A Tale of Two Festivals: The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival and Ladyfest Midwest Chicago Shared Performers and Goals but Split on the Issue of Transgender Participation

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Scene one, Michigan Womyn's Music Festival: The punk band Le Tigre, after rocking the night stage, dives out onto the welcome, willing hands of the young women below. The band is joined by women's music legend Cris Williamson, R&B singer Nedra Johnson, and spoken-word poet Alix Olson--and I Olson's 78-year-old grandmother.

Scene two, a week later, Ladyfest Midwest Chicago: The city's crumbling Congress Theater opens its doors, and hipsters in carpenter pants and multiple piercings pour out, energized after seeing Le Tigre. In the street, the Radical Cheerleaders line up in formation, yelling, "Sound off, 1-2-3-4! Shout it out: revolution!"

So similar and yet so different, these two major women's music festivals with grassroots origins drew women from across the country to the Midwest in August. The Michigan fest, offering five days of music, workshops, and performances, is one of the oldest continuous festivals for women. It began 25 years ago when Lisa Vogel, then 19, and her friends decided they didn't want to drive to Boston to hear women play. The first festival drew 2,000, about 1,000 more than they expected. This year, attendance was 5,600.

"It was a pretty exciting, radical time," says Vogel, still the festival's producer. "Nothing like that had happened for women, for dykes, and the spark just took." This year's musical lineup was typically diverse, ranging from the dancing rhythm of Ubaka Hill's Drumsong Orchestra to the punk anthems of Amy Ray and the Butchies (who also played Ladyfest) to the sweet, soulful songs of Dar Williams.

On 650 acres of private woods, the Michigan festival admits "womyn-born-womyn" only--a policy that excludes male-to-female transgendered people and has caused controversy since its introduction in 1978. The restriction caused a stir again this year when singer-song-writer Melissa Ferrick pulled out. "I didn't know about the policy when I played last year," Ferrick says. "I don't believe in separatist communities." In response to the policy, Chicago transgender activists have hosted an annual protest outside the festival's gates. This year Camp Trans organizers held gender workshops and put on a performance by the Chicago Drag Kings. "We don't want to close the festival down," says activist Dee Michell, 19, "but there's always room for change."

Inside the festival, workshops explored the ramifications of the policy as lesbians' acceptance of transgendered people grows. …