Michfest, a celebration

(To celebrate lesbian visibility week I asked Lauren Levey and Marian Rutigliano to write about the pioneering lesbian music festival. Enjoy!)

The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival: Legacies

Have you been on the land? If you have experienced late night drum circles, porta-janes, granola, and naked women in body paint, then Welcome Home, Sister.

So reads the public welcoming message on a FaceBook page related to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, also known as MWMF, MichFest, or Fest.

The final Fest took place in 2015. Even though only six years have passed since its closing, MichFest’s image among lesbians who never attended has begun to acquire a misty aura of unreality, like a wonderful dream, a near religious experience, or an Amazon myth that exists only in the heart. Sacred women’s land.

An entire city run by and for lesbian feminists. Utopia revealed. An Eden—built by Eves.

In fact, MichFest did share some qualities with Shangri-La and Brigadoon: It was a complex material world, usually invisible, that appeared for a few days each August in rural Michigan -- a world where wild womyn could be together, safe and free in nature, sustaining themselves physically, emotionally, and (some would say) spiritually, entirely by their own labor and according to cultural norms they developed as women acting as if they were free.

We built the stages, set up the sound, ate together, slept together, made the rules, held each other accountable.

Fest was a place where women under stress from what Festies called “Area 51” (meaning the outside world) could rest and heal by renewing their connection with each other and with nature; and by witnessing the competence and beauty of women, including themselves.

The opening night welcome ceremony on stage with greetings in the languages represented at the Fest almost always moved me to tears.

Attendees were diverse – in race, ethnicity, economic and social class, motherhood status, and nationality; the festival drew women from all regions of the United States, and other countries as well, and its diversity increased with the passage of time. There were so many women’s bodies -- between 3000 and 10,000; and in the first few years especially, many of them were at least half naked much of the time. And it was not just the perfect bodies that were naked, or the young bodies, or the perfectly able bodies, or the white bodies, or the hairless bodies. It was impossible not to notice that they were all beautiful.

Conflicts inevitably arose, every year. The favored solution was a separatist solution: A separate space would be created for any group of women who felt they needed a physical space apart from opposition, or even differentness; a place to rest temporarily among only similar sisters, free of the conflict at hand. At different times, and in some years at the same time, there was a camping area for sadomasochism, a tent for women of color, an area for women who needed greater physical accessibility, an area for women who wanted quiet, an area for women who wanted to party loudly, a chemical-free area. But while requests for separate physical spaces were respected and addressed, all women were always welcome at MichFest, coming together for the outstanding music made and performed for a lesbian audience, and for the opportunity to live in a lesbian world.

Although I was 40 years old at my first Fest, I grew up at Fest. Fest is something I carry inside of me.

Started in 1976 and privately owned, Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival had conceptual origins in the Women’s Liberation Movement, in particular, the strand that called itself lesbian feminist separatism. These origins no doubt came out of lesbian bars and feminist consciousness-raising groups, and were influenced by 1960s Black liberation and separatism.

There were other women’s festivals in the U.S., some a few years older; but MichFest was by far the most successful, largest, longest lasting, and arguably the one with the most comprehensive vision, thanks in large part to the wise guidance of founding member and owner Lisa Vogel.

Although the thousands of women who attended each year were not all lesbians, festival culture was lesbian, feminist, and separatist. So were the music and lyrics, the comedy, the large crafts fair, and the workshops. Workshop topics included, at various times, the intersection of race and sex, old women, disabled women, radical feminism, separatism, and various topics about female bodies. Lesbian playwrite Carolyn Gage would regularly hold a memorable, moving, and hilariously irreverent workshop called “Lesbian Tent Revival.”

With lesbian feminist separatism the cultural norm, women were assumed to be lesbians, and those who were not lesbians did not seem to mind the assumption, nor did they protest “but not all of us . . .” In fact, it would have been a jarring and disrespectful violation of Fest culture for an attendee to talk about her man. Some women who were connected to men in their regular lives enthusiastically returned to Michigan year after year – to spend a week separated from all men and without discussion of their own men. Boys aged 4 or younger were permitted, and child care was available. For boys aged 5 to 10, a separate boys’ camp was provided.

In 1982, MichFest moved to the beloved acreage that Festies call simply The Land. It was 651 acres of undeveloped woodland, with some meadows, fields filled with ferns, a watermelon tree, and eventually some narrow footpaths maintained with wood chips.

Over time, women named some of the paths and areas: Magic Fern Meadow, Labia Lane, Lois Lane. And each year when the festival ended, women would remove all structures and all trash; and it would all be rebuilt from scratch the following year. The aim was to leave only the faintest possible footprint, to leave The Land, as much as possible, without a trace.

When now I meet a[nother] Michfest worker . . . our eyes meet  . . . we are bonded . . . . We built a lesbian world and lived in it . . . . We were all changed by that.

All attendees had work shifts. Three vegetarian meals per day were provided, cooked over open fire pits in enormous vats as big as I am. Trash was collected. Porta-janes were kept tidy. Some women worked on security detail. Others built the stages and set up lighting and sound systems for the concerts.

A sound tech told me she was amazed by the clarity and sharpness of the sound system. She figured out it was the unusual absence of male voices, a remarkable lack of low-frequency interference.

There were no immediately obvious signs of social class differences at MichFest, because clothing was less admired than its absence, and most clothing was stuff like jeans and tees. (The best visual signals of class would appear when it rained; some women had Goretex gear, while plastic trash bags and duct tape served to keep others dryish.)

I learned to love my body at MichFest. And I grew up emotionally at MichFest.

Cultural challenges grew with MichFest’s success and fame. Beginning in the 1990s, cross-dressing men began to appear at and near the festival, demanding entry, and sometimes actually entering The Land. The lesbian feminist strategy of separation in the service of harmony was not acceptable to these men. “Camp Trans” established itself on adjacent land, apparently for the sole purpose of harassing and threatening Festies; and eventually the U.S. Forestry Service refused a camping permit to “Camp Trans” because of repeated acts of harassment and violence. By 2014 there had been enough institutional capture that musicians who performed at MichFest were boycotted, and effectively unable to find other employment. Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was doomed.

I prefer not to discuss ‘Camp Trans’, they have had enough of my energy.

MichFest produced the very best of women-centered musical performance in a variety of musical idioms, throughout its duration. A short list includes Holly Near, Chris Williamson, Meg Christian, Kay Gardner, Alix Dobkin, Dar Wiliams, Margie Adam, Bitch, Melissa Ferrick, and Indigo Girls. One year, a group of Japanese drummers performed.

A memorable moment? Seeing my friend Alix on stage singing “If it wasn’t for the Women” and watching what seemed to be the whole audience sign the song with her in ASL.

The Land (the sacred women’s land) is currently being used by an entity called WWTLC to produce gatherings that may or may not include concerts. At least some of these productions are open to men who claim to be women. “For all womxn” appears to be the code used to signal mixed sex gatherings on The Land. So women can still go on The Land; but so can men.

In 2016 Dana Rivers, a man who claims to be a woman and who was active in “Camp Trans”, allegedly murdered a lesbian couple and their son by shooting, stabbing, and attempting to burn the crime scene. At the crime scene, Rivers made spontaneous statements about his involvement in the killings, according to police. The women were regular attendees at MichFest. Rivers is currently incarcerated, and trial is scheduled for October 4 of this year. There are issues that may postpone that date, including issues of insanity.

Lauren Levey

Marian Rutigliano

April, 2021