Pioneering Lesbian radical feminist women’s music producer, festival organizer, and entertainer, Robin Tyler discusses violence directed at her by sex essentialists within the women’s movement. Discussed is an incident that happened at the 1973 West Coast Lesbian Conference and another incident at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Additionally, Tyler, Jan Osborn and Michele Kammerer discuss their experience with trans inclusion at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival.
Sex Essentialist Violence And Radical Inclusion: An Interview With Robin Tyler, Jan Osborn, and Michele Kammerer BY Cristan Williams @cristanwilliams
Robin Tyler is an iconic Radical Feminist lesbian who talked with me about the ways she confronted sex essentialist violence and oppression against trans women within the women’s movement. The first hirstorical event we discussed was Tyler’s involvement with the 1973 West Coast Lesbian Feminist Conference. For some context on why this particular conference was hirstorically significant, Susan Stryker sums it up well:
[Beth] Elliott also served on the organizing committee of the West Coast Lesbian Feminist Conference, planned for April of 1973 in Los Angeles, and she had been asked to perform as a singer in the conference’s entertainment program. The Gutter Dykes leafleted the conference to protest the presence there of a “man” (Elliott), and keynote speaker Robin Morgan, recently arrived from the East Coast, hastily expanded her address to incorporate elements of the brewing controversy. All of her incorporations seem to have come from separatist material, and none from Elliott and her supporters. Morgan’s speech, titled “Lesbianism and Feminism: Synonyms or Contradictions?” was subsequently published in her memoir Going Too Far: The Personal Chronicle of a Feminist, and it was also widely anthologized. More than twelve hundred Women at the conference—which turned out to be the largest lesbian gathering to date—listened to the speech firsthand. For many attendees, the controversy over Beth Elliott’s participation in the West Coast Lesbian Feminist Conference was their first encounter with the “transgender question,” and what transpired there would inform opinions nationwide.1
Robin Tyler and Patty Harrison were partners in a Lesbian comedy duo known as Harrison & Tyler. They were scheduled to perform at the Conference, but a group of sex essentialist women became violent and attempted to physically assault Beth Elliott, an out trans woman, who was also scheduled to perform. This incident happened after the sex essentialist Robin Morgan publicly singled out Elliott to be “dealt with” as a “man” who infiltrated the Conference in her keynote speech she gave to Conference attendees. While this call to action can be missing in Morgan’s anthologized version of this speech, it provides important context for what happened next.2
“I charge [Beth Elliott] as an opportunist, an infiltrator, and a destroyer—with the mentality of a rapist. And you women at this Conference know who he is. Now. You can let him into your workshops—or you can deal with him.”3
Cristan Williams: You were at the 1973 West Coast Lesbian Feminist Conference where [sex essentialist women] had threatened to disrupt the conference?
Robin Tyler: Yes, Harrison & Tyler were performers and we defended Beth Eliot. Robin Morgan came up with this horrible speech and when Beth went on stage to play her guitar and sing, [sex essentialist women] started threatening her. Patty [Harrison] and I jumped on stage and we got hit, because they came onto the stage to physically beat her.
Williams: Oh my god!
Tyler: We stepped up and defended Beth. When Robin Morgan came out against Beth, I said to her, look, you’re bisexual and you’re up here determining who should belong to this movement and who shouldn’t? Both Patty and I thought it was just terrible. It wasn’t like we totally understood transgender people at the time, because we didn’t, but how are you going to beat someone? It was just disgusting.
I produced my first album Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Groom and Olivia distributed it. So, I know Judy [Dlugacz]. I knew the people from Olivia Records and I couldn’t believe it when there was a problem with Sandy Stone! Can you believe it? All of that over Sandy! You know what’s interesting? Rather than fighting who’s oppressing us, [sex essentialist women] go after the most oppressed people instead of building a coalition. It was all just shocking to me! I think maybe what helped me was that I knew trans guys who were on testosterone back when I was in New York. Maybe when you get to know people personally, it’s hard to hate them, or fear them.
Tyler: So, [Camp Trans] at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was good. It was a great chance to get to know trans people personally. Having a space to meet trans women, to talk to them and to do workshops and educate people. That was good!
I performed at Michigan, I think, two times. The first time they told me that I was too butch. The next year I was the line producer and, I’m from Canada, and some women had been held at the border and some Canadian women at the festival asked me if I could get NGLTF to help us. When I took it up with Lisa Vogel, she said “Absolutely not!” because NGLTF is an organization with men in it! Talk about fundamentalism!
So, I went on stage to raise the call for help anyway. I made the announcement on stage and we were able to get NGLTF involved and their lawyers were able to get the women released. But, the next day Lisa Vogel said that she wanted to talk to me in the woods. She was really angry with me. Some Canadian women followed behind us because she was so mad. When Lisa raised her fist to hit me I told her to turn around, because the Canadian women were behind us and was watching what was going on.
So, instead of struggling with Michigan (MWMF), I decided that I would start my own festival. I wanted to do something that wasn’t such a fundamentalist festival.
Cristan Williams: So, can you tell me about how trans women became part of the West Coast Women’s Music Festival?
Tyler: We were told that if we were going to have the festival, we had to have a fire captain there in order to have the festival. So, I got in touch with Michele [Kammerer, an out trans woman fire captain] and asked if she would like to come to the women’s music festival, and that’s when she started coming, but there were other trans people there and nobody had an issue with it.
