The Believer is proud to present this article, which appeared in our pages in November, 2003, in full online for the first time. We will be putting up more articles like this, which were previously unavailable online and which are, frequently, from issues now long out of print, at believermag.com every Wednesday for the next six weeks.
— The editors
THE TRANSGENDER REVOLUTION HAS YET TO WIN OVER THE PEOPLE YOU’D IMAGINE WOULD BE ITS MOST OPEN-MINDED SUPPORTERS: THE ORGANIZERS OF—AND MANY PARTICIPANTS IN—AN UTOPIAN WOMYN’S MUSIC FESTIVAL.
DISCUSSED: Porto-Janes, Sex-To-Order Surgery, Post-Dyke Queer Scene, Spring Break for Trannyboys, Floridian Retiree Role-Play, Dirty Dancing, Susan Powter, J. J. Bitch, The Fat-Tastics, Fat Caucus, ADD Caucus, Heat Death in France, The Bearded Transrevolution, Beefalo, Youth Travel Culture, “King Shit of Fuck Mountain,” A Safe Space to Fuck Up, A New Civil Rights Movement.
Unless you’ve spent some time as a lesbian, or perhaps are the sort of straight lady who enjoys the music, politics, and occasional abandoning of the menfolk that a particularly earthy strain of “womens’ culture” offers, you’ve probably never heard of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. It’s been happening for the past twenty-eight years, taking place each August on a lush chunk of woodland in northern Michigan, planned to coincide with summer’s final full moon. While womyn’s music is the festival’s alleged purpose—the guitar stylings of folksters like Holly Near and Cris Williamson as well as post-riot-grrrl acts like Bitch and Animal, the Butchies, and Le Tigre, to draw in the younger generation—the real purpose is to hunker down in a forest with a few thousand other females, bond, have sex in a fern grove, and go to countless workshops on everything from sexual esoterica to parading around on stilts, processing various oppressions, and sharing how much you miss your cat. The festival aims to be a utopia, and in most ways it hits its mark. Performers are paid well, and all performers are paid the same amount, regardless if they’re famous like the Indigo Girls or some virtually unknown girl band. You can come for free as a worker, taking on jobs like child care, kitchen work, or driving shuttles on and off the land, and even women who pay the hundreds of dollars to come in are required to pull their weight by picking up a couple of work shifts. The only dudes allowed in the space are the ones who rumble in late at night, in giant trucks, to vacuum the sludge from the hundreds of Porta-Potties, called Porta-Janes. They are preceded by a woman who hollers, “Man on the land! Man on the land!”—a warning to skittish nymphs to hop into a tent or a bush. I’ve been to the festival four or five times, and can attest to the deeply stunning feeling of safety and peace there. The absence of guys does make for an absence of threat; everyone’s guard is down, finally, and a relaxation level is hit that is probably impossible to access in the real world. Pretty much everyone who attends bursts into tears at some point, saddened at all the psychic garbage that females are forced to lug around and grateful for a week of respite. It’s no wonder the women who come to the festival are zealots about it, live for August, and get totally obsessed with and protective of the culture that springs up within its security-patrolled boundaries.
In 1991 a transsexual woman named Nancy Jean Burkholder was evicted from MWMF. Transsexual women, for those not up-to-date with the growing transgender revolution, are women who were born in male bodies and have been fighting against that ever since. They may or may not be on hormones, which can be costly or unavailable. Same goes for sex reassignment surgery, which is often prohibitively expensive and not covered by insurance. Nancy Jean’s eviction is famous in Michigan lore, for it sparked a fierce debate about the inclusion of transsexual women, which has been raging for over a decade. A lot of women inside the festival want to keep trans women out. Some staunchly insist that these individuals are not women but men in dresses trying to ruin the feminist event. Others concede that trans women are women, but because they were born boys and may still have penises, the festival is not the place for them. Trans women and their growing number of allies say these feminist justifications are straight-up discrimination, no different from the rest of the world, which routinely denies that trans women are “real” women and bars their access to everything from jobs to housing, domestic-violence counseling to health care. Off and on for the past decade a small group of transpeople and their supporters have set up a protest camp, Camp Trans, across the road, in the hope of changing the policy that left Nancy Jean stranded in the Midwest twelve years ago.
NANCY JEAN BURKHOLDER
“I appreciate women’s space, and after checking with festival literature I couldn’t see that I wasn’t welcome. I had talked to people, and their opinion was, if you think of yourself as a woman, you’re welcome. I’d gone with a friend of mine, Laura. We drove out together, and we were number thirty-three in line. We got there early; we were really excited about going. We set up camp up in Bread & Roses. It’s kind of the quiet area. Then we each did a work shift, shuttle duty. Hauling people from the front all the way back. That evening Laura was having a friend come in on the shuttle bus from Grand Rapids, so we walked down to the gate about nine p.m. to meet the bus. Turned out the bus was late and didn’t get there ‘til about eleven. We were hanging out at the fire pit, just kind of joined the group of people that were hanging out and talking. When the bus came in at eleven, Laura went up to the gate to meet her friend, and I waited by the fire pit. At that point a couple of women approached me and asked if I knew that this was a festival for women. It kind of surprised me. I said, ‘Yeah, uh-huh.’ About that time Laura was coming back, so I asked her to come over; something didn’t seem right about what these women were asking. I think one of them asked me if I was transsexual. I said, ‘My history is none of your business.’ I asked, ‘Why are you asking?’ and she said that transsexuals weren’t welcome. I think I remember saying, ‘Are you sure? How do you know?’ And so she went at that point and talked to the festival producers. She came back in about an hour; it took a while. She said that transsexuals were not welcome at the festival, and was I transsexual? At one point I offered to show them my driver’s license, which said female, and also to drop my drawers, and she said, ‘I wouldn’t be comfortable with that.’ Which I thought was kind of off, given the amount of nudity at the festival. She asked again, ‘Are you transsexual?’ and I said, ‘It’s none of your business.’ At that point she said, ‘Well, I’m empowered to expel any woman, at any time, for any reason. You have to leave.’ I knew there was no arguing with them.
They wouldn’t let me leave the area around the main gate. Instead, Laura went with a couple of festival security guards back out to my campsite, scooped up all my equipment, and brought it back to the main gate. It must have been about one o’clock in the morning by then. They arranged for us to stay at a motel in Hart, [Michigan]; I think we got there around two o’clock. And it was a dump. It was cold; there was mildew in the carpet; wet; trucks running by on Route 10. I couldn’t believe it. I was devastated. The next day Laura took me down to Grand Rapids, and I paid for a plane ticket and flew home to New England. I flew to Worcester, Massachusetts, and Laura’s partner arranged for a taxi to take me back to their house, where my car was. Laura went back to the festival for two reasons: She was doing a workshop, and also she went back to tell my friends what happened to me. Otherwise I would have disappeared without a trace. One of the friends she told was Janis Walworth. Janis and Laura spent the rest of the festival talking to people and telling them what happened. I was back in New Hampshire, and I called Gay Community News, a newspaper in Boston, to tell them what happened. I think they were a little taken aback and weren’t quite sure what to do with this. They did say, ‘If you want to write an editorial, we’ll publish it.’ So, Laura wrote a letter to the editor, and they published it with my editorial, and we took up a whole page in the newspaper. That kind of started the whole controversy.
The important piece that doesn’t always get reported is that Janis organized a bunch of people to go back in 1992. She brought her sister, a male-to-female postoperative transsexual, and also an intersex person and a butch female. They distributed buttons and leaflets and did a survey. The survey indicated that seventy-two percent approved of transsexuals being at the festival. Twenty-three percent did not, for a variety of reasons. Out of that Janis categorized the reasons why people didn’t want transsexuals, and she compiled gender myths, twenty-four of them.
TWENTY-FOUR GENDER MYTHS
1. Although male-to-female transsexuals have surgery to change their anatomy and take female hormones, they still act like men.
2. Male-to-female transsexuals are not women-born women (or womyn-born womyn).
3. Male-to-female transsexuals have been socialized as men, and this socialization cannot be changed.
4. Male-to-female transsexuals are trying to “pass” as women. They try to make themselves as much like nontranssexual women as possible.
5. Male-to-female transsexuals take jobs away from women because they had access to better training when they were men.
6. To lessen the power of patriarchy in our lives, we must purge our community of everything male, including women who once had male anatomy.
7. Most women can easily prove they are not male-to-female transsexuals, if they are challenged to do so.
8. Male-to-female transsexuals have been raised as boys, have never been oppressed as women, and cannot understand women’s oppression.
