, the most recent addition to the wave of Ladyfest
conferences that have popped up across the United States and the U.K.
in the last two years, I found myself considering what measures can
define the success of large-scale feminist activities. If the quantity
of attendants were used as a measure, for example, Ladyfest Los Angeles
might not be consider a successful event, as the completely unexpected
rain for the first two days of the conference severely cut down attendance.
Additionally, LFLA did not have the same star power (i.e.
Le Tigre or Sleater Kinney) as Ladyfest Olympia or San Francisco.
However, in my opinion, LFLA achieved success on a level that I, a
fairly recent transplant to Southern California, never thought possible:
it made something feminist, political, and, at times, confrontational
happen in Los Angeles, a city known more for superficiality and cell
phones than punk rock feminism.
The idea for Ladyfest began in Olympia, Washington
in the summer of 2000. A close cousin to 1990s Riot Grrrl conventions,
the first Ladyfest event lasted for four days and incorporated a wide
variety of musicians, feminist workshops, panel discussions, and art.
Since this event, Ladyfests (linked only by name and idea) have emerged
in San Francisco, Chicago, Northampton, Glasgow, Scotland, and, finally,
Los Angeles. LFLA, organized through grassroots networks of feminists
in the LA area, featured panel discussions, musical performances,
hands-on workshops, film and art presentations, and spoken word. Tickets
for the entire four-day event were $60 and individual day passes were
also available at a reduced rate. The events were spread across two
locations in downtown LA, the Palace Theater and the Spring Tower
Bank building. These locations worked out well, as they were in close
proximity to one another and there was
great deal of easy parking (a luxury in Los Angeles) near each building.
The majority of the musical performances were at the Palace, while
the Spring Tower held most of the panels, workshops, and films.1
The proceeds of the entire event went to the East LA Womens
Center, a non-profit organization that provides domestic violence
and rape crisis services.
- While the musical line-up of LF LA did not have
the kind of big name star power that might entice local
scenesters not interested in feminism to venture into downtown LA, the
event showcased a juggernaut of local LA talent. The Friday night musical
line-up (which unfortunately was sparsely attended due to rain) was
a key draw of the event, as it encompassed a performance by Exene
Cervenka, the former frontwoman of the LA punk band; X, a musical
performance by Phranc,
the Jewish lesbian folk singer; and a performance by the Disposable
Boy Toys, a Santa Barbara drag troupe. For spoken word talent later
in the weekend, Francesia Lia Block, favorite author of gothic girls
across the country, performed on Saturday and Pleasant Gherman, an LA
punk staple since 1977, read from her new book on Sunday. LFLA also
incorporated new LA talent, such as recent LA-transplant, Jody Bleyle
of Hazel and Team Dresch fame, who played with her new band, Family
Outing, on Sunday night.
- In regards to the musical performance, Sunday evening at the Palace
turned out to be the big night for music, as it featured amazing performances
from the Portland punk duo the Haggard, Family Outing, and Sextionalall
bands. Before the Haggard played, the audience seemed to be dragging,
doubtlessly worn out by a long day of workshops, panels, and activities.
The Haggard had so much energy, however, it spawned a mini-mosh pit
and got the rest of the audience on their feet. Additionally, by providing
lyric sheets to the audience and talking about what each of the songs
were about, the Haggard invoked
early Bikini Kill shows and the spirit of audience involvement that
came with a lot of Riot Grrrl-associated bands. After the Haggard, Jody
Bleyle and her brother Allan put on a great show with their duo Family
Outing, complete with matching purple ponchos for part of the set. Sunday
evening wound up with a set by LA-based singer Mia Doi Todd followed
by a performance by experimental music darlings, Deerhoof,
which brought a great end to a long day of events.
- Despite the enthusiastic end of Sunday's musical performances, however,
Mondays concert was a wash in terms of attendance, a telling sign
that a four-day event may just be too much for even the most devoted
feminist. When I first arrived at the Spring Street Tower, the Squeaky
Toys, an LA local band, were valiantly playing their hearts out to an
audience of five. While this initially seemed heartbreakinga signal
of peoples apathy toward local bandsas the day progressed,
the small audience (which had grown to about 40 by early evening) began
to interact with the performers, giving the evening a friendly dynamic.
The highlight of the evening was The Tamalas, thrown together for
the express purpose of playing LFLA. The singer began with a beautiful,
punky rendition of Lois Strumpet and proceeded to
get Jody Bleyle and several other audience members on stage to sing.