Williams: MWMF spends a lot of time talking about how trans women can make women feel unsafe. Was that an issue for your festival?
Tyler: A lot of our women had similar issues. I mean, I sponsored workshops on incest, on rape, on child abuse, on sexual abuse, and a lot of these women went to these workshops because a lot of these women were abused. And yet, there was never any complaints about trans women.
I understand people being victimized and sexually abused. But if you remain a victim and you don’t work on these issues, what tends to happen is that the victims become the persecutors. For all people – trans or not – the idea is that we’re working on getting better. These places are about getting better. We have to work on getting better so that we don’t oppress other people.
When I introduced Michele in front of all the coordinators, I said, “This is Captain Michele, she’s trans, and, does anyone have a problem with that?” and nobody said anything and so I said, “Then let’s welcome her!” and she got a standing ovation. I want you to understand that a lot of my workers came from the MWMF. A lot of women who attended the West Coast Women’s Festival – at one point we had 3,000 people there – has attended Michigan too.
I mean, if a lot of the attendees came from Michigan and a lot of our workers were workers at Michigan, and nobody had a problem with trans women at the West Coast Festival, why was there a problem in Michigan?
I think that it has a lot to do with the way leadership presents the issue. I mean, if someone had had an issue with trans women at my festivals, I would have spoken with them, but I wouldn’t have thrown out trans women. I think it just comes down to how leadership chooses to present the issue.
So, when I read about these [Michigan] folks not feeling safe, you get people together and you dialogue so that those who don’t feel safe can get better and feel safe around trans women. But, like I said, we never had to do something like that at our festivals because it wasn’t a problem.
At this point, Robin Tyler put me in touch with Jan Osborn, build coordinator of Tyler’s festival. Osborn, who passed away in 2015, was a Radical Feminist Dyke who began organizing on the west coast in 1978, starting a feminist consciousness-raising and a domestic violence group. She later moved to Florida to fight against Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” group and work on the Equal Rights Amendment.
Cristan Williams: How did you become involved with the Music Festivals?
Jan Osborn: We had a little group – it was sort of an outgrowth of that feminist consciousness-raising lesbian group – we had heard about this festival down at Camp Mather and we went down to that. It was actually the second one that Robin had done at Camp Mather. We were volunteer workers, so we were there the week before the festival. I went to Florida, and then I heard about a festival up in Georgia, and I went to that one, and from then on, I worked pretty much every festival Robin did.
Williams: So, one of the things I was talking with Robin about is the way she worked with the transgender community in her festivals.
Osborn: Right. It was never an issue. Michele Kammerer was a Fire Captain out in the LA area and she transitioned while she was at the fire department. When Michele came out, it was a real coup for Robin because the county we were in had decided that it wanted to get rid of all these lesbians who were invading their peaceful town and so they passed a rule that large gatherings had to have a captain or better of a fire department in the group.
Williams: Oh wow, so she helped save the festival from being shut down?
Osborn: Yes, but it was also great to have a fire fighter on the crew!
Williams: Robin was telling me about how Michele was introduced to everyone and it went really well.
Osborn: You’ve got like 150 workers and we become really tight while you’re there. I mean, we’re still friends. I mean, I remember having a discussion about this with Molly Yard, the President of NOW at the time, and she was like, “Why would we want to discriminate against group of women who happen to have not been born with two X chromosomes or lesbians, for that matter?”
Williams: What are your thoughts about the MWMF “womyn-born-womyn” policy?
Osborn: It’s crap.
Osborn: I mean, we ALL have privilege in some areas and are oppressed in others. Okay, so some trans women spent time trying to live as men before they transitioned and maybe they benefited from male privilege, but that isn’t any reason to discriminate against trans women. It’s just another way that we have to be conscious about the privilege we might have. I mean, I’m white and that means that I need to be conscious of that privilege. I have to be conscious of the privilege of growing up in a family where my dad owned his own company. It’s just one type of privilege, like any other type of privilege, that we have to be conscious of.
Again, I just don’t recall any hubbub over the trans issue. I mean, because we cared about each other we cared about the process Michele would have to go through, but it wasn’t about judgment. We just cared about each other. I just remember being concerned about the enormity of what trans people were having to go through and being respectful of the fact that these women were willing to face it. That these women are having to still deal with discrimination from places like Michigan, it’s just awful.
I was then put in touch with Michele Kammerer, the trans woman who served as the Fire Captain for Robin Tyler’s women’s festival.
Cristan Williams: Can you tell me about how you came to be part of Robin’s festival?
Michele Kammerer: There was a permit requirement because this was in the woods. She found me through and acquaintance of mine who had helped Robin in the past.
Williams: Robin had talked about introducing you at the festival and that you were cheered. Can you tell me about that?
Kammerer: Robin would get on stage and make announcements and she did. What was interesting was that she made a point of talking about MichFest’s trans exclusionary policy and that our fire coordinator, Captain Michele, a trans woman is here with us and we’re glad that she’s here because we couldn’t have had the festival without her. Yeah, I thought that was pretty cool that she would do that on the main stage.
I mean, I was really honored and humbled to be there. And excited, I was really excited to be there and when she asked me to help out, I answered in the affirmative right away! Of course I had some trepidation about going out there, but I really loved being a part of that whole experience. It was really fun, because we were all there working together to make it all happen.A version of this interview was first published on the TransAdvocate.