulative. And I don’t suppose you care much about the WBF who haven’t killed themselves as a result of this festival. And I don’t suppose you care about the WBF who might just as possibly have killed themselves because the lies and fears projected onto the festival kept them from attending the one place that they may have found healing.

      I responded to that in relationship to the festival, though perhaps you really did not mean anything about the festival and really were tossing that manipulative bit out about being accepted as a lesbian. For some people “lesbian” will mean female same sex attraction and they will not budge on that. No one is obligated to involve themselves sexually with anyone they are not interested in regardless of reason. And community wise people gotta get in where they fit in. If you find you are not well accepted by lesbians in your community, maybe, in part its the community where you live. And maybe its the energy that is exuded in things like the fact that you have spent 20+ years centering perceived rejection on the idea you as a trans woman are supposedly seen as evil, instead of trying to understand and empathize with females who think female socialization is abuse and something to recover from. Like I cant read your comment here and think I want to hang out with you. I know that may sound hurtful, but I don’t mean it to be. My initial reaction was a fairly snarky interpretation: “Dear women, it was all about me 20+ years ago and its still about me.”

      If your comment on this post was a typical example of the way you communicate, then you may come off to women as entitled and manipulative as well as sad and hurt. That’s a lot of red flags. And those red flags would be red flags no matter what. That’s stuff to heal within yourself. You can’t blame lesbians for that.

      I really struggle with this idea that all lesbians should be accepting of trans women as women and potential sexual partners. Some are and some are not. What good does it do to be mournful about boundaries people set for themselves? How is that not inherently coupled with a sense of entitlement?

      In any case, I have spent a lot of time trying to be clear within myself and then trying to convey my thoughts on why I value WBF space. None of it has to do with thinking anyone not intended for it is evil. If you prefer to believe that, it is on you.

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