The boundaries between audience and performers became fuzzy at this
point and for the rest of the evening a sense of community and inclusiveness
seemed to emanate from interactions between the stage and audience,
which gave the close of LFLA a last-night-of-summer-camp feeling.
- Despite the great musical performances of LFLA, the most amazing
part of the event turned out to be the panel discussions. The first
panel I attended was on the exclusion of transsexual women from the
Michigan Womyns Festival (MWF). The festival, known affectionately
as Mich to many long-time attendees, is a womyns music
festival that emerged from lesbian feminist separatist movements in
the 70s. In the beginning, the festival showcased womyns
music, such as Helen Reddy and Holly Near. In recent years, it
has included more queercore/feminist punk bands, though
there has been a great deal of controversy over bands like Tribe 8,
who make technically lesbian music, but feature S/M stage
shows.2 This controversy was followed
by another over who counts as a womyn in the context of the festival.
Held on private land owned by organizer Lisa Vogel,
the festival has been a separatist space for womyn-born-womyn,
meaning that male-to-female transsexuals are not welcome.3The
exclusion of MTFs is based largely on the writings of Janice Raymond,
a lesbian separatist who wrote a scathing book about transsexuality
in the 1970s that positioned MTFs as the ultimate form of colonization
of womens bodies. Raymond argued that MTFswhom she saw as
created by the patriarchal medical establishment to infiltrate lesbian
separatist spacesare never able/willing to give up male privilege,
and therefore must be excluded from womens spaces.
Raymonds book, while discredited by many scholars since, still
stands as the final word on transsexuality for many older lesbian separatists.
Beginning in the early 1990s, however, transgender activists and feminists
unhappy with the policy have been protesting outside of Mich at a second
festival known as Camp Trans.
- It was this exclusive policy that the discussants, Sadie
Crabtree, an activist leading the fight to change the policy; Julia
Stewart, a union organizer; and Sarah Douger and Tami Hart, both Mr.
Lady recording artists, took on. The panelists started from the
same position: the policy is wrong. However, there was wide variety
in what to do from this starting position. Crabtree has been leading
the boycott on the Butchies,
a band on Mr. Lady records, who played Michigan and supported the policy
in a press statement. The boycott has divided the queer/feminist community.
Many are hesitant to speak out against Mr. Lady, a record label that
distributes queer/feminist music such as Le Tigre, as they are an integral
part of the community. Stewart, Douger, and Hart, while equally against
the policy, represented the anti-boycott side of the argument, questioning
the usefulness of this tactic and advocated instead for transgender
education, arguing that the policy is based on simple ignorance about
transgender women. While the panel was slightly marred by a moderator
who seemed either bored or somewhat apathetic, the discussants managed
to have a lively discussion that raised issues about feminism and separatist
spaces. In between comments from panelists, the audience jumped in to
express agreement, consternation, and at times vehement defenses of
the importance of Michigan as a feminist space, making the panel very
- What was so fascinating about this panel was that it revealed a dirty
secret of queer and feminist politics: not everyone means the same thing
when they use the word feminist or queer. For
instance, the Butchies are a queer band and
display a lot of gender-bending behavior both live and on
their album covers. However, their support for Michigan illustrates
that not everyone sees transgender inclusion as a goal of queer feminist
activism.4 Stewart summed this up well
by positing that the boycott of the Butchies came from a feeling that
they should be trans-allies and a deep disappointment that they were
not. While the questions of what to do with Michigan, the Butchies,
the policy and the boycott were not ultimately resolved at the end of
the panel, it left the audience with a lot to ponder and gave LFLA the
distinction of being the first Ladyfest to tackle this issue head on.
- The gender panel on Sunday afternoon was equally compelling. Again,
the line-up was full of Southern California academic stars, including
Talia Bettcher, a professor of philosophy at Cal State LA, and Judith
Halberstam from UC Irvine. The entire panel dealt with trangender issues,
from the transgender gaze in art and film, to the production of a short
comic film on the experiences of FTMs. While quite an excellent presentation,
however, it did not escape my attention that all the panelists were
white (as were all the panelists on the Michigan panel, with the exception
of the apathetic moderator). The whiteness of the presenters seemed
to raise alarm bells for some audience members, as one of the only questions
posed to the presenters was, What about race and class?
Judith Halberstam took this question and gave a great answer about the
dangers of simply adding race and class on, just for the sake of avoiding
this question. However, while her point was valid, it did not seem quite
satisfying in the light of the complete lack of discussion of race,
as each panelist, in response to this question, spoke only to how their
presentation answered questions about class.
