It was 1976, Lisa Vogel was 19, and two social movements were in their ascendancy — outdoor rock concerts and proud feminism.
Vogel had already attended one event that combined the two, a women’s music festival in Boston. “Wouldn’t it be cool to have one of these in Michigan?” she thought, and with the heedlessness only a 19-year-old can bring to such an idea, she set out to organize one.
Now, more than 30 years later, the event she founded, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, is the longest-running Michigan tourist attraction you’ve never heard of, a five-day celebration of women and only women. Everyone who plays on stage is a woman. Everyone who builds the stage is a woman.
Everyone allowed through the gates is a woman (or, if not, must be a minor male child of an attendee). From Aug. 5-10 this year, a 650-acre plot in Oceana County will be Israel for the double-X chromosome. Some 4,000 attendees will travel from around the country, even other countries, to attend not just the musical performances, but also workshops, dances with DJs, and other socializing. Nearly all will camp on-site for the duration.
“What really motivates people to come is the overall experience of an opportunity to live in a radically different alternative value system,” even if only for a few days, Vogel says. “If we just put on a show and sold hot dogs, we wouldn’t get many people from outside of Michigan, because why bother?”
If you’re wondering how women’s value systems would be radically different from men’s, it’s time to note that MWMF, or MichFest as it’s called, is overwhelmingly a lesbian event. Many well-known gay artists have played there, including Tracy Chapman and Jill Sobule. Although not all attendees or audience members are gay, most are, explains Vogel, who’s been an out lesbian for longer than her festival’s been in existence.
“Sometimes hetero women feel a little uncomfortable,” Vogel says. “My mother came several times and said, ‘Does everybody have to talk all the time about being gay?’ But [to us, we’re] talking about our lives. Part of the liberating experience is being part of the norm, for a week.”
Or, as the festival’s Web site puts it, “There is no way to really be prepared for the experience of being in such a large gathering of womyn in a totally womyn-created environment (even if you’ve attended other regional festivals). It is exhilarating, exciting, liberating, and overwhelming at times.”
Which raises a few questions. It’s one thing to be pro-women, another thing to exclude men entirely. No men are anywhere on the grounds. Male children of attendees are welcome, but boys older than 5 are asked to stay at a separate campground. But where the festival’s rules really get complicated is in its “for women born women” policy, which was tested when a male-to-female transsexual was ejected from the grounds in 1991. A small group of vocal transsexuals set up a separate protest camp for a number of years, but a truce was reached in 2006. “We’re in a very simple place about it,” Vogel says. “We say, ‘This is who the event is for,’ and we leave it at that.” In other words: Don’t ask, don’t tell, and no genetic testing at the gate.
If it seems an absurd degree of hair-splitting, Vogel reminds us there was a time when women who presented differently — like her, once a butch lesbian with a shaved head — were challenged going into women’s restrooms. She believes they’ve earned five measly days of single-gender life.
But gay life has changed enormously in the festival’s more than three decades. When Melissa Etheridge can win an Oscar and thank “my wife, Tammy” from the podium, when personalities from k.d. lang to Ellen DeGeneres to Rosie O’Donnell are out and proud in the mainstream, is there still a need for a separate festival?
Absolutely, Vogel says: “There is phenomenal, well-earned success for Melissa, k.d. and Ellen — that’s three people. That doesn’t really mean there’s an integration. Many [entertainers] are still hiding in the closet and feel their careers couldn’t handle publicity. Even if you live in San Francisco, a super-gay place, you still feel you’re living in hetero culture.” And, she reiterates, not every woman who takes the stage is gay. Many are just female artists who don’t want to present themselves like today’s so-called pop tarts.
“There’s a sense that there’s been a revolution in pop music, but I don’t know,” Vogel says. “We’re almost in a more misogynist space now than we were in the ’70s. The hippie tone was definitely unequal, but women in general didn’t feel they had to sell their body to get some art out.”
That’s one reason why Shawn Tinnes, a Detroiter who performs as Sista Otis, will find herself on the MichFest stage. A veteran of the club scene in Hamtramck and elsewhere, she has trouble defining her music as anything other than a blend of influences that boils down to “the good-time girl.” Although Otis is an out lesbian, this will be her first trip.
She’ll be on a bill with other singer/songwriters, solo artists. It’s not her normal show; she had to leave her backing band, the Wholly Rollers, at home. Some of them are men.