9. Women’s space is not “safe” space if male-to-female transsexuals are allowed in it.
10. Transsexuals have surgery so they can have sex the way they want to.
11. Male-to-female transsexuals are trying to take over the lesbian community.
12. The sex assigned to a person at birth is that person’s “real” sex.
13. The lesbian and women’s communities have nothing to gain by including transsexuals.
14. Nontranssexual women have the right to decide whether transsexuals should be included in the women’s community.
15. Transsexuals are guilty of deception when they don’t reveal right away that they are transsexuals.
16. Male-to-female transsexuals are considered men until they have sex change surgery.
17. People can be categorized as transsexual or nontranssexual—there’s no in-between.
18. Women who want to become men have bought into societal hatred of women or are hoping to take advantage of male privilege.
19. A person’s “true” sex can be determined by chromosome testing.
20. Transsexualism is unnatural—it is a new problem brought about by sophisticated technology.
21. “Real” women, certainly those who belong to the lesbian community, rejoice in their womanhood and have no desire to be men.
22. Since Festival policy was made clear, there have been no transsexuals at Michigan.
23. Transsexuals have caused trouble at Michigan, resulting in their expulsion.
24. Nontranssexual women at Michigan don’t want male-to-female transsexuals to be present.
AIRPLANE OVER SOUTHWEST, AUGUST 15, 2003
I’m reading Jane magazine because my plane could, of course, crash; this could be my last moment alive, and I will not deny myself the small delight. Jane is the most innocent of the guilty pleasure that is women’s magazines, as it at least aspires toward a sensibility affirming that women shouldn’t look starved for cheeseburgers and that gay people are cool. Printed beneath a small column in which the actor who plays the exchange student on That ’70s Show gives advice to lovelorn teenage girls is this bit of information:
Wesleyan University now offers the nation’s first “gender-blind” dorm for students who don’t label themselves as male or female.
I am zooming through the air toward a patch of national forest presently populated by a horde of people who don’t label themselves as male or female, as well as bunches of folks whose identities settle somewhere beneath the transgender banner. Now, before we land in Grand Rapids, an emergency glossary.
EMERGENCY GLOSSARY OF GENDER IDENTITY TERMINOLOGY
(Partially plagiarized from the website Antny’s Place [antnysplace.org])
Genderqueer: Individuals who may identify as both male and female, or sometimes as male and sometimes as female, or decline to identify with any gender whatsoever. They are not necessarily on hormones or pursuing surgery.
Transsexual: (1) A person who feels a consistent and overwhelming desire to transition and fulfill their lives as members of the opposite gender. Generally taking hormones and pursuing surgery. (2) A person who believes that his or her actual biological (or “born”) gender is the opposite of the one it should have been.
Trans man:A female-to-male transsexual (FTM). Also known as a trannyboy, if younger.
Trans woman: A male-to-female transsexual (MTF).
Pre-op: Has not yet had sex reassignment surgery.
Post-op: Has had sex reassignment surgery.
Non-op: Has no intention of having sex reassignment surgery.
I am headed to Camp Trans, now in the tenth year of its on again/off again standoff with the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival across the road. Started by Nancy Jean and friends in the years after her eviction, the protest camp faded away in the mid-nineties. A new generation of young transgendered activists picked up the torch in 1999 and resumed the confrontational face-off. In the scant four years since, there has been an unprecedented boom in people identifying as trans, mostly female-assigned people transitioning to men or staking out a third-sex genderqueer territory. Flocking to Camp Trans for both the political struggle and the party, they have changed the outpost in significant ways. The focus of the trans struggle in recent years has drifted away from its original intention of getting trans women into women-only and lesbian spaces. Trans men have generally been welcome—if not totally fetishized—by contemporary dyke communities, particularly young, urban enclaves. The same is not true for trans women, even lesbian trans women. This influx of trannyboys and their lesbian admirers has not only alienated many of the trans women at Camp Trans, it’s also blown up attendance so high they can no longer set up right across the street from the festival gates. The encampment is now located up the road a bit, in a forest-lined field between the music festival and a nudist camp.
I’ve never been to Camp Trans, though I stopped attending MWMF a few years back, too conflicted about this exclusion of trans women. Today I’m picked up at the airport by a girl named Ana Jae who volunteered to get me so she can get the hell out of the woods. Ana hates camping; she says the bugs are attacking like mad and it’s really bad when you drop your shorts to piss in the woods because they start fluttering around your bare ass. Ana can’t use the Porta-Potties because she’s been traumatized by the 1980s B-horror flick Sleepaway Camp II, in which terrible things happen within one plastic, fetid chamber; so she is forced to piddle among the bugs. I’m antsy to hear of the mood at Camp Trans, and Ana confirms that the trans men far outnumber the trans women, complains about a general devaluing of femininity in the young, post-dyke queer scene, and tells me about a sex party that somehow went awry the night before and is this morning’s main drama. Our immediate drama is that we get outrageously, wildly lost on the way back to the woods, careening through quaint Michigan townships for hours, hopelessly passing farm stands selling fresh vegetables, rows of exploding sunflowers and cornstalks, trees and trees and more trees, gigantic willows with long whipping branches that drape and swag, and large single-family homes with porches and pools and tractors in their front yards. We know that we’ve unscrambled our cryptic directions when we pass a gas station that has a flapping sign that says, “WELCOME WOMYN” in its parking lot, and loads of sporty females loading cases of beer into their cars. We follow a camper with a bumper sticker that reads, “SEE YOU NEXT AUGUST” down a road so heavily traveled that the foliage that lines it is coated with a thick dusting of brown dirt like an apocalyptic snowfall. We pass the front gates of the festival and see its huge parking lot crammed with vehicles, women in neon orange vests directing the flow of females through the gates, and we keep going. It’s a disappointment not to see Camp Trans boldly arranged there at the mouth of the festival, and I wonder how its political point can be clearly made if it’s tucked out of sight, around the curving road. The former vigil has turned into a sort of alternative to the festival, one that’s free of charge, one that a lot of MWMF attendees mistake as a happy, friendly, separate-but-equal campsite. A place for dykes who think trannyboys are hot to spend a night cruising and partying, and then return to their gated community up the road. For the trans women relying on Camp Trans as a site of protest, this new incarnation—as a sort of spring break for trannnyboys and the dykes who date them—has been infuriating. Which is why Sadie Crabtree, a trans woman and an activist from DC, has emerged as the sort of head leader this year. It is her intention, backed up by the other organizers, to bring the focus of Camp Trans back around to the trans women it originally meant to serve.
CAMP TRANS WELCOME STATION
Everyone who comes to Camp Trans, either to camp or to visit on a day pass from the festival, has to pause at the welcome tent and check in, and MWMF attendees who arrive tonight for entertainment are charged $3. Behind a table made from boards and sawhorses sits a couple of Camp Trans welcomers, women doing their work shifts and acclimating visitors to their new environment. Like the festival across the way, everyone here is expected to lend a hand. The camp isn’t nearly as large as the music festival—MWMF’s parking lot is bigger than Camp Trans’s entire area—but it still takes a lot of work to make it run. I spy a kitchen tent with a mess of pots and pans and water jugs strewn before it. Another tent is garlanded with Christmas lights that are beginning to shine as the hot summer sun sinks. This is the performance area, bulked with DJ and other sound equipment. There’s a medic tent and a roped-off area for “advocates,” arm-banded individuals whose job is to answer touchy questions, listen to complaints, and defuse conflicts.
At the welcome tent I sign in on a form that doubles as a petition calling for the dropping of the festival’s womyn-born-womyn policy. I’m handed a slip of paper welcoming me to Camp Trans.
From “WELCOME TO CAMP TRANS 2003”:
Camp Trans is an annual protest against the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival’s policy that bars transsexual women from attending. MWMF’s so-called “womyn-born-womyn” policy sets a transphobic standard for women-only spaces across the country, and contributes to an environment in women’s and lesbian communities where discrimination against trans women is considered acceptable. For trans women who are consistently refused help from domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers, this is a matter of life and death.
Some posterboards are stuck with Post-it notes that outline each day’s workshops and meetings; another posterboard is cluttered with bright notes soliciting amour in the woods. One bemoans a throat atrophied with lack of use, another is looking for couples to participate in a Floridian-retiree role-play. Interested parties can respond by slipping scrawled replies into corresponding envelopes. There are zines for sale, silkscreened patches that say, CAMP TRANS SUPPORTER in heavy-metal letters, buttons that squeak I [HEART] CAMP TRANS and T-shirts that say, NOT GAY AS IN HAPPY BUT QUEER AS IN FUCK YOU There is also a notebook labeled LETTERS TO LISA VOGEL.