- The lack of inclusion of race from the gender panel was reminiscent
of early Riot Grrrl conventions, where race was either addressed in
a cursory fashion or completely left aside. I had noticed when I arrived
at LFLA that there was an entire panel on women of color, entitled Sister
My Sister: Women of Color Speak Out. In an act of complete irony,
however, this panel was opposite Judith Halberstams discussion
of Punk Rock, Riot Grrrl, and Drag Kings.
As to be expected, the Sister My Sister panel was composed only of women
of color (and held in a very small room).5
Halberstams talk, on the other hand, had a large, predominantly
white audience. To me, this was the only disappointment of LFLA as it
signaled that while transgender issues have come to the forefront of
feminist/queer activism, it remains difficult to incorporate race (and
racism) into the discussions in a non-additive way.
- The difficulties over incorporating race into discussions about gender
at LFLA speak to the current state of feminist/queer activism. The experiences
of women of color in feminism and queer studies still appear to be marginal
in relation to what gets positioned as the real issue: gender.
This marginalization of race may explain why transgender issues have
become so salient in this queer/feminist community: it is perceived
as continuing to talk about gender, not race. This feeling that transgender
is only a gender issue may stem from the fact that the majority of well-known
transgender activists, such as Kate Bornstein, Ricki Ann Wilchins, Leslie
Feinberg, Patrick Califia, are white. The ways in which race and class
affect transgender individuals, in the face of all this focus on gender,
gets left out. Additionally, working for inclusion in regards to the
transgender community allows the feeling of unity to be brought back
into feminist/queer activism in a way that race may not, as writings
by many feminists of color have shown that inclusion is not the goal
but rather transformation. As with the MWF panel, a certain uneasiness
pervades feminist/queer spaces when disharmony is suggested. Indicative
of this, to me, was the fact that none of the audience members asked
Talia Bettcher about her performance, which was a riveting, at times
extremely harsh (and right on in my opinion) critique of how the T
of LGBT is just given lip service rather than made an integral part
of the community. Thinking about all these issues, I was left with the
sense that while LFLA was at least having panel about race and taking
on transgender inclusion, there still needs to be major work in feminist/queer
circles on learning to talk about differences in a productive way that
does not assume that every member of the community has the same issues
- Going back to the question of the measure of success that I posed
at the beginning, however, the quality of LFLA, despite the inability
to produce productive strategies for incorporating race issues into
gender and transgender panels, marks a resounding victory for feminists/queer
activists in Southern California. First, LFLA drew on community resources
in panels and talent, put a focus on new kinds of activism, such as
labor and transgender activism, and gave back to the community by supporting
the East LA Womens Center. Second, the event was well organized,
with very few glitches in the execution of the event. Third, LFLA upheld
the legacy of Riot Grrrl/queercore by providing an arena for feminist/queer
music and performances, which hopefully in turn will inspire a new generation
to pick up drum sticks and guitars to sing their own lives. It also
showcased a wide variety of topics and did not shy away from confrontational
issues like the boycott of Mr. Lady Records or trans-exclusive policy
of the Michigan Womyns Festival. Finally, and most importantly
to me, it signaled that punk rock feminism and queer activism are alive,
well, and possibly coming soon to a Ladyfest near you.
University of California, Los Angeles
1. The best part of the location
of LFLA was the exposure it provided to downtown eating establishments,
such as my new favorite cafeteria, Cliftons.
A staple of downtown LA since the 1920s, Cliftons provdes cheap
food within a priceless, kitschy decor. I highly recommend the pumpkin
2. For a good overview of this
controversy, see Mary Kearneys article.
3. As a side note, this policy
is loosely enforced, as there are not strip searches of suspected transsexuals.
However, transgender activists who have secretly entered
the space have had to suffer from the fear of being outed.
4. The Butchies position was actually
unclear from this panel. Crabtree argued that they supported the policy.
However, I had been under the impression that they supported Michigans
right to continue its tradition as a separatist space, not necessarily
the policy. Again, it is a tricky, slippery issue.
5. Not being involved in the organization
of LFLA, this could have been a separatist panel that was supposed to
only be women of color. However, based on the anger about the separatist
space of Michigan, it seems unlikely that it was organized in this way.
Kearney, Mary. The Missing Links: Riot Grrrl, Feminism, Lesbian
Culture. Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender. Ed.
Sheila Whiteley. London: Routledge, 1997.
Williams, Janice G. The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male.
Boston: Beacon Press, 1979.