My personal journey towards challenging transphobia within lesbian and feminist communities

Last weekend, I decided to take an active and public role in the ongoing debate about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, an annual event for women that has for three decades excluded transgender women. When two major LGBTQ organizations out of nowhere dropped their support for the boycott of MichFest, I started a petition asking what the heck happened and demanding they put their name back on. Over the weekend it garnered 400 signatures, forced a second statement from both organizations, and reignited the question of transwomen’s inclusion in lesbian and feminist communities.

While this is the first time I’ve engaged in such a visible way, I’ve been thinking about these issues for over a decade. To date, I’ve worked on only on a local level — building a community of women around me in my life for whom the question of transwomen’s inclusion is not a question at all, simply a fact of life. I’ve led in person workshops at local lesbian focused events. I used to facilitate a lesbian chat group at the local LGBT center. Partly I’ve focused on the local level because it felt like in person discussion with women was the best way to reach people. But more importanly, I’ve avoided public, online engagement because transwomen who engage this issue publicly usually become victims of extreme transphobic harassment.

When I was first coming out, I had close friends who were very involved in Camp Trans and MichFest. They devoted countless hours to trying to engage women in MichFest’s online discussion boards. I remember as a newly out transwoman watching them going in these discussions with the best of intentions, ready to answer questions and build bridges, and then watching them get called horrible slurs, get accused of being rapists, getting misgendered who knows how many times, getting threatened, etc. I watched them one by one get demoralized and give up. I remember reading the slurs and thinking I didn’t want that to happen to me (at least not from other queer women). So I decided not to make the national issue of MichFest the focus of any activist work I did.

Now it’s ten years later. I’m more secure in myself, and when the Task Force pulled out of the boycott, I decided I was willing to accept the consequences. The petition went up Friday evening, and by Sunday, I was getting messages on Twitter from a @jenderfatigue — the twitter handle for Gender Identity Watch, a TERF* hate group, and there was a page on Gender Identity Watch describing me as “Man who identifies as a Woman”. By Tuesday, the messages from @jenderfatigue began addressing me by my pre-transition name:

I haven’t gone by my pre-transition name for 13 years, and all my documents are legally changed, so I’m not sure where they found this. Somewhat ironically, I always went by my middle name before transition, and “David” was my first name, so I’ve never gone by David my entire life. I attempted to engage @JenderFatigue briefly after this, along with several other TERFs who joined in once I replied. In the conversation that ensued, I was called a man a dozen times, accused of not respecting consent, bizarrely called a racist when I pointed out the making-fun-of voices they were adopting to mock me were actually based on old racist stereotype characterizations of black people, addressed by “Sir”, and called dishonest.**

What happened to me is not extreme or unusual. It’s simply what happens to transgender women who take public positions on MichFest or transwomen’s inclusion in lesbian or feminist communities. A quick glance of Gender Identity Watch’s website shows they have several dossiers on transgender activists describing them as either a “man who identifies as a woman” or a “woman who identities as a man”. Only two days back in their twitter feed they call another transgender woman by their pre-transition name. This has been the MO of people in and around MichFest since back when my friends were trying to engage on MichFest discussion boards so many years ago.

The women who lead Gender Identity Watch no doubt represent a fairly extreme position, hopefully not representative of a large portion of the lesbian and feminist community (though perhaps maybe they are). And yet, they are closely connected to the leadership of MichFest. When Cathy Brennan, one of this extreme group’s more visible members, posted about how she forced NCLR to return her donations when they joined the boycott, Lisa Vogel, founder of MichFest responded with “Wow. You go!”*** No doubt MichFest leadership would like their ties to these groups to stay less visible. In fact MichFest takes a starkly different tone these days when it talks about their relationship to transwomen:

“we reiterate that Michfest recognizes trans womyn as womyn ‐ and they are our sisters. We do not fear their presence among us, a false claim repeatedly made.” — Michfest public statement

Never mind that this is tone is in direct opposition to previous MichFest statements, when Lisa Vogel has repeatedly stated that transwomen are not women, and not welcome on the land. Never mind that red armbands, a symbol that an attendee believes no transwomen should be allowed at Michfest, are a common sight at the festival. The point is that Michfest leadership has adopted a two-pronged strategy for maintaining their policy (now called “intention) of excluding transwomen going forward. Outwardly, they deny any exclusion exists and instead blame persecution of lesbians on the part of transpeople for “false” perceptions about the festival. At the same time, they rely on their extreme supporters to harass and silence any transwoman who dares try to call attention to the fact that they remain an unwelcoming transphobic organization.

Unfortunately, so far, this strategy seems to be working. The initial statements of NCLR and the Task Force showed they almost unquestioningly accepted the false narrative of lesbian persecution. While I doubt TERFs have the power as donors to truly threaten these large organizations financially, both organizations seemed to take seriously the idea that boycotting MichFest was somehow hurtful to lesbians. MichFest’s significance is practically non-existent to any lesbian under 40, mostly due to its intransigent policy of exclusion. In fact, vibrant radical queer women’s communities are quite active in several cities — here in Los Angeles we just hosted LA Femmes of Color Collective Presents: A Femme Salon — a space geared specifically towards femmes of color. Queer women, mostly cis and trans women of color, today constitute the vanguard leadership of many of the movements challenging police brutality and the prison industrial complex. Put succinctly lesbian community is going nowhere and it’s amazing that large organizations would be receptive to such a disingenuous argument.

For myself, it’s taken a long time for me to engage the issue of MichFest. There are so many reasons not to — forcing people to fly across country and pay hundreds of dollars to get in doesn’t really feel like a viable way to build woman’s community to me to begin with, and to be frank this has always felt like an issue that mainly affects white transwomen like me. While the harassment I’ve faced from Gender Identity Watch has no doubt been emotionally hurtful, it’s nothing like the daily in person verbal and physical harassment and violence faced by transwomen of color.

But at the same time, it’s important for me to challenge that impulse to avoid discomfort that caused me to shy away from this issue so many years ago. I’m ready to stake a position and accept the harassment that comes, if only so other transwomen know they can speak out, that a few hateful people ultimately can’t tear you down. If nothing else, the women of Gender Identity Watch and other TERF groups are themselves clearly suffering too, even if it’s from being filled with so much hate towards transgender people. I’m also hopeful that by speaking out, large LGBTQ organizations like NCLR and the TaskForce will begin to see through the false equivocations made by MichFest leadership, and recognize the only people truly being persecuted here are transgender women. Regardless of their position in the boycott, they should take a public position that harassment of transwomen by TERFs is not ok. This kind of transphobic hate has gone on in LGBTQ communities way too long, and its time to rectify this.

* TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. It is a term that describes the subset of radical feminists who believe trans people represent a signifigant threat to feminism, and must be kept out of women’s communities

** As I went back to read this twitter thread, I now face the added anxiety that several of the tweets have been deleted or hidden, leaving me to wonder if they’ll now deny they ever said these things

*** These Facebook posts are visible because Cathy Brennan keeps most of her Facebook page public.