Don’t Celebrate, Organize! Learning from the Fall of MichFest

nowhere i’ve sent this to seems to want it, so i’m just gonna put it here. enjoy! or don’t.

the unaccustomed capitalization and more conventional punctuation is because of trying to get it published Somewhere Legitimate. my apologies to andrea dworkin, muriel rukeyser, gertrude stein, and all the other folks who are why i don’t generally do those things… (as dworkin says, in putting this into standard typography “I forced you to breathe where I do, instead of letting you discover your own natural breath. […] very few ideas are more powerful than the mechanisms for defusing them, standard form — punctuation, typography, then on to academic organization, the rigid ritualistic formulation of ideas, etc. — is the actual distance between the individual (certainly the intellectual individual) and the ideas in a book. […] to permit writers to use forms which violate convention just might permit writers to develop forms which would teach people to think differently: not to think about different things, but to think in different ways. that work is not permitted.”)

anyway – here’s hoping i can get through the next few decades without having to say anything else about this particular overpriced party with a fucked-up door policy.

Well, I’m as bored of talking about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival as any other trans dyke who came up in the 90s. But I’m finding myself unable to watch its last hurrah go by without reflecting a bit on what we – trans women, dykes, feminists, cultural workers – can learn from how and why it’s ending.

I’d love to claim victory.

To say: it took many years, but in the end a lot of cis women chose to honor the picket line that trans women held (physically and symbolically) for decades around a space that excluded us and fostered our exclusion from life-saving institutions across the continent.

To say: solidarity forced the Festival to choose between actually welcoming all women, or shutting down. To say: cis feminists have given trans women a reason to think that the era of purges that began in 1973 is beginning to end.

But that would be a lie. That solidarity did not exist.

Cis women spent decades feeding each other (and any trans woman gullible enough to listen) the lie of ‘eventual change through open dialogue’. Older cis dykes allowed themselves to be pitted against trans women (as if there are no older trans dykes) as a fig-leaf of ‘tradition’. Black cis women allowed themselves to be pitted against trans women (as if there are no black trans women) as a fig-leaf of ‘diversity’.

Key cis women in the strongest position to force change – anchoring the building and tech work crews whose labor made the festival possible – continued to embrace trans women fifty-one weeks of the year, and then to build gates to keep our contamination off their holy land.

And cis women knowingly welcomed men onto the Festival land year after year, under the transparent fiction that trans men who live as men, work as men, have eagerly jumped through hoops to acquire legal identification as men, and actively denounce any attempt to deny their existential and eternal manhood, somehow become “womyn-born womyn” for the one week they decide the pick-up scene is better in the woods than in Williamsburg.

Yes, MichFest is dead. But solidarity had fuck-all to do with it. And that’s where there’s something important to learn from the fall of the Fest of Michigan.

MichFest has died as it lived: the captive of one rich white cis woman who was its landlord and CEO.

When Lisa Vogel decided to pack up her toys and call it a day, all the “collective power” in the world couldn’t stop her, even at $490 a sliding-scale ticket. Because MichFest was not self-funded, or self-supporting. Because MichFest didn’t happen on collectively-owned, or even collectively-rented, land. Because MichFest wasn’t operated in a collective, transparent, or community-centered way. Because MichFest was, at heart, a vanity project.

That should scare the shit out of Festies. Because it means if they want to revive MichFest – inclusively or not – they’ll have to do more work than they ever have before. And I don’t even mean politically – I’m just talking about concrete, logistical labor. The work that’s involved in making something that’s actually a community event, not based on a single patron’s largess.

And it should serve as a warning to trans women (and both trans and cis dykes and feminists) about how we do our work.

We should be looking closely at the ‘community’ projects emerging around us, and from us, and asking for our support. We need to be asking: what is the foundation on which this stands? Is it one person’s deep pockets? One person’s social prestige? Who makes the decisions? Who signs the checks? Who pays? Who gets paid? Who works for free? Who decides who gets paid? Are the people it claims to serve the ones it pays? Do they make the decisions?

And we should decide which projects we give our time and money based on the answers – and based on whether we even get answers.

There are models for doing this kind of transparency well. The Foundry Theater, for instance, has printed detailed production budgets in its programs. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project posts its annual reports online, including a big-picture organizational budget. Any project, no matter how small or large, can at least match that – and almost certainly do much more.

And there are also warning signs.

Topside Press, for instance, which has published some of my favorite recent books by white trans women (and so far exactly one book by a trans woman of color [or perhaps two, depending on your definitions]), doesn’t even have a staff list on its website. But it’s not exactly a secret that its guiding force (and presumed major funder) is Tom Léger, a white trans man who has left a trail of rather successful past projects to wither in his wake, sometimes bringing his past collaborators along for the next round, sometimes not. Remember PrettyQueer? Remember Collect Pond? Remember STAGES Transgender Theater Festival? Remember the folks you haven’t seen since?

Vanity projects can do great, important work. And individual initiatives often do work that no one else is doing. The important thing, however, is that we don’t mistake them for efforts that are based in, or in any meaningful way accountable to, any larger group of people.

Notice: I’m deliberately not using the word ‘community’ here except in scare quotes. That’s because what I’m talking about here is material, direct, relationships to specific people, not the abstractions that ‘community’ gets used to invoke.

That’s what makes the difference between projects that are to some degree collective, transparent, grounded, and accountable, and those that aren’t. MichFest, like many things in the trans, queer, and alphabet-soup worlds, has always thrown around ‘community’ as what it builds, what it’s based in, what it stands for. And the story of MichFest’s end shows what that has meant in reality: a way of getting thousands of cis women to defend one person’s bigotry because they couldn’t throw their party without her bank account.

We – trans women, dykes, feminists, cultural workers – do not need to make the same mistake. Let’s be clear about what kinds of projects we need. Let’s support the individuals who take the initiative to do badass work, by helping that work become more than a solo effort. Let’s stop dignifying vanity projects by using the word ‘community’ about them. Let’s not give free labor to projects that claim to represent us and give us no way to become part of their decisionmaking.

And, when we can, let’s freely give our labor and money – without expecting a decisionmaking role – to projects grounded in worlds we’re not part of. My fellow white folks, I’m talking to you: when did you last buy a self-published book by a Black trans woman? by a trans Latina? when did you last contribute money or boring logistical labor to a collective project led by trans women of color?.

Let’s do the hard work to make collective projects sustainable.
We don’t need any more fake ‘community’ institutions.
We don’t need any more Lisa Vogels.

Let’s learn from MichFest – and as we wish its bigotry a gleeful farewell, say thank you to the womyn of Michigan for showing us so clearly what not to do.

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