Lisa Vogel is the sole captain of the SS Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. There is no one but her behind the wheel; she wrote the policy, and she is the only one who can lift it. Of the many rumors I hear this weekend, most involve her. One rumor says that she offered Camp Trans a sum of money somewhere between $7,500 and $75,000 to start their own damn festival. This is totally unlikely, as her own festival is suffering financially. Another rumor says that transsexual women will be allowed into her festival over her dead body, an extreme pledge that makes me think of Lauryn Hill’s “I’d rather my babies starve than white kids buy my records” quote. Who knows what’s true. Vogel is famously tight-lipped about the whole controversy, and has never made an attempt to negotiate with Camp Trans. In the face of past protests she has simply reiterated the policy, which, I also hear, has suddenly been removed from all MWMF web pages. There is much speculation on what this means, but no one is naïve enough to believe that it means the policy has been dropped and trans women are now welcome. More likely the immense controversy, which now involves not just a boycott of the festival but also of the performers, is wearing on festival producers, and targets for attack are being shuffled out of the line of fire.
Excerpts from “Letters to Lisa Vogel”:
I love the festival and it has to become a safe space for everyone. It can happen, everyone would benefit. As feminists we can not become our oppressors.
A transpositive environment will only improve the festival experience for all. There are plenty of information sources on how to do this.
I’ve been to many trans-inclusive events in my hometown, including a woman’s bathhouse. I feel totally safe around trans women, and I know lots of other women my age who feel the same way.
Behind the treeline is where people are camping, and the arc of green has been segmented into three campsites: loud substance, which means campers are getting bombed and fucking right outside your tent; loud no substance, meaning sober people lashed to trees and moaning loudly; and quiet no substance, which means everyone sleeps. This is where I camp. I unknowingly plop my tent right in the center of a sand patch being used for AA meetings. Next to me is a camper van all tricked out with a sink and a fridge, the outside painted checkerboard. It looks straight out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and is occupied by, lo and behold, my friend Chris, who is out on his makeshift patio, smoking a lot of pot and triggering the substance-free campers. He’s sharing his pipe with a lesbian named Mountain, who lives on a women-only commune in Oregon that has successfully integrated trans women into their home. It is, essentially, no big whoop. Life goes on, wimmin are still wimmin, they tend their organic garden and print their lunar calendars and life is good. Mountain is one of those women who live for Michigan, and it’s a real big deal that she’s not there this year. She’s here at Camp Trans, in solidarity.
Now people are scurrying around, full of excited purpose. Tonight is the big dance and performance, and the number of people on this land will rise with an influx of girls from the festival. Camp Trans’s population, which hovers at around seventy-five, will shoot up above a hundred with the visitors. Which is nothing compared with the eight thousand or so women hunkered down in the vast woods across the way. Sadie is dashing around, all stressed out. She’s got a sweet, kind face with sparkly eyes and short hair; her all-black outfits seem like military gear, especially with the big black women-symbol-raised-fist tattoo on her shoulder. She’s still dealing with fallout from last night’s sex party, and now she’s just found a note from a Camp Transer looking to host a Camp Trans workshop inside the festival, where trans women can’t go. There is a feeling that the action is spinning out of the organizer’s hands, and she’s upset that a so-called Camp Trans event would happen in a place where trans women aren’t allowed. Sadie, needing a drink, bustles off with tears in her eyes.
“One problem was that some festival attendees were unclear on the mission of Camp Trans, and didn’t see it as a protest but rather as a part of their Michigan experience. Kind of a suburb of MWMF where fest attendees could go to hang out with hot tranny boys. That’s another problem—the fascination with and fetishization of FTMs in some dyke communities makes trans women even more invisible. At least one fest attendee last year spoke openly about how she totally supported Camp Trans and loved trans guys but just didn’t like trans women. We tried to solve some of those problems this year by having a very clear mission statement on all of the Camp Trans materials, providing suggested talking points for all campers, and having discussions about the experiences of trans women at Camp Trans. We had volunteer advocates whose job it was to listen to people’s concerns—especially those of trans women—and help organizers plan solutions. Another thing we did was designate certain workshops and decompression areas “wristband-free zones” where fest attendees were asked not to go. Having a space to retreat from interactions with fest attendees was a need that had been expressed by trans women last year, but it also sent a message. It wasn’t to stigmatize festival attendees, but to help people think a little more critically about what it means to give hundreds of dollars to a transphobic organization for permission to do activism inside, what it means to speak in a space where others’ voices are forbidden, what it’s like to have a space that specifically excludes you. When people asked about the wristband-free spaces, we offered them scissors. You have that choice. Some people don’t.”
LEMMY AND OTHER PROBLEMS
Another MWMF policy forbids male voices on the land, meaning no one is allowed to slip a Michael Jackson tape into their boom box and start moonwalking. Perhaps it also means the Porta-Pottie men take a vow of silence when they roar through the gate, who knows. This rule has been broken, or bent, with the rise of drag kings—female performers who costume themselves as men, both lampooning and celebrating masculinity in a sort of burlesque, often via lip-synchs. When some years back the Florida drag king troupe House of Ma took an MWMF side stage during a talent show, the audience was given warning that a male voice would shortly boom from the sound system. Offended women hightailed it out of the vicinity, one step ahead of Neil Diamond. This of course is not an issue at Camp Trans, so the music is a little varied—better—on this side of the road. The dance party under way on the patch of sandy brown earth designated both “stage” and “dance floor” is shaking to Dr. Dre and the Gossip, Motorhead and Peeches, Billy Idol, Northern States, Ludicris, and Fannypack. I’m standing beside Benjamin, a genderqueer boy. Meaning he was born a boy and remains a boy, but he’s gorgeous like a girl and does hella fierce drag. His hair is an architecture of multiple pieces that look like feather dusters protruding from his scalp in feathery pom-poms. “Everyone is so beautiful,” he muses at the crowd, and he is right. Mostly young, like late teens and twenties, they are kicking up Pig Pen-sized clouds of dust as they dance in their silver plastic pants and maribou-trimmed spandex, their starchy crinolines and pink ruffled tuxedo shirts, their neon orange nighties, push-up bras, and outfits constructed from shredded trash bags and duct tape. Everyone is gleeful, happy to be smashing the gender binary, to be partying down for a cause, to be part of a revolution of good-looking gender-ambiguous people. In the process of deconstructing gender identity, I muse, sexual preference may become obsolete. If you’re an old-fashioned lesbian purged of transphobia, you’ll be hot for the trans women. Bunches of dykes are already hooking up with trans men, and if you’re dating trans men it’s probably a good time to reckon with your bisexuality and attraction to the equally male, if perhaps less socially evolved, non-trans men of the world. And that’s pretty much everyone. Yeah. Maybe I’m just trampy, but I’m attracted to pretty much everyone here.
Showtime starts with an introduction by an organizer named Jess who instructs the crowd—part Camp Transers, part festie-goers—on proper behavior while in such an unusual space, a space where transpeople outnumber the non-trans. Because last year’s visitors didn’t understand how to act, pissing off a lot of trans women, this year we get a tiny schooling. Do not assume anyone’s pronoun. There’s really no way of guessing at who is a “he” and who a “she,” and besides all that, there are gangs of genderqueers promoting the use of a third pronoun, “ze,” which I am not going to conjugate for you. Others say to hell with pronouns altogether and dare us to be more creative in the way we were refer to them. Also, Jess instructs, do not ask anyone rude questions about their bodies. If you’re bursting with curiosity or just freaking out, please see an arm-banded advocate. Last year Camp Trans was paid a visit by the weight loss guru Susan Powter, who was greeted by an advocate named J. J. Bitch. “J. J. Bitch!” she shrieked, waving her arms around like a nut. “J. J. Bitch! I love that name! I want that name! I’m J. J. Bitch!” J. J. Bitch was stunned and delighted by the somewhat manic celebrity guest. Advocate work can be quite emotionally draining. It had to have been a lift.
First there are skits, one which demonstrates the simply cruelty of turning trans women away from the festival gates. Another enacts the traumatizing experience of having perfect strangers trot up and inquire about the state of your genitals because you are transgendered and expected to answer this. Last-minute creations, the skits are shaky but effective. The audience ripples out from the spot-lit performance area, sitting in the dirt, getting hopped on by grasshoppers and crickets and weird brown beetles with little wings folded beneath their shells. A moth as big as a sparrow keeps charging into one of the light dishes glowing up from the ground. A gang of women come out, all dressed in trash bags and duct tape. They are the Fat-tastics, and they deliver a smart performance about fat power and fat oppression, ending in an empowering cheer replete with pom-poms fashioned from more shredded garbage bags. A duo of transboys or gender-queers dressed like Gainsborough’s Blue Boy enact a randy ballet. Nomy Lamm, an artist who has arranged a petition for artists who oppose MWMF’s policy, howls heartbreaking songs into the warm night, accompanied by a honking accordion. The camp feels like some medieval village on a pagan holiday, bodies close in the darkness, being serenaded by a girl in striped tights and crinoline, harlequin eye makeup shooting stars down her cheeks. Benjamin is a total trooper when the CD he’s lip-synching to keeps skipping and skipping and skipping. Eventually Julia Serano reads. Julia is a trans woman spoken-word poet. She’s got a girl-next-door thing going on, with strawberry-blond hair and a sprinkling of freckles. She performs a piece about her relationship with her girlfriend. It’s got sweet and honest humor, and it charms the crowd. Then she recites another, “Cocky”:
and if i seem a bit cocky
well that’s because i refuse
to make apologies for my body
i am through being the human sacrifice
offered up to appease other
people’s gender issues
some women have a penis
some men don’t
and the rest of the world
is just going to have to get the
fuck over it
Julia gets a standing ovation, everyone hopping up and brushing the dirt off their asses, brushing crickets from their chests, hooting and hollering at the poet as she leaves the “stage” and falls into a hug with her girlfriend and Sadie.
“As part of Camp Trans, so much of our work is dedicated to convincing the women who attend MWMF that trans-women won’t flaunt their penises on the land, or that we won’t commit acts of violence against other women. I have yet to meet a trans woman who has acted violently towards another woman and/or flaunted their penis in public, but I know I need to take the MWMF attendees’ concerns seriously in order to gain their trust. At the same time, to borrow an analogy, it’s like someone of Middle Eastern descent having to convince every person on a flight that s/he won’t hijack the plane in order to be allowed on board.
Having talked to several festivalgoers, I was distressed at how often people centered the debate around ‘the penis.’ Everyone talked about the significance of penises being on the land, without much acknowledgment that these so-called penises are attached to women’s bodies.
Like most trans women, I have a lot of issues surrounding both my penis and the fact that I was born a boy. I have worked through too much self-loathing about these aspects of my person to allow other people to throw salt on my open wounds. It has taken me a long time to reach the point where I can accept my penis as simply being a part of my flesh and tissue, rather than the ultimate symbol of maleness. I find it confusing that so many self-described feminists spend so much effort propagating the male myth that men’s power and domination arises from the phallus.
It was surreal to have MWMF festivalgoers talk to me about their fear that transsexual women would bring masculine energy onto the land one minute, then the next tell me that they never would have guessed that I was born a man.
I also found it distressing that so many women would want to exclude me (a woman) from women’s space, under the pretense that my body contains potential triggers for abuse survivors. That line of reasoning trivializes the abuse that trans women face day in, day out. I have been verbally and physically assaulted by men for being who I am. Like other women, I have had men force themselves upon me. In addition, I can’t think of a more humiliating way to be raped by male culture than to be forced to grow up as a boy against one’s will. Every trans woman is a survivor, and we have triggers too. The phrase ‘womyn-born-womyn’ is one of my triggers.”
I’m wiped out, exhausted, can’t make it through the rest of the show. With my little flashlight I traipse through the scratchy, weedy terrain, locusts dashing away from my sneakers, toward my tent. My tent may be toxic. Earlier I dumbly spritzed a wealth of bug spray onto my body, fearful of West Nile Virus. I did this inside my tent, then had to quickly unzip the tent and let myself out, a step ahead of asphyxiation. The tent has aired out a bit but still retains its chemical tang. I eat a bunch of valerian, herbal valium, and crawl into my sleeping bag. The dance party has revved back up. I hear the shrieks of dancers over the thump of Outkast, and then I fall asleep.
One thing I made damn sure to do before leaving civilization was to brew a two-liter container of coffee, and this is what I grab when I wake up. My tent is already starting to bake as I scramble into some jeans, grab my toothbrush, and stumble out into the searing sunlight. I am the only camper—the only camper!—who did not camp in the shade behind the treeline. I camped in front of the trees, the scary trees that I imagined were dripping ticks, ticks poisoned with Lyme disease, the disgusting trees where many spiders live, the trees with their carpet of old leaves slowly rotting away, where mice no doubt burrow and any number of things that bite can be found. No, I arranged my borrowed tent right in direct sun. Not so smart.
The smart campers are emerging from their shaded glens, getting right into their cars and driving the fuck to the lake. There’s a lake nearby and a creek, too, and everyone I speak to confirms that going to the lake is definitely part of this “Camp Trans Experience” I am hoping to document; they urge me to hop in for a swim. A fat caucus took place at the lake yesterday, as did an Attention Deficit Disorder caucus, though no one managed to stay very focused for that one. I am beyond tempted to ride along, to float in the lake in my underwear under the guise of journalism, but I am too scared of missing out on some crucial bit of drama. The vibe at Camp Trans is intense, flammable like the parched ground beneath our various feet. Something is bound to happen, and I can’t be splashing around like a fool when it does.
I’m standing at the welcome tent when two festival workers show up. One is a femme girl with curly red hair, a cowboy hat, and glamorous sunglasses; the other is a butch girl in thick horn rims and a baseball hat. They carry a box of zines they’ve made, a compilation of the various opinions held by the women who work the festival across the road. The femme girl hands it off to the Camp Trans welcome worker. “It’s our effort at having some dialogue,” she says, or something like that. She seems a little shy, scared probably, and I have a few thoughts, watching the welcome worker accept the gift, a caul of skepticism on her face. I think the festies are brave to come over with a box of MWMF opinions, I think the opinions are probably already well-known to Camp Trans campers, I think shit is going to hit the fan and these workers and their good intentions are going to get creamed. The two festival workers walk off to the side, lean against a parked car, light cigarettes and hang out. I stick my zine in my back pocket and head over to a tent for the morning meeting.
I guess the morning meetings happen every morning, just a run-down of what’s happening that day, a space for people to make announcements. A sort of exhilaration is blowing through the crowd as word of the zine, or the zine itself, hits them. People are hunched over, their faces stuck in the xeroxed pages, gasping. It doesn’t look good. Simon Strikeback, a camp organizer, one of the activists who resuscitated Camp Trans after Nancy and company let it go, is facilitating the gathering. Like everyone here, he is very cute. He’s got blond curls spiraling out from his baseball hat and is grimy in a fun way, like he’s been playing in the dirt. He says yes, there can be a circle to process the zine. He announces some other events—a workshop called “Feminism and the Gender Binary,” which I plan to check out despite its terrifying title. A dreadlocked white girl with facial piercings announces that she has anarchist T-shirts for sale and is looking for partners to hitchhike to Mexico for an antiglobalization rally. Someone else holds up a silkscreen emblazoned with a Camp Trans image designed by the cartoonist Ariel Schrag and asks for help screening T-shirts. I announce that I’m attending the festival as a member of the press. It’s a good faith-thing I did at Sadie’s request, so that everyone knows what’s up and people who think it’s terrible and exploitative that I am writing about their camp can glare at me from afar and not wind up, without their consent, in my story. I’m even wearing a dorky sticker that says, “PRESS” in red Sharpie. At one point a boy walks up and presses it. “I thought something happened when I pressed it,” he explains, perhaps disappointed. I try to remedy suspicious looks by volunteering to help clean up breakfast, over at the kitchen tent.
OVER AT THE KITCHEN TENT
There’s not much to do until the water gets here. There are various pans with muck being swiftly baked onto them by this relentless sun of ours. There is a giant bucket of beets that people are wondering what to do with. I move it into the shade, sure it’ll keep a bit longer. In another bucket a whole bunch of beans soak, plumping up for tonight’s chili dinner. Culling the rotten vegetables from the vegetable boxes is what I’m told to do, so I join the others inside the tent. There is an abundance of vegetables, mostly donated from a co-op several states away: cardboard boxes of squash, zucchini, bulbs of garlic. I deal with a plastic bag filled with liquefying basil, pulling the top leaves, still green, from the blackening herb below. The stuff that’s no good—the dried-up rosemary and yellowed cilantro, the split tomatoes and the peppers sprouting cottony tufts of mold—all get tossed into the compost. A woman is picking beets as large as a child’s head and slicing off their wilting greens with a knife. When she discovers the mouse inside the beet box, she shrieks. “Oh, that’s no good,” says the person culling squash beside me. “You can get really sick. I ate food contaminated with mouse shit once, and I got really, really sick.” We try to scare the mouse away, but it just burrows deeper into the beets. I leave the tent, walk behind it, and pull the beet box out backward, into the grass. The mouse leaps out and scrambles into the forest. We look for visible mouse turd, but everything is sort of brown and crumbly from the dirty beets. I decide not to eat a bite of the Camp Trans food while I’m there. I’m too worried about getting a tick in my armpit to take on the additional neurosis of hantavirus. I’ve got six energy bars stuffed in my suitcase, two packs of tuna, and a few cans of chili. That’s what I’ll be eating. Deciding that I saved the day by ridding us of the mouse, I retire from my cleanup duties. It’s too hot; I need some tuna or I’ll get heatstroke. I stop by Chris’s stoner van to glob a bit of cool, refrigerated mustard into my tuna and listen to his instructions that I gulp down at least fifteen gulps of water each time I hit my bottle. That’s the number: fifteen. “’Til your stomach’s all bloated,” he advises. I do as he says. He does seem like an experienced camper, and the heat is killing people all over the globe, knocking them down by the thousands in France. His little dog Poi, who looks just like Benji, has burrowed a cool hole beneath the van and lies there, panting.
I am very glad I didn’t go to the lake. Now we sit in a ring, in a small, shaded clearing not far from where I’ve camped: a bunch of Camp Trans campers and the two festival workers who delivered the box of zines. The zine is called Manual Transmission, and people hate it. It’s an anthology, essentially, of festival workers’ opinions on the trans-inclusion issue. There is talk about throwing the box of them onto that evening’s campfire, a good old-fashioned book burning. Ana Jae is set to facilitate the discussion, and Benjamin is by her side, “taking stack,” which I think means keeping a list of everyone who raises a hand to speak, so that everyone gets to.
Excerpts from Manual Transmission:
Let’s be clear about what womyn born womyn means. It’s not about defining a goddamn thing. It is about saying this is what I’m gathering around for this particular moment. It is saying that this festival, this period in time, is for women whose entire life experience has been as a girl and who still live loudly as a woman. Period. How is that defining you? Why do you think we are so ignorant as to not “get” that, to not figure out that we also have privilege for not struggling with a brain/body disconnect? But can you be so obstinate, can you be so determined to not understand that we have an experience that is outside yours? And that that experience, even though we have greater numbers, still entitles us to take separate space? Do you not see it as full on patronizing that you act as though these “thousands” of women’s shelters can’t make up their own minds and policies? Doesn’t it make you sick to have the same objectives as the religious right? Why is it okay to totally ignore the need of women who do NOT want to see a penis? How and what world do we live in that you can completely divorce these things? Like being white and telling everyone your skin color doesn’t matter because you are not a racist? Stop assuming our ignorance.
Dicks are not useless signifiers. Even unwanted ones. You who I love and call my community of political bandits, you who grew up being seen as, treated as, regarded as boys (and perhaps miserably failing that performance) you did not grow as I. You did not experience being held out as girl and cropped into that particular box. You gotta understand, you are my sister, but you don’t have that experience. And taking my experience and saying it is yours don’t make it yours, makes it stolen.
“This is bullshit. In my opinion,” Ana Jae states. The overall feel about the zine and its arrival is, first, “We know this already,” and second, “How dare you bring it into this space that we are trying to keep free from such hurtful sentiments.” People take turns expressing themselves.
Hitchhiking Anarchist Girl: takes issue with a passage defending MWMF’s $350 entrance fee, calling it classist.
Simon: is frustrated, only open to discussing changing the policy, sick to death of back-and-forth arguing about penises and girlhoods.
Guy To My Left: generously concedes that the festie workers had good intentions but delivered a flawed product.
Festie Workers: admit they were rushed and that, though they specified no submissions degrading or attacking trans people would be published, they did not get to read all of the writings. They feel bad for the discord their zine has caused, but maintain that these are the opinions of workers inside the festival, like it or not: They didn’t feel it was proper to censor anyone’s thoughts—who can dictate what is right and what is wrong?
Sadie: maintains that, as an activist, it’s her job to declare her views the good and right and true views; she is only interested in talking to people who agree and want to help further the cause.
Festie Workers: weakly remind everyone of their good intentions.
Girl To My Right, In Wheelchair: offers that she is hurt every day by people with good intentions.
Femme Festie Worker: cries; doesn’t know how to help this situation.
Girl I Can’t See: says that it’s everyone’s responsibility to educate themselves on trans issues.
Girl With Camouflage Bandanna: sympathizes with how painful the education process can be; urges, please don’t let that stop you from learning.
There’s a lot of fear here, people afraid of each other, afraid of their own ability to do the wrong thing from simple ignorance, their own ability to bungle a peace offering, to offend the person they sought to help. It starts to rain. Light at first, and then heavy. The weather out here can turn violent in a finger snap, the dust suddenly flooded into muddy ponds, the sky cracking thunderbolts and sending threads of lightning scurrying across the cloud cover, occasionally touching down and setting a tree on fire. I run back to my tent and fling the rain cover over it, and by the time I get back to the circle it’s over—the process, the rain, all of it. I talk briefly with a girl I know from my previous Augusts at the festival; she’s usually been a worker. Last year she caught a lot of shit for taking a festival van over to Camp Trans for a date, so this year she’s camping here, back in the trees where everyone seems to have gone. I go back to my tent to grab a notebook. Inside it is hot and smells strongly of sulfur, like hell itself. I take my notebook back to the now-empty clearing, sit in someone’s abandoned camp chair, and write some notes.
HERE’S GEYL, THEN PAM
Geyl Forcewind is a lanky punk-rock trans women with a red anarchy sign sewed into her ratty T-shirt. A good radiance sort of shines off Geyl. Her combat boots are patched with gummy straps of duct tape; she spits a lot and cracks jokes. She collapses into the chair next to me and asks how my “project” is going. She’s teasing me, I think, but it’s perfect that she’s appeared because I wanted to talk to someone about the proliferation of trans men and trannyboys, and the small numbers of trans women or genderqueers who enjoy the trappings of femininity. I love girls, I love girlness, and though I love trans men—my boyfriend is trans—I wish there were more females around these genderqueer parts. The face of the transrevolution is, presently, a bearded one. “Riot grrrl made being a dyke accessible,” Geyl reflects, “and now those people are seeing that they can be genderqueer and it’s not so scary. There’s none of that for MTFs.” Pam, a trans woman who had been quietly strumming her acoustic guitar in the woods behind us, strolls up and joins our conversation.
PAM: Trans women get abused a lot more in our society.
She’s right, of course. Because it’s often harder for them to pass as women in the world, and because they’re likely to get way more shit for it, lots of would-be trans women just don’t come out.
GEYL: Being a girl is not as cool. I actively try to recruit.
PAM: Yeah, there must be something wrong with you if you want to be a woman.
GEYL: I tried to be really butch when I first came out.
MICHELLE: I tried to be really butch when I first came out, too. It seemed cooler and tougher, and safer, to be masculine.
Pam looks like just the sort of woman the music festival across the way embraces—smudgy eyeliner, long brown hair, rolled bandana tied around her forehead and that acoustic guitar in tow. She’s even a construction worker, and isn’t that one of the most feminist jobs a woman can work. After coming out as a trans woman, Pam’s co-worker threatened to toss her from the very high building they were working on. When she complained, her foreman said, “You should expect that sort of thing.” She was soon fired from the job, for “being late.”
PAM: If I watch Jerry Springer, I don’t want to come out.
GEYL: All the trans women on that show aren’t really trans. They’re a joke.
PAM: I think Jerry is a trannychaser. And I think he’s resentful of it and wants to take it out on the community.
Soon we’re informed that we’re sitting smack in the middle of the space reserved for the “Feminism and the Gender Binary” workshop.
GEYL: I’ll feminize your gender binary. If anyone quotes Judith Butler, I’ll punch them.
There’s that girl Mountain again, on the mic this time, letting everyone know that if her feminist separatist farming commune can let the trans women in, anyone can. “I always have said that if I didn’t go to the festival each year I’d die,” she tells the crowd. “Well I didn’t go, and I didn’t die, and I’m not going until they change the policy!” Everyone cheers. Sadie’s on the mic, revving everyone up by insisting that we’re going to change the policy. I guess it’s impossible to engage in any sort of activism with a fatalistic view, and who knows, maybe MWMF will surprise us all and roll out the trans carpet, but I just don’t see it happening. I remember glimpsing Lisa Vogel in the festival worker area years ago, after Camp Trans had brought a protest onto the land. They’d been kicked off, of course, and a reiteration of the womyn-born-womyn policy was swiftly typed up, xeroxed, and distributed throughout the festival. Lisa was smoking, and she looked pissed. Someone told me that she saw it as a class issue and an age issue. Camp Trans was made up of a bunch of teenagers freshly released from liberal New England colleges, with their heads full of gender theory and their blood bubbling with hormones and rebellion. Lisa Vogel is loved the way that saints are loved by the women who attend her festival, and why shouldn’t she be? She’s provided them with the only truly safe space they’ve ever known. She’s a working-class lesbian who built it all up from scratch, with her hands and the hands of old-school dykes and feminists, women who claim, perhaps rightly, that no one knows what it was like, what they went through, how hard they fought. It has taken a lot of work to create the MWMF that’s rocking across the way, sending its disembodied female voices floating into our campsite. It’s taken single-mindedness and determination. Lisa Vogel, I fear, is one severely stubborn woman.
Emily is speaking and she’s saying things that could turn around some of the more stubborn festival women. Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone has come over from the fest who wouldn’t love to see the policy junked. Emily is preaching, as they say, to the choir. She’s talking about her girlhood, how the girls all knew she was a girl like they were, and how powerful and life saving it was to be recognized like that, your insides finally showing through. A young friend wished Emily would get a sex-change operation so she could come to her slumber party. It’s a great response to the festival’s insistence that trans women didn’t have girlhoods. Anna speaks next. (Not Ana Jae—this is a brand new Anna, you haven’t met her yet.) She’s got big, dark eyebrows and wide lips painted red; she’s holding the mic, and she’s come to lecture the lesbians. For dating trans men but justifying this shades-of-hetero behavior by saying, “He’s not really a guy.” Sacrificing trans men’s maleness so that their lesbian identities can stay intact. Sheepishly explaining, “He’s trans”— again invalidating the real masculinity so as not to be confused with a straight girl. For fetishizing, as a community, this sexy new explosion of trans men, but remaining unwelcoming to trans women. It’s all so true my frickin’ eyes well up. I’d spent the first year and a half of my boyfriend’s transition explaining to everyone—women on the bus, strangers in line at Safeway, people I sit next to on planes—that my boyfriend, he’s trangender. So don’t go thinking I’m some stupid straight girl, the confession implies. I’m QUEER. OK? It tended to be more information then anyone wanted. Everyone’s uncomfortable, but at least no one thinks I’m heterosexual, and that’s what counts. Oy vey, as my Jewish friends say. And I know lots of lesbians who date trannyboys but freak out if a trans woman enters their space. It’s all so fucked up and heart-breaking and overwhelming. Or maybe I’m just really sleep-deprived from a night on bumpy ground, sleeping atop sticks and hard mounds of dirt. Before me are the Gainsborough Blue Boys, lying side by side on separate chaise longues, still in their wiggy tennis outfits. They clutch paper bags concealing what I assume are beers and make out. Seriously—who are they? I love them. I wipe my soggy eyes, grab Anna as she shuffles past with her boyfriend, and thank her for her speech. I confess my past as a shameful tranny-dating lesbian; I heap upon her how sad and scared I get when my dyke friends start talking shit about trans women. I want Anna—beautiful, strong Anna with the microphone—to absolve me and also solve all my social problems. She seems so capable. I think I overwhelm her. She gives me her contact information, including her phone number and email address. “She loves being interviewed; it’s her favorite thing,”her boyfriend encourages. Of course she does; she’s a genius. She walks away into the darkness, her beaded, sequined shoulder bag glinting in the night.
The rally is over, and everyone’s dancing again. On the sidelines I find Carolyn, a writer and trans woman from Brooklyn. Carolyn must have found some way to construct a shower from rainwater and tree branches. Every time I see her, she looks really, really clean. Every night, before I sleep, I wipe a thick coat of grime from my body with some sort of chemical gauze pad called a Swash cloth. It’s all I’ve managed to do, hygiene-wise, and I look mangled. Carolyn admits that others have commented on her cleanliness. “I don’t know—I haven’t showered for four days! I’m just lucky,” she says modestly.
I HAD THE TIME OF MY LIFE
Two people—girls, trannyboys, genderqueers, I can’t really tell in the light, so bright it turns them into silhouettes—are whirling across the dusty makeshift dance floor, doing a dance routine to a medley of songs from the movie Dirty Dancing. Here is my proof that this gender-smashing revolution is a generational thing: Someone walks across the stage holding a cardboard sign reading “Nobody puts baby in a corner” and everyone roars. I have no fucking idea what they are talking about. I was a moody death rocker when Dirty Dancing came out. This was back before Hot Topic in the malls, back when goth was a slightly dressier version of punk and wearing black lipstick and ratting your hair into a tarantula was a uniform that conveyed information such as “I am opposed to the dominant culture and movies such as Dirty Dancing.” My little sister loved Dirty Dancing, and I ragged on her for it mercilessly. Patrick Swayze? Come on. But I like watching these two spinning into each other, knocking each other down and crawling all over each other. At the very end of their act, after dancing close, they pull apart and draw the audience in, and everyone responds; they move into the brightness, becoming silhouettes that dance and raise their hands into the light and it’s beautiful like a dark kaleidoscope, all the bodies coming together under the light. My eyes well up with tears again. Jesus. Chris asks me to dance, but I can’t. I’m a mess. It’s been such an emotional day, and I’m spent. A trans man is straddling the lap of a girl in a bright green dress, lap-dancing her on the folding chair. Two others are making out on the dance floor, and many bootys are being freaked. It’s time for bed. I hike back to my tent, following the small spot of light my flashlight tosses into the weeds.
“I asked you to dance and you disappeared,” Chris complains. We’re on his patio. He’s making real hot coffee on his camp stove, but I had to swear I would tell no one about this luxury, because he’s almost out of gas. He starts talking about how confused he was about Camp Trans, how he thought it was a bunch of trans men trying to get into the women’s festival, and he wasn’t down with that. “You gain a few privileges, you lose a few,” he laughs. “Go cry on your own damn shoulder; get over yourself.” Once he realized it was about getting trans women some women-only privileges, he was down for the cause. He’s glad he’s here. “I’m so comfortable,” he says, “My tree keeps getting closer.” He means the tree he pees on. Maybe he saw Sleepaway Camp II as well and is scared of the portos, maybe he’s lazy, or maybe it’s just such a rarity to be a trans person who can take a piss in the woods without fear.
THIS JUST IN
Excerpted email forwarded from Carolyn, from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s Gay & Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU), received three days after returning from Camp Trans:
WASHINGTON, D.C. In the past week, the Transgender Community has been shaken by three shootings, two of which resulted in the deaths of the victims.
On 8/16/03, Bella Evangelista (Elvys Perez) was murdered at Arkansas Avenue and Allison Street, N.W. Antoine Jacobs was immediately arrested and has been charged with First Degree Murder while Armed. The case has been classified by the Metropolitan Police Department as a suspected Hate/Bias Motivated Crime (Gender Identity).
In the evening hours of 8/20/03, a black Male-to-Female Transgender individual was found near 3rd and I Streets, N.W. suffering from apparent gunshot wounds. The victim was transported to a local hospital, where she is in serious condition. The case has been classified as an Assault with Intent to Kill.
In the early morning hours of 8/21/03, Seventh District officers discovered the body of a black Male-to-Female Transgender individual at 2nd Street and Malcolm X Avenue, S.E. The victim was unconscious and suffering from wounds by unknown means. Since there was no sign of life, D.C. Fire/EMS did not transport the individual.
Camp Trans is unraveling before my eyes. Cars and trucks are rolling out of the parking lot, which is just another part of the field we’ve all been living in. People wave out their windows as they pull onto the road. All day long the population shrinks. The planning meeting for Camp Trans 2004, which is happening beneath a tent, is repeatedly interrupted as vacating campers lavish goodbye hugs on their friends. I am sitting back and listening to participants who raise their hands and offer compliments on what they felt went well at this year’s gathering, and what needs to be fine-tuned for next year. Everyone is generally pleased, and the renewed focus on trans women’s needs and overturning the policy was a success. There are concerns about how white Camp Trans is, but no one is naïve about seeking out token people of color to make him- or herself feel better. Instead, a resolution is made to make the event itself more welcoming to people of color, in hopes that the gathering will organically diversify. Geyl suggests travel scholarships for transpeople who want to come but can’t afford the time off work or the travel expenses to the Middle of Nowhere, Michigan. People are happy about trans women being in charge, happy that there was essentially no rain in a region known for violent summer thunderstorms, and want greater accountability from women who say they are organizing within the festival gates. There will be greater fundraising this coming year, though Camp Trans did come out ahead by $500. Incredible, really, since at the start of the week Ziploc baggies had been duct-taped inside the portos asking for spare change each time you took a whiz. It cost the camp $80 each time those monsters got cleaned.
Over at the welcome tent a few ladies from the festival have strolled in. They’re older, in their fifties perhaps, from Utah. Probably they live for the festival and have never spoken to a transsexual in their lives, but they’ve come over, minds open, “to see what everybody’s all ‘ugh’ about.” Maybe because everyone at the welcome station is so burned-out on this, the last day, or maybe because I’m sitting closest to the two women, I wind up answering some of their questions, or rather countering their concerns. Their concerns are the usual ones: penises and girlhoods. So many women have been traumatized by a penis, is it really fair to force them to glimpse one at their annual retreat? I tell them that women need to find a way to heal from their abuse without displacing responsibility for it onto the bodies of trans women, who are also likely to have been abused. That a roving, detached penis didn’t abuse anyone, but men with penises did, and those men are not these women. I tell them that trans women did in fact have girlhoods, girlhoods as rough and confusing as any girl’s. One tiny conversation and I’m drained and frustrated. And this isn’t even my life.
Everyone is called to help dismantle what’s still standing of Camp Trans. Intimidated by the architecture of the tents and lean-tos that need to be torn down, I busy myself gently untying the neon plastic ribbons that have been knotted around a rusting cage which, for some reason, contains a stunted apple tree. Perhaps there’s a hornet’s nest in the crook of its branches. A large swath of our field has been roped off all week with that same neon plastic, to keep everyone away from a burrowing hornet encampment. That’s being torn down now as well. I grab a trash bag and roam around the land, collecting debris. Part of what makes the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is the land it takes place on. The trees are tall and cool; there’s much grass and twining paths; the air smells fresh: It’s nature, the real deal. And the women love it and care for it like a living thing, which it is. I try to arrange a similar mindset about cleaning up Camp Trans, but I don’t feel connected to this rather lousy scrap of national forest. Maybe if the event keeps occurring here for twenty-eight years it will become imbued with the specialness and familiarity that haunts the woods across the road. I snatch the torn corner of a bag of Chex Mix from the ground, some empty water jugs, balls of toilet paper, bits of shredded trash bag that blew off one of the Fat-tastics’ pom-poms. I pull from the ground tiki torches that had been guiding nighttime revelers to the Porta-Potties all week. I leave to decompose back into the land some carrots, some tofu dogs, some onion skins. There are bullet casings and smashed clay pigeons scattered throughout the weeds, left behind by whoever was here last.
Over by the portos is a structure made of tarps that all weekend I’d thought was someone’s wicked punk-rock campsite. Tarps spray-painted with anti-policy slogans, tied and duct-taped to stakes driven into the ground. I’d had a brief fantasy that it was Geyl’s squat-like queendom. But as I pass it, Chris sticks his head out from the plastic, and asks, “Did you know there was a shower here?!” He is delighted. The shower is a little pump with a thin hose attached; it looks like the pesticide tank an exterminator lugs around. You pump the top like a keg, click a switch at the end of the hose, and a fine stream of water mists all around you. It looks like a feeble shower, but a great way to cool off. Later I’ll help Geyl and a person named Cassidy—butch girl? genderqueer?—tear the whole thing down, and have great fun squirting myself with all the leftover water in the little tank. I pull stakes from the ground and untangle knots of rope, listening to Cassidy tell the story of Blane, the man who rents out the portos we’ve been peeing in. Blane lives on five hundred acres of land and raises beefalo. Beefalos are a crossbreed of cows and buffalos, and Blane is proud that he has been able to breed out their horns. Beefalo is lower in cholesterol then regular beef, and after his doctor warned him that his was shooting dangerously high, he took to farming the animals. He feeds them corn that he also grows on his land, and the corn is grown in compost made from the slurry in the Porta-Potties. All of our crap will be distributed throughout a nearby cornfield. It’s incredible, slightly sickening.
“The birds of prey have come for us,” Geyl says, pointing a long finger up to the sky, where some large birds are indeed circling. I’ve been trying to find a place to sit and read, but every patch of shade I see is inhabited either by creepy daddy longlegs or by intimidating cliques of remaining campers. There’s a girl doing yoga in a growth of weeds; her legs become visible, then her butt, her head, her legs. A car is flung open—all doors, the trunk—and people load their belongings. X’s “White Girl” leaks from the stereo, soon to be overpowered by a car blaring Tiffany. I settle down in what’s left of the dismantled welcome station and try to read, but I’m distracted by the heat, the mosquitos, the loud sex noises howling out from the woods in front of me.
I hitch a ride into nearby Hart with a boy named Billy. Billy drives his big red truck into Hart every day, three or four times, to dump trash, redeem bottles, and fetch more water. It seems nuts that this duty has fallen solely on his shoulders, but he’s a trooper about it. Especially considering how trashed the bed of the truck has become—gummy with spilled booze and moldy produce—and that he’s been living in that same truck bed for the past seven months, traveling around the country. A lot of the campers at Camp Trans are part of what I’ve heard referred to as “travel culture” and “youth travel culture.” The anarchist hitchhiker, or the many groups of people who are not going home from here but traveling onward to distant states—New York, Chicago. Lots of people are heading to Tennessee, where a similar, though less politically charged event will be taking place on patch of land owned and inhabited by a group of pagan gay guys known as the radical faeries. Billy pulls in behind the nearest gas station and I help him dump clanking bags of unredeemable glass and wobbly boxes heaped with vegetables gone bad. He grabs a bottle of whiskey, sucks the dregs, and tosses it empty into the Dumpster. Next Billy dumps me at a Mobil station, while he fetches water, so I can call my boyfriend from a pay phone and grab some snacks. After a few days of nothing but tasteless nutrition bars, dry tuna, and cold canned chili, the weirdest snacks look appetizing. I buy a giant bottle of Coke, a pack of Pop-Tarts, and a bag of potato chips with a mysterious flavor—Mustard and Onion “Coney” Chips, the bag proclaims. They taste just like hot dogs.
Next is Dave’s Party Store, where an affable, Pauley Shore-ish dude hands over $25 in exchange for a worn trash bag of sludgy bottles, and a literally red-necked white guy tells the cashier, in deep ebonics, that he’s going to join the traveling carnival. “That sounds like a great place for you,” the woman says dryly. Back in the truck we listen to Lil’ Kim and cruise to Camp Trans, past the music festival and its vast parking lot still stuffed with cars. There’s Blane the Porta-Pottie guy, vacuuming the ultimate grossness out from the portos, then loading the empty toilets onto his truck and driving them away. Now we’ll all be peeing on trees. I use my rusty can opener to peel the lid off another can of vegetarian chili and wander over to Chris’s van. I find him inside, smoking pot with Andrew, a twenty-year-old trannyboy whose legend I’d already heard from Geyl, last night at the dance. How he’s never met another tranny, ever, until arriving at Camp Trans yesterday. How he learned he was trans from watching the film Boys Don’t Cry, in which the actress Hillary Swank (who later won an Oscar for her performance) portrayed the young trans man Brandon Teena, who was raped, then murdered when the boys he’d been hanging out with learned of his situation. Andrew lives in Lansing and caught a ride down to Camp Trans—which he’d just found out about—from a couple of anti-Camp Trans ladies on their way to the festival. They’d already stopped by earlier, to curtly inform him that they were staying at their festival a little longer, to hang out and catch the last concerts. “I don’t want to go back with them at all,” Andrew says, and soon he has arranged to catch a ride home with the nomadic Chris, who plans to continue meandering through the country in his surfer van for a few more months. Andrew is cute: He’s got the buzzcut of a young recruit and eyes that shift icily between the palest blue and green. He is stroking the soft skin on his jaw tenderly. “Do I have a bruise?” he asks, half to pose an honest question and half to brag. I don’t see any marks, but soon we’re hearing about the wrestling match he was part of last night. He tells us how someone walked right up to him and said, Can I Kiss You? He’d never been approached so bluntly by an admirer, and he was surprised that it didn’t make him feel weird, threatened, or unsafe. He felt like he could say a friendly no and the person would have backed off. But since he felt so safe he said yes. Andrew has a girlfriend who is on her own vacation, and who, from the sound of it, is familiar with the heightened sex vibes of queer gatherings. When she heard he was off to Camp Trans, she said, “Don’t even try to be monogamous, you’ll be miserable.” What A Great Girlfriend, I compliment, impressed. Andrew is satisfied with last night’s kisses and wrestling, and is anxious to get back to Lansing and be with his very modern paramour.
Jess is complaining that she needs an adventure on this, the last night of Camp Trans, when all who remain are among the camp’s core organizers (Sadie’s fled back to D.C.), a few people procrastinating their long drives home, Chris, and me. I have found an adventure, but Jess does not approve. In fact, Camp Trans does not approve. It is their policy to ask their campers to please not sneak into the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, but it is exactly this that I am setting out to do. To be fair, it’s not exactly sneaking. Some exiting festies tore their rubbery blue bracelets from their wrists and gave them away. I’ve got one, and so does Calwell. Geyl has one, handed over to her by a woman who tearfully said, “You deserve to be in there.” True enough, but Geyl isn’t going to risk it. She gives the bracelet to a girl named Kelly, whose T-shirt reads KING SHIT OF FUCK MOUNTAIN “We really don’t want anyone going over there,” Jess says earnestly. She is wearing a black slip and has a fake blue rose in her orange bob. Last year Camp Trans was accused of allowing, if not encouraging, bunches of campers to sneak into the gates. MWMF insist this is true because the amount of food eaten was higher then it should have been. “I don’t know why they just didn’t figure people were eating a lot,” Jess shrugs. So far, this year, no one has sneaked over. Since we plan to do nothing but stroll through the woods, and maybe find a party rumored to be going on at “the dump,” it doesn’t seem like a drag on anyone’s resources. Off we go.
Excerpt from “Welcome to the Festival!”:
Those Security Gals: The womyn in tasteful orange vests are here to answer questions, keep things orderly and promote safety. Unfortunately, it has also become an increasing part of their job to deal with the girls who decide to try to sneak into the Festival in various places along the route. Please help in their effort to ensure everyone takes that basic first step and purchases a ticket to the festival.
We enter the festival perimeter by strolling through an unmanned (unwomanned?) checkpoint. The lean-to is there; the chair is draped with a security vest, but no worker. Calwell especially likes feeling that we are being sneaky, even though we’ve got the bracelets. Kelly is hoping to stay the night, maybe find a lady with a tent to get lucky in. Calwell wants to find the party at the dump, and I just want something to do. So we look for the dump. We do not find it. We find, instead, the RV campsite, where bunches of women are hanging out in luxury: Winnebagos and campers, patios set up with tables and mosquito netting. Someone even brought a birdcage containing a live bird. Other women have set up mannequins on their front lawns, or strung Christmas lights over their vehicles. No one is naked, but some women are topless. Hard as it is for some, the campers at Camp Trans are required to cover nipples and pubic hair at all times, the land being national forest and all. Which means lots of topless people with patches of duct tape—ow!—slapped on their nipples. We find the acoustic stage quite by accident. It is surrounded by hundreds of women, lined up on the cool grass before an elegant wood stage on which there’s a white grand piano and an empty set of chairs. It feels so strange to be on the inside of this compound we’ve been locked in opposition against all week. It feels a little scary actually—which is odd, because I’ve been on this land before, and I don’t really believe anything will happen to us, even if someone found out we half-sneaked in. It’s hard not to have an affection for these women, comfortable, all hanging out with each other on a hillside. It’s also hard not to be wary of them, to feel conflicted. I think of Geyl, Sadie, Carolyn, all the trans women I’ve met this weekend. You can call it unjust that they can’t come in, call it wrong, unfair, but really more than anything it just seems absurd. We march out of the acoustic stage area and down a few roads. We get royally lost in the woods, the sky darkening around us. Good thing I brought my trusty flashlight. The three of us crunch along paths that wind through real wilderness, and we find ourselves in the infamous Twilight Zone, where the women who practice SM sex camp. We pass a campsite that is a collection of tarps stretched out and tied together, enclosing a large area. I can see a campfire burning inside the plastic barrier, a butch women moving around, a bunch of chains rigged up to a tree. But that’s all. It wasn’t that long ago that the SM women weren’t welcome at MWMF. Their presence was protested, boycotted, until this space on the outskirts of the festival was created for them so they could whip each other in peace without “triggering” the women who feel like it’s just more of the patriarchy seeping in. The SM controversy perhaps peaked when the dyke punk band Tribe 8 were invited to play and were picketed by women holding signs accusing the performers of everything from domestic abuse to violence against children. I’ve heard a lot of people suggest that trans women be allowed to camp here, among the bondage practitioners and heavy partiers. At least they’d be inside the gates, but what if a trans woman doesn’t want to camp amid such heavy sex play? I camped in the Twilight Zone my first year at the festival, and, like those around me, was drunk pretty much ’round the clock. There was puke in our neighboring bushes; beer cans, cigarette butts, and latex sex supplies littered the grass outside our tents; and we almost got kicked out for lighting fireworks. More then once, while stumbling around in search of a place to pee, I walked smack into the middle of pretty intense sex scenes. And each morning we were all awakened by the exaggerated sex cries of a woman camped down the path. To require anyone to camp in such an environment seems downright abusive.
It’s calming to be away from Camp Trans. To be in such a political, tense environment for an extended period of time does some wear and tear on your head. Me and Calwell talk about being afraid of being judged, feeling like you could say the wrong thing and wind up ostracized and alienated. It’s kept him quieter then normal. Same for me. I’d Like A Safe Space To Fuck Up, I say, and we laugh. A space where everyone recognizes that everyone is trying their best, imperfectly struggling, human. But perhaps that’s not possible. Activism is, famously, “by any means necessary.” People on both sides of this debate like to compare their stance to the struggle against racism, but it is true that, camping at Camp Trans these few days, I feel like I’m in the midst of the first swell of a new civil rights movement.
THE FIRE, LAST TIME
Back at Camp Trans the final campfire roars, with Cassidy—somehow an expert on the various ways wood can grow—strategically loading branches into the flames. Chris is burning marshmallows on a long stick, Simon is shaving pieces of potato and garlic into an aluminum foil pouch to be roasted. Someone passes around cold pizza, someone else passes around a bottle of Boone’s Farm. It’s the first time alcohol has been visible all week, though many revelers have been visibly under its influence. Another of the national forest laws. Max, a trans man who is part of the posse responsible for reviving Camp Trans in 1999, is telling the story of the lesbian curse. Actually, he’s acting it out with the help of others who stand in as various characters—trans campers and angry lesbians, mostly. Geyl acts as “rain,” hovering over them and flicking her fingers. It is the story of how Max awoke in his tent to find a coven of festie women flashing mirrors at their campsite. They were angry witches putting a spell on Camp Trans, and they did succeed in scaring the crap out of Max. Simon tells a story of his first Camp Trans experience, and the action he undertook with a trans man named Tony, a sixteen-year-old trans girl named Cat, and the transsexual author and activist Riki Ann Wilchins.
SIMON’S FIRST FESTIVAL
“First Tony went on the land, to put the womyn-born-womyn only policy to the test. He identified as a post-op trans man, with bottom surgery (I forget the kind). He was saying that his dick was made out of the skin on his arm—I think that’s a rhinoplasty?—anyway. He said, ‘Hey, if my trans women friends are still men because they were assigned male at birth, then I must still be a woman.’ So he went into the fest and took a shower. He asked consent of the women showering, telling them what kind of body he had. They said OK, but because the showers were public, new folks came in and freaked. By the time the ticket-buying action happened the next morning, the rumor was that something like six non-op trans women flashed their erect penises at the girls camp. Gross, eh?
“The ticket-buying action: At noon on Saturday, Riki led a ticket-buying action at the fest. A bunch of the avengers [the Lesbian Avengers are lesbian direct-action group that have prioritized fighting for the rights of trans women], myself included, bought tickets to the fest. The young trans woman who was with us also bought a ticket, though at the time she could have been ‘read’ other than a womyn-born-womyn. This was a great victory for us and there were certainly tears. Then the trouble began. A woman started walking in front of us, shouting, ‘Man on the Land!’
“We did have some support from festie-goers who walked with us. We got to the main area, and it was very overwhelming. We were asked if we wanted to have a mediated discussion in the kitchen tent. Before that discussion, women were just coming at us from all over, some to be supportive, some to yell at us, and some to stare. There was very little middle ground, and it was very hostile. So we started this ‘mediated’ discussion and the setup was such: We (us avengers, maybe four of us, and Riki) were sitting on folding tables in the front, while seven rows of angry lesbians yelled at us, audience-style. I kid you not. People called us rapists, woman-haters, said we were destroying their space by just walking on it, that we had no respect for women, that we had no respect for rape survivors, etc. Three hours this lasted, and the mediation was so one-sided we didn’t get out of there with any confidence that anyone heard what we had to say. That was my first festival.”
I don’t want to leave the circle, cause I know this is it. In the morning I will ride into Grand Rapids with a girl named Katina, a festie-goer who has spent basically all of her time over at Camp Trans, much to the dismay of the girls she’s camping with. “You know how every time you leave Michigan, you think, I’m coming back next year?” she asks. “Well this year it wasn’t like that. I know I can’t come back next year.” Katina’s got hair that’s bound up in bunches of braids, the ends secured with brightly colored elastics in different colors. She lives and works in Brooklyn, where she supplements her income selling Strawberry Shortcake dolls on eBay. Her trick is to search for the dolls right there on eBay, but to search for sellers who have misspelled the name of the toys, therefore getting fewer bids and selling their wares cheaper. After securing the dolls, Katina puts them back up on the site, with the proper spelling, and doubles her money. She’s a smart cookie. Camp Trans is lucky to have her. All week she’s been offering her cell phone, offering hummus and wine, and now she’s driving me to the airport. I give her a big hug as I climb out of her car. We used to see each other at MWMF, hug each other goodbye, say See You Next Year. And now we say it again.
For more information on who we are and what we do, visit us at believermag.com. To listen to the Organist, a monthly podcast from KCRW and the editors of the Believer, click here, and you can read our near-daily musings at the Believer Logger. To subscribe to the magazine please visit our store.