Naked women, scrambled tofu, rock music and free sex had under giant trees! This is what I heard would be happening in the backwoods, just outside of Hart, Michigan in August.
Naked women, scrambled tofu, rock music and free sex had under giant trees! This is what I heard would be happening in the backwoods, just outside of Hart, Michigan in August. And for years the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (Michfest) remained a bit of a scary legend that my more radically feminist underground counterparts would recount every time we brought up the patriarchy.
My own politics made it hard for me to envision a space that excluded the bodies of my brown brother, my ex-boyfriends, my immigrant gay brothers, etc. They are already excluded from so much, and I worried that this exclusively women-born-women space may be a sort of distorted discrimination in action.
Then, three years ago I was invited to perform on the land. It was nothing I expected and it was everything I expected. There are no male bodies — at least none that I could see. There was some scrambled tofu, but there were also steaks on grills, too! And there were naked breasts, and trimmed pubes, and overgrown vaginas, and women covered in frills, and girls strutting heels along the dirt paths, and dykes in cowboy hats and mud-cloth and silver and copper and tanks and lipstick and whatever else you can imagine. It was all there.
In the absence of men, the women seemed to have a little more space to just be. It scared the bejesus out of me. I felt uptight and a little prudish, until I saw that there were lots and lots of women who did not want to get naked. After that I relaxed and decided to embrace my more conservative, clothed convictions.
Two days in, I stopped seeing the naked breasts. I started looking into people’s faces, their eyes, and in moments, it felt like their hearts. In that first week, I began a re-examination of my most cynical and logic-driven self.
Now, I am no softy. On average, I roll cynical and suspicious. I don’t want anybody doing shit with my Chakras, nor my Chi. I hate when people tell me that the Spirit told them to do something to me. I don’t trust the Universe, ’cause it hasn’t always been kind to me. And the jury is still out on God. And when we have conversations — the Great Deity and me — it’s a lot of cussing and challenging and daring: “I dare you to show your face! Maybe you don’t exist! If you did you would prove it to me!” Generally, if I can’t see it, I don’t want you saying shit to me about it. But being in the woods, with all that tent sex and showering under the stars and hearing the rain up close left me wondering why anybody would choose to live in the city.
Early, early in my childhood, I was a straight-up country kid. I bathed outside and carried water from the river. I climbed trees and got bitten by insects with no names. My brother and I dug holes and planted rocks. We ate dirt and stoned birds that sufficed as lunch. But somewhere in my quest toward a more “civilized” life, I had forgotten the miracle of the sun warming a rock beneath my feet, the smell of dew on an unidentified plant. I had no recollection of the expression of a wild rabbit crossing my path. The distance between the land and me was as wide as the gulf between me and the country I fled, so I could be a cage-free lesbian.
That first year at Michfest was a challenging and wonderfully necessary epiphany. Between the port-a-potties and the freezing nights and the balmy days and sisterhood and the friendly greetings in the morning and the amazing women on stage all day and night, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was cranky because there were so few women of color. I was critical of the spelling of “womyn.” I was annoyed that I had to walk to everything. I was annoyed when I discovered that there was a quaint (free) subway system that was really a tractor that could take me from place to place. I was giddy about the sex I was having in the almost outdoors. I was just overwhelmed.
Cut to three years later. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has forced me to admit that I do not know all the answers about what makes humanity tick. I only know that comprehensive feminist politics also includes voices that are different from mine. I love the festival. I wish every oppressed group had it’s own little woodland week to gad about naked and pee in the bushes. I don’t know what it is about the unobstructed sky that makes me believe in something — and I’m not admitting to what that thing is — but it’s present at two in the morning when I am with a lover and we can clearly see the milky way.
At first I thought the magic was about the dykes. Then I thought it was about the land. But now I think that it is really about the spirit of the place. Lisa Vogel (one of the sexiest dykes to breath wood air) started this madness 33 years ago when she was a wee lass of just 19 years old. Last week, when I was leaving the land, I hugged her farewell. Her embrace was sturdy and open and firm. In her arms I felt loved and listened to and cared for and lucky to have lived some of the magic of this not-quite-perfect-but-open-to-improvement-feminist-festival-thing.
(Staceyann Chin is the author of The Other Side of Paradise: A Memoir)