October 23, 2002

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Liner Notes

No man's land

RUMOR HAD IT that when the guys in the sanitation trucks showed up to empty the portable toilets at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, a cry went out, perhaps over megaphones. "Man on the land!" I kept picturing all the shirtless women and naked, body-painted children disappearing into the trees like pixies – tents, RVs, the main stage, and the Cuntree Store turning into fields of ferns, the sounds of Holly Near and Le Tigre floating off on the wind like a figment of the male imagination. The place was like a town of thousands. There were rumors. This one had an outside chance of being true.

By the time we got there – after a few days spent exploring the Michigan that people outside the dyke and women's music community mean when they say, "I'm going to Michigan" – it was too late to learn how to make diesel fuel out of vegetable oil or art out of recycled materials or money out of art. It was too late to see Le Tigre, Pamela Means, or San Francisco's Dance Brigade. And if we hadn't gotten there so late, when the land was looking crowded, we probably wouldn't have chosen to pitch our tent next to a banner calling for "Intergalactic Lesbian Separatism." It was decked out in stars and planets with rings around them, and the words shone out among the ferns. Nobody talked to us.

Down the road at Gaia, girls five and up played make-believe in clothes that looked like royalty or tropical birds. They prepared comedy routines and hula hoop acts and synchronized dances for a talent show. A nine-year-old told a friend of ours on the Gaia work crew about the Butchies posters on the walls of her bedroom.

We didn't know enough to bring Tupperware for mealtimes. Other people had sitting rooms and formal wear and wind socks. We made a fly for our tent out of a trash bag and prayed for clear skies. At night we went to Camp Trans, out the front gates, a quarter mile and a few thousand stars down the road. The women at the festival entrance told us to be safe, as if the world outside the gates was full of immediate risk.

For the record: I participated in a kissing workshop, a late-night campfire sing-along involving not one but two renditions of the Indigo Girls' "Closer to Fine," and my first-ever session of body-painting. I even took my shirt off for a few minutes while the butterflies dried. I watched a femme parade the first day we got there and a redhead parade the next. The Gaia Girls walked through with stilt-walkers and belly dancers from the intensive workshops. One day about 30 women ran down the main road naked and covered with pudding. The description for the workshop began, "Ever wanted to coat yourself in chocolate?"

Bitch and Animal performed one night, then the next day on the acoustic stage with Ferron. Acrobatic performance-art troupe Lava set its pieces to Butchies songs, and Kaia Wilson and Melissa York came out toward the end to back them up on air guitar and drums. Toshi Reagon talked about older generations needing younger ones around to annoy them, and folksinger-political activist Holly Near called York onstage to drum for her. Everyone talked about war.

At home my housemates were saving newspaper pages for me, important stories about the downfall of the Backstreet Boys, reviews of Neil LaBute's dreaded Possession, and a piece in the New York Times Magazine by David Hajdu on the state of folk music, which apparently has been taken over, B-movie style, by lesbians. Even coming back from a zone somewhat dominated by the sound of folk music made by lesbians, I have trouble understanding. "Folk music has become the sound of lesbian culture," he says. The idea feels as far away as the Manistee National Forest, where the tents have now come down and the power lines will soon be buried under the earth for the winter. Here in San Francisco the lesbians I know are more likely to spend their time at drag king competitions and dance clubs where you get in free if you're wearing hot pants.

There's a visible women's folk scene. Spaces like Dolores Park Cafe offer song-cycle nights and other performances by local folksingers, mostly women, many queer. But a male singer-songwriter interviewed by Hajdu claims he's "working in a lesbian art form," as if O Brother, Where Art Thou? never came out to make the world of folk and bluegrass safe for lovers of Blood Simple. I also know boys who won't go to certain rock shows where the quotient of dykes is too high. So I'm wondering if a visible presence is being trend-spotted as world domination.

At the festival I couldn't stop thinking about who was there and who wasn't. It never for a minute occurred to me that outside somewhere, people were complaining that lesbians had taken over. Inside, on the land, I couldn't stop thinking about how unlike the real world it was.

The morning we left, I overheard a little girl ask her mother why it read "John" on the side of the Porta-Jane. I was already wondering what the world would look like to some of these kids once they got back in it. Six days can mean anything in child time. At Gaia girls were crying as they said good-bye to their friends, like summer camp, emotionally sped up. That night we slept in a state park on Lake Michigan, a quarter mile down the beach, we learned, from a nuclear power plant. As we lay on our sleeping bags, listening to the sounds of semis flying by on the highway and the families arguing in their RVs on either side of us, the fire smoked in the pit. I thought about the women at the festival gate and dreamed about emergencies and overheated cores, the sounds of immediate risk.

E-mail Lynn Rapoport at lynn@sfbg.com.