While much has been said about the intentional exclusion of trans women at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, almost nothing is written about rapes that occur at MichFest. The festival is rhetorically constructed to be a “safe place” that is – due to its exclusion of trans women – inherently disconnected from rape culture. About the inherent “safe space” created through the womyn-born-womyn (WBW) intention, TERF opinion leader Sheila Jeffreys wrote:
[T]he festival offers a space where women can be freely loving and affectionate towards one another in ways that heterosexual people take for granted, engaging in ‘same-sex intimacies through holding hands, kissing, etc. in all of the festival spaces’ free from men’s insults and threats of violence. These are all activities that women, and lesbians in particular, cannot feel safe or comfortable to engage in when in male company. For all these reasons, transgender activists want access. 
Here it’s appropriate to ask how important Jeffreys’ narrative was to MichFest culture. Concerning the silence around MichFest rape, an even more pertinent question would be: what would MichFest be willing to do in order to preserve it’s mythic status as a WBW-created “safe space”? Would MichFest be willing to protect a rapist in order to promote its mythic “WBW safe space”? Would MichFest be willing to silence a rape victim in order to protect its mythic “WBW safe space”? Again, Sheila Jeffreys:
The concern of the transgender activists with their own ‘liberation’, [Karla Mantilla] argues, came ‘at the expense of women trying for just one week in one remote corner of the United States to feel completely safe from male violence’. After male-bodied transgenders chose to enter the festival, Mantilla says that ‘the feeling of complete safety from men and patriarchal rape culture’ was ‘eroded’ because women attendees knew that ‘a man’ could always be there.
I find it interesting that Jeffreys quotes an article by Karla Mantilla published in 2001 — the very year the study which broke the silence about MichFest rape was published. Nowhere in Jeffreys’ work does she acknowledge what a MichFest rape victim sacrificed in order to preserve the MichFest “WBW safe space” narrative.
What follows is an excerpt from a comprehensive 2001 MichFest study:
The second focus which arose from reflections on identity politics was the issue of safety. The notion of MWMF as ‘safe space’ is frequently raised in relation to lesbian/women’s cultures and women’s experiences of Michigan. In virtually every interview and discussion the concept of safety comes up, whether the participants are talking about the meanings of symbols or individual experience. Many women define their experience at Michigan as feeling ‘safe’. The concept seems fairly straightforward and is explicitly emphasized as part of the festival’s character. When one begins to unpack the idea, it becomes many-layered and multiply located. Like the meanings of symbols which represent lesbian/women’s culture, the notion of safety depend on the location of the individual discussing the concept. The question of whose safety is rarely overtly addressed by participants. There is a strong resistance to questioning the reality of safety in the context of the festival environment. Yet even a casual survey of the women in attendance clearly shows widespread diversity of needs and interests. The concerns around the S/M population in attendance are a clear site where groups come into conflict over the definition of safe space; some women’s perception of MWMF as a haven from such threats.
An example of resistance to discussing the particulars of safety developed at one of the group discussions of festival herstory at the series of workshops which we conducted as part of the research project. A woman remembered an incident in which a rape occurred at the festival. Woman to woman violence was not a topic in which anyone else wished to engage and, after a few seconds of silence, a new topic was introduced. The issue of how the incident was dealt with did not elicit comment. Apparently, the perpetrator was asked to leave the Land and escorted off. No charges were laid and no report was filed with local authorities in Crystal County. This lack of response is not surprising, considering how recently the topic of domestic violence in lesbian relationships has emerged as something which can be discussed (see Ristock, 1998), and the lack of reporting around partner abuse in general. What made it surprising was that on most other aspects of the festival women were willing to engage in criticism, evaluation and lively argument.
The construction of Michigan as safe space is one in which women are heavily invested. The need for the construct outweighs the need to take the steps required to make it a reality. In part, this is probably due to the fact that the reality of complete safety is unattainable. Each woman brings her own ideas of what safety is for her, and addressing the diversity of those needs means unpacking the assumed homogeneity of lesbian and women’s space. While the women’s movement has begun to address issues of diversity, it has not yet successfully integrated those issues into ongoing discourse. Michigan participants reflect that lack of integration in their unwillingness to take on the issue of safety. 
If I described an event environment wherein a woman was raped, event staff were notified and instead of alerting the authorities, the event staff instructed the rapist to flee, what kind of event comes to mind? What would it mean if this event was promoted as being the embodiment of feminist ideals?
While the above quotations come from the comprehensive report published in 2001, the “final research report” was made available to MichFest attendees in the One World tent at the 1999 festival. In 1999 a group of Lesbian Avengers brought a 16 year old trans woman with them to MichFest. While the MichFest sold everyone in the group tickets, the moment the group of Avengers entered the gates, TERFs began trailing the 16 year old trans kid shouting, “MAN ON THE LAND!” This continued until the group turned into a mob that had surrounded the youth, screaming at her until MichFest security moved everyone to a tent where the trans youth was made to stand in front of an enormous group of TERFs who spent the next 2 hours berating her. One adult openly threatened the life of the trans youth without consequence. Afterwards, the trans youth was marched to the gates of the festival and expelled.
[Lesbian Avenger] S: About 10 TERFs were waiting for us when we came in. The whole ‘MAN ON THE LAND!’ started as soon as we walked in. I mean, at the time, we’re kids, we’re teenagers and these are all adults. I mean, when I think about it now, it was just so fucked up. We were trying to give out t-shirts and stickers about being inclusive. But, it was getting bad.
