The woods were a kaleidoscope of women. Tall, rangy women with muscled arms in cut offs. Women with mohawks in their best butch leather get-ups. Women cutting onions and serving veggie burritos, women hanging off the back of beat-up pick-up trucks as they made recycling rounds, and women preparing to perform nightly under the moon and stars. Women sprinkled everywhere on the lush Michigan land that lay empty eleven months of the year. It’s hard to imagine anywhere else with a greater concentration of pheromones wafting through the air than here, in these ferns and forest. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was the perfect place for romance – and sex.
Sustenance came at the MichFest. When I met Lynda, my future wife, in 1982, she’d been quick to tell me, a late-in-life feminist, about this nature-focused site of matriarchal community where women had gathered since 1976 to muster strength to fight patriarchal norms. But nothing could prepare me for my first sight of the acres of colorful tents and bright banners nestled among lush undergrowth. As we rode in on a bus named Bodaceia, we drove past Fest neighborhoods: Workshop Way, Over 40s, Women of Color, and finally, at the end, huge fire pits where cauldrons simmered with tofu scramble and other vegan delicacies. Brimming with females in every attire enjoying each other, this was where we aimed to recapture the wonder of our romance.
The shifting fragments of discovery echoed the intensity of the last ten years of my life. I’d emerged from a marriage that had been focused on proving that I could beat the odds as a teen mother. Passions that had been kindled at thirteen in the backseat of Fun Lan drive-in, spurred on by the thrill and danger of forbidden sex and potential pregnancy, soon dissolved with the daily demands of growing up fast, raising young children, and baking bread.
Marriage had colonized my mind since adolescence leaving no space for identity – sexual or other. Ten years with a husband whose power came through abuse left little space for imagining life with uncharted territories of my own. In 1975, twenty-three, divorce decree in hand, and having just completed a Women’s Studies course, I realized that I now had control of many things, including my sexuality. After seven years of post-divorce experimentation, playful passion combined with a more powerful undercurrent of woman lust.
Lynda, with her, confident look, caught my eye as she waited to interview at the residential program for Deaf* teens where we would work together for the next few years. She stood jauntily, in a man’s jacket, purple and grey scarf cavalierly thrown round her neck. Her black hair glinted with strands of silver although she was only in her twenties. I’d always been a sucker for bravado, but usually in men. Maybe I just hadn’t met that many women who swaggered.
After the interview, I turned to the clinical director and asked, “What do you think?”
“I think she’ll be good…as long as she can get out of her lone-wolf personality. You do know who that is, don’t you?” he continued. “That’s Lynda Myers. She comes from a Deaf family that’s pretty well known in the Chicago Deaf community…” He stopped and said no more. Ah, now not only did she have a swagger, but she was also a mystery woman. I was intrigued.
It was the ring on her finger, silver with matching symbols – bronze mirror with handle – female Venus- intertwined. Lynda was surprised when I said, “I noticed your ring. I see that’s two women. Interesting.” She was surprised that this straight-looking manager-type mother of two sons could even recognize a woman symbol, and even more, that I could guess their braided significance. In those days in the early ‘80s, everything was in code as lesbians tried to discern who might be interested in taking things a little further. What did she wear? Who were her heroes? What pronouns did she use for significant others? By then my budding feminist sensibility made me adept at picking up signals, especially since I was hungrily looking for them.
I quickly learned that Lynda and I shared an early exit from parental homes in our mid-teens, and each, in our own way, had grown up fast. She, now twenty-five, had come out as a lesbian years ago through women’s hot-lines and music festivals where she was raised by elders in the lesbian community. I, now thirty, moved more slowly out of a monogamous marriage into new possibilities. Daily conversations at work became a sleep-over turned hook-up which became a long slow exploration of my body through another woman’s body over time.
Discovery wasn’t always easy in the necessary shift from sex that had assumed my male partner would take charge and direct the dance. With Lynda, nothing was assumed and everything was explored. In teasing conversational fore-play we talked strong hands and trimmed nails. Hands were all the more important to us since we were a mixed couple: she big-D, culturally Deaf, and me hearing in every sense of the word. My previous penchant for sounds gave way to learning more subtle signals. Gestures required sophisticated readings, and facial expressions carried meanings deeper than simple enjoyment.
In the early days there were missteps in understanding cues. Too far, too fast. I, who had by now had some seventeen years of experience with men, was on virgin ground as I abandoned previous knowledge on timing and pace. I, who had presumed all women were the same, and that the cues I’d learned to read in my own body would guide me in responding to her body, had to learn about differences between women, not only in body design but also in the catalytic points that triggered fires. For two years we stretched and taught each other, reveling in the pleasure of a new relationship between people who were alike, but so different.
We celebrated our commitment two years after our first date, in a sun-dappled ceremony at Festival. As friends gathered, we ducked behind trees to don snow-white nightgowns. Boxed wine and pound cake complemented friends’ heart-felt guitar tunes at a woodland reception drawn from Midsummer Night’s Dream. Non-stop women’s music for the next five days was the perfect honeymoon.
