Monday, September 11, 2006

Womon-only Spaces

Over at Queering the Apparatus, Damion is asking important questions about womon-only spaces. Here are the beginnings of my responses.

First, what is the function of the space that the Womyn's Music Festival creates? Is the space the ideal that womyn are seeking? That is, every summer, are womyn practicing for life after the revolution when they will live communally only with womyn? Or is it a space that is constructed in a particular place and time and bound by the seven days (or for workers six to eight weeks) in August? I think that how we see the space and the function it has is critical to the question of who is let in and who is kept out.

If, indeed, the Womyn's Music Festival is a rehearsal for the "end game"--the environment that we want to create post-revolution, the anxiety about exclusion of anyone is not only an anxiety about what will people do for seven days in August, but also an anxiety about what is the space for men after the revolution. Is there a space for men? If not, where will they go? If not, who is constituted as a man? And more importantly, who is constituted as a woman and gets to be inside - the land of the Womyn's Music Festival for those seven days in August AND the land of the future, post-revolution.

If the Womyn's Music Festival is not the space of the future but a space bounded by time - seven days in August - recurring each year when there is enough time and energy and money to plan and execute it and enough womyn to attend, and it is not a space of the future but a retreat in which womyn can reenergize to engage in a society that is gender integrated, then why is there anxiety about exclusion? Such retreats, whether they are womyn's music festivals, or gatherings of religious sects at various camps or resorts, or beaches that are directly or indirectly designated for gays or families or nudists or bikers, are commonplace in America.

I think that the first location of the anxiety is in liberalism. Liberalism which tells us that while we may affiliate in ways that bring a preponderance of one type of people together, we may not codify our affiliation to exclude a particular group of people or all groups of people but what we mark as our type. I reject this liberalism because I think that it has inherent flaws. It doesn't recognize and respect that sometimes groups of folks, whether defined by identity or interest or biology, like to hang out together in a time defined and space defined way. It asserts that its value of inclusion is to be valued above all other values.

I think that the second location of the anxiety is in the sandbox. Literally the three and four and five and six year old minds in which some people are getting together and having fun and playing with toys without us. They are. But so are we. This anxiety is not intellectual as liberalism is; it is emotional. It is also immediate and compelling. It is true in the way that our feelings are true, but it is also not the full story.

I think that the third location of the anxiety is fear that the location becomes not a space bound by time, but becomes a future location in the present with its exclusionary practices. Yet, most women at the Womyn's Music Festival do not want that. The policy toward male children is instructive to that end. Male children under five are able to camp with their mothers and participate in everything. The underlying value is that during that period of development; children need to be with their mothers. After the age of five, as the children develop more independence, they go to the boys camp during the day and camp with their mothers at night. There is still dependence but greater autonomy. After age ten, the independence is enough such that mothers can take a week vacation without their children. Each returns, however. It is in these guidelines that I think that the notion of the festival space as one created by time and place is most clear and evident. For mothers, especially mothers of boys, the life of the lesbian separatist is not one that they will live, but it is one that they can choose to participate in for three or four or five or six or seven days each year. Then they return. To the space and time outside of Hart, Michigan.

The Womyn's Music Festival is more than the space bound by time, which is why I think that the scuttle surrounding who is in and who is out is so powerful. It is a community that is intentional about how and why it comes together and who is engaged in that coming together. The flap about transgender inclusion is one of a long line of inclusion questions. While it is a moment of cultural anxiety now, for the organizers, the anxiety is usual, even expected. The feelings are the same. The issues, the language, is all that is changing.

Which brings me to perhaps the most challenging question of this: why do transgender womyn want to be included? Certainly, I understand the desire for inclusion. And I have observed that there are always people who want to be inside something most fervently when they are excluded. There is also the sense though that being included in the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival is a form of validation as a female. The power and gender paradigms behind that deserve to be explored more fully. Why is the Womyn's Music Festival being positioned as the power broker or arbiter of who is female? Is it because the defined very carefully and very clearly language of who is included in their party? Aren't there more important arbiters of gender in our country? Why has this one been elevated?

A corollary to why do transgender womyn want to be included for me is what is the role of gender at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival? From my experience (now over a decade ago) while there is a reification of womyn and feminism at the festival, there is also an eschewing of hard and fast gender roles. Part of the power of being in an all womon space is that womyn do everything. In this paradox of embracing one gender and rejecting gender roles, enter transgender womyn, many of whom are entrenched in gender as a result of their experiences with transition. How does that fit with the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival?

Another question that I raise is about the Radical Faeries and the few other mehn's land movements, many of which exclude womyn. How do they fit into this situation? Why are womyn not protesting their right to be engaged in these communities? Does that matter? What does that tell us?

Finally, I am also struck in this debate by intensity of the critique of womyn's culture and separatism. In community, I observe that the consequence of intensive critique is not reform that brings about a watershed to a greater understanding and inclusion rather the consequence is the destruction of the thing that is being critiqued. Is that the goal of the transgender activists protesting the Womyn's Music Festivals? If it is not the explicit goal, is it an implicit goal? How do we respond to that?

If critique brings about destruction, what builds an alternative? In community, what I think builds greater understanding and inclusion is new and different formulations that are not oppositional or grounded in critique, but that are autonomous and visionary. If there is a desire and a need for a community that is like the Womyn's Music Festivals but embraces many-gendered people, then building that space and designating that time is I think an important and productive response. Ultimately, there may be room for both spaces or one may predominate, but until the alternative is built and the critique is set aside, we will not know what is the world that we want to live in for seven days each summer or what is our vision for the future.


piny said...

Um, I found this via queering the apparatus, which a friend emailed me.

If you don't mind my asking, what does "entrenched in gender" mean?

Julie R. Enszer said...


Thanks for the question. The full sentence is:

In this paradox of embracing one gender and rejecting gender roles, enter transgender womyn, many of whom are entrenched in gender as a result of their experiences with transition.

What I mean by entrenched in gender is that my observation is that for many people transitioning an important element of the transition is studying and understanding what it means to be, think, feel, project, and even perform the new gender. So when I write entrenched in gender, I mean that people transitioning have been studying wtih great intensity and purpose the gender to which they are transition while simultaneously working to minimize the gender from which they have been living. I call that experience being entrenched in gender - understanding living and performing it in the transitional space from each side.

I think that the experience of gender transition is different than the experience of gender liminality - living betwixt and between the gender binary system.


piny said...

I'm uncomfortable with the generalization, but I"m glad you at least phrased it as "many."

I think that the state of being you're describing is extremely contingent, for one thing, when it exists at all. Assuming they were self-conscious at any point, transsexuals relax into their post-transition gender as soon as they start passing comfortably. They also tend to realize that behavioral cues are not necessarily as important as they seemed on the front end; once people see your body as male, you don't have to try as hard to act like a man.

Many other transsexuals--I wasn't one of them--don't have to study the cues of their post-transition gender, but adopt them unconsciously. For them, there's no study involved.

I've never met a transsexual who wanted to "think" and "feel" their new gender; most of the ones I know see that as a contradiction in terms, and one with a pretty transphobic subtext.

Still other transpeople don't get entrenched in gender for political reasons; they embrace their post-transition gender while rejecting gender roles.

I'm not sure it's fair to make this kind of self-consciousness a transsexual thing, or even something transsexuals are more likely to be going through than non-transsexuals. For many non-transsexuals, the performance of gender involves constant practice and study.

Julie R. Enszer said...

Hi, Piny,

Excellent points. I appreciate you making them.


Miki said...

I wouldn't mind adding to this, even at such a late date...

Too many seem to assume that transgendered people are "working to become the other gender". This can be a terribly false assumption, and smacks terribly of Reading the Book by its Cover. Helen Boyd repeatedly makes this mistake in her writings, which is unfrotunate, since too many people seem to read her work as the gospel of the T.

Many of the transgendered, who are not so overwhelmed with this lack of support for their point of view, will tell you that they always were that other gender. They are simply trying to win back the right to BE that gender from a society that forces them to fit into the mold their bodies indicate.

Employ a bit of empathy for a moment and visualize being a happy woman (for example) who, by some cosmic joke has suddenly found herself sown into the skin of a man, and then persecuted by almost everyone around them for every "mistake" when they fail to act as one. Despite having to live in this horrible environment until they are able to find some kind of escape, they are still their original gender the Entire Time. They are not trying to become, they are trying to find a way to stop pretending to be something they never wanted to be in the first place, even if they were not fully aware of the Why until later in the game.

Granted, in reality none of them are permitted that wonderful "happy [original gender]" memory to fight their way back to, but this does not mean they do not know. Nor does it mean that they are learning to be the wrong gender in the interim (must bridle against the entire process the whole time), until their escape.

If they are then to be persecuted for being survivors of this experience, then the maturity of this world still has a Long Way to go yet...