[trans girl in the group] K: A huge crowd of yelling people formed around us and I started crying at that point. It got so loud that Nomy Lamm, who was performing there as part of Sister Spit, came over and stood up for us… The crowd and me were walked over to a tent area. The way that it worked was that there was a queue of people who were going to get to say whatever they wanted to say. I remember, specifically, one woman looking right at me and telling me that I needed to leave the Land as soon as possible because she had a knife and didn’t know if she would be able to control herself if I was around her.
Cristan Williams: WHAT? How did people react to that death threat?
K: Because of the way they were queuing, as soon as one person stopped speaking, another would start, so nobody said or did anything about the death threat. At that point, I checked out. At first I was sobbing and [B] was holding my face close to hers, telling me that it would be over soon, but then I just checked out.
S: The moderator did nothing. It was just a mud-slinging, hatred pouring out. It was just like one by one by one being like, ‘You’re a rapist! You’re raping the Land! You’re destroying womanhood! I don’t know what I’m going to do to you!’ – it was just violent, hatred, and I know that most of it was geared at [K]. I was up there being attacked, but I wasn’t getting the brunt of it. This went on for at least two hours. At least 30 people were allowed to speak at us, but there were around 75 under the tent, and if you included the people around the tent who were watching and listening, well over 100.
What does it say about the ethic animating the WBW narrative that around the same time MichFest quietly escorted an actual rapist who had actually raped a MichFest womyn off the land, a trans kid was publicly escorted off the land after being mobbed, constructed and castigated as a metaphorical “rapist” and then publicly threatened with a knife? Over 100 MichFesters gathered to confront a 16 year old trans kid and when a MichFest rape victim disclosed her story, nobody cared to acknowledge it.
In a 2014 interview for The New Yorker, MichFest organizer Lisa Vogel said:
“There’s something that I experience on the land when I walk at night without a flashlight in the woods and recognize that for that moment I feel completely safe. And there’s nowhere else I can do that. If, tomorrow, we said everyone is welcome, I’m sure it would still be a really cool event, but that piece that allows women to let down their guard and feel that really deep sense of personal liberation would be different, and that’s what we’re about.”
The uncomfortable truth MichFest seemed constitutionally incapable of facing was, I felt, beautifully summed up in the 2001 MichFest study: “The construction of Michigan as safe space is one in which [MichFest] women are heavily invested. The need for the construct outweighs the need to take the steps required to make it a reality… While the women’s movement has begun to address issues of diversity, it has not yet successfully integrated those issues into ongoing discourse. Michigan participants reflect that lack of integration in their unwillingness to take on the issue of safety.”
Michigan is about love, and it’s about love of women, and there’s nothing here but love for women. – Cathy Brennan 
With trans organizations offering support and direct dialogue for reconciliation with MichFest up until the very end, MichFest ceased operations as of August 2015.
[T]his is a movement that is going to go on for decades, so, take the long view, these folks eventually women will get tired of [trans inclusionary people] because women aren’t stupid, I have great faith in women to figure it out because even over the last 5 years, there’s, there’s women 5 years ago, were telling me I was, know you, a horrible person, now they’re like, “I love you Cathy Brennan, you were right” and I’m like, it’s not me who it’s just, this is just, it’s radical feminism is just an accurate reflection of women’s reality on this planet, so great, you know. – Cathy Brennan, 2015 
Even as plans are made to carry on MichFests’ WBW narrative, we should continue to critique such narratives as unconsidered information comes to light. Now that this MichFest rape is finally being critically considered in terms of TERF discourse, it’s worth considering whether this rape – its occurrence hidden, its victim ignored and the rapist freed and unprosecuted – is the only one of its kind. If not, what does the purposeful silence say about the ethical foundation of the TERF movement? Again, from the 2001 report detailing the rape of cover-up of a MichFest womyn:
There were notable silences in this discussion. The comments on [MichFest] safety operated on two distinct levels. One was the infringement of emotional safety at the festival. The other was physical safety. While it was acknowledged that emotional safety was at risk for some participants, there was a notable silence surrounding threats to physical safety. Even after the disclosure of an alleged rape during a previous festival (referred to in Chapter One), women were resistant to deconstructing their concepts of safety. This silence suggests the centrality of a construction of safety to the collective identity of the festival. 
Researcher Tobi Hill-Meyer* alerted me to other instances of sexual abuse that MichFest womyn disclosed to her in 2011:
When I attended in 2011, I made it a point to talk with many people about the trans exclusion. The topic of sexual assault often came up. Sometimes trans women’s attendance was likened to a “rape” of the festival… But sometimes it was not rape as a metaphor, but a fear of actual sexual assault…
All of this was predicated on the idea that a woman only space is automatically a space free from sexual violence. Four times during my visit, women who had experienced or knew about sexual violence by cis women perpetrators at MichFest would often volunteer that information in these conversations. I’m going to be purposefully direct and minimal in my descriptions.
Hill-Meyer goes on to recount the instances disclosed to her here.
H/T to Emmagene!
NOTES: Jeffreys, Sheila. Gender Hurts. Rutledge, 2014. pp 166 – 167  ibid. p 167  Leverick, Jane. A Field of Women, Exploring Meanings at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. National Library of Canada, 2001. pp 17 – 18  Petersen, Thistle. Cathy Brennan: Interview on the Line for #MichFest2015 August 3, 2015 [FaceBook post deleted, see cached version or saved cached version]  ibid  ibid. pp 39 – 40
* If you’re not a TERF, Hill-Meyer is a “sex positive” trans women who was raised by two lesbians and is published and cited in trans, queer and feminist literature. If you’re a TERF, Hill-Meyer is a pro-porno (metaphorical) rapist who hates women because in 2012 she made an image macro that noted that MichFest vendors sells phalluses. My expectation is that TERFs will attack Hill-Meyer for speaking of the things MichFest womyn disclosed to her instead of dealing with the actual subject at hand.