MichFest continued to be the well-spring that fed our relationship as we marched through a life where public hand-holding felt dangerous for us. We hoped for a day where we could share this with a daughter. Ten years later we were parents, and in August we set out to our temporary utopia, thrilled to be living the dream with Ariana, our newly adopted three-year old. Our packing this year included balloons, so our Deaf toddler could feel the music, a kid-size porta-potty, and a shiny red Radio Flyer wagon to ease the long walks to Port-Janes, concerts, and childcare along make-shifts paths.
Sun-kissed days and crisp, cool evenings spent gazing at hot women performers felt different, as parenting took center stage. During those early years, we were never far from Ariana’s sight, nor she from ours. Sensual nights brushed by cool Michigan breezes, married with sweat, were supplanted by the three of us squirming on deflating air mattresses. Temper tantrums alongside dusty roads popped up regularly as changed routines and over-stimulation took their toll. Gone were the practice sessions with the dildos from the Good Vibrations table in the Crafts Area. We substituted Fest workshops on Raising a Feminist Daughter for G-spot seminars.
Our hopes rose over the next few years. in the new millennium, as Ariana became a teen and, like other girl children at Michigan, roamed the land on her own among her many Fest aunties. There she came to know a tight-knit group of Deaf women and ASL-users. One lazy afternoon, Lynda and I took note of her, deep in the throes of heart-to-heart conversation with a Deaf community elder. Eager to seize an opportunity to escape, we headed off to our tent, hastily stopping to scrawl a note in bold letters to pin to the tent flap: Do not Disturb. Moms Napping.
Ignoring the heat of the mid-day, we carefully zipped tent windows and began a slow mutual seduction. We’d barely had time to remove a few pieces of clothing and pull out our new sex toys hidden in the backpack, before footsteps approached the tent. I froze, tapping Lynda to warn her. The warm flutter in my stomach dissolved as I went into parent-alert.
Listening for sounds at the tent door, I worried that the afternoon sun would soon stream in. Rustlings continued for five, then ten minutes, but the flap remained closed before footsteps shuffled off. We scurried to pull the zipper down to peer outside. Scrawled at the bottom of the note we’d left was a pen and ink addition from Ariana that read “NOT napping.” The moment lost, we packed up our toys, threw on our clothes, and crawled out of the tent.
Still, Lynda and I were determined to reclaim space for the erotic part of our relationship in what remained of the week. Two nights later we got wind of a promising event on the edge of The Land, near an area termed The Twilight Zone. Over the years, the Fest community had sought ways to make space for all women-born women, and all cultural communities. One such community was those interested in BDSM, Bondage-Discipline/Sado-Masochism. BDSM women argued for space for their erotic practices, while others argued for the right not to have contact with the practices. The solution became territory, on The Land’s edge called The Twilight Zone, where women could come without concern for keeping their neighbors awake.
Although Lynda and I had dabbled in silk scarves and edgy play, we’d never been drawn to The Zone. But word was out. There was going to be an orgy tonight on the edge of The Land during the evening concert. Knowing Ari would be safely ensconced in childcare, unable to track us down, and spurred on by the unresolved vagina denial of the previous day, I began a campaign to persuade Lynda to take a voyeuristic walk to The Zone. I knew that with Lynda I needed to start slow.
“C’mon. In all our years at Fest, we’ve never even been to The Zone. Let’s just take a walk out there tonight,” I pleaded.
“I am NOT going to an orgy. You know that’s not my style,” she insisted.
“How many chances will we have to do this? I cajoled. It’ll be an adventure, like the old days.”
Lynda was dubious, wondering if I could be trusted. Finally, I hit upon the winning argument, “There’ll be other Deaf women there.”
“OK. I’ll walk out there. But I’m not staying.”
Thrilled that we had a date that recalled the excitement of our early days, I donned a sheer black nightgown slit from floor to waist at four corners. Lynda dressed in a silky camisole with a black leather vest thrown over, and we held hands as we walked with our friend Melanye along the half-mile paved path to the outer edges of the festival under a full moon. As we veered off the paved path, past the lush ferns that had come to epitomize Michigan time, I could hear a low murmur in the distance. At the edge of a wooded area set aside for daytime workshops stood a butch-looking woman in biker gear with her hand out to stop us. As we approached, the bouncer began to recite entry rules, reviewing guidelines about consensual sex and emphasizing the importance of safe sex and the use of dental dams – female condoms- in any sex act. I was surprised to hear Lynda, usually so emphatic about safety in all things, in her best butch bravado, respond,
“Oh. We don’t need dams. We’re fluid bonded.”
I suppressed a laugh at hearing this phrase that had only that day at an afternoon workshop become part of my vocabulary.
Undaunted, Biker Gal replied, “It doesn’t matter. Dental dams are a must.”
Melanye and I snickered as we exchanged glances.
We walked another twelve feet beyond the entryway, trees now blocking the moonlight, and arranged ourselves along the edge of a mass of mostly young bodies spread before us. The scene, reminiscent of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, was disappointingly short on details. We peered through the evening mist for a while.
“What do you think?” I asked Lynda.
“Not much to think about. I can’t see a darn thing.”
Eyes squinting for cheap thrills, we wrapped our arms around each other, trying to create a spark, and pretended we were having fun. I noticed that our friend Mel, who had spent many a night in The Zone, had sidled up behind Lynda, easing her arms around her waist as she leaned in. Lynda was quick to respond, though not as Melanye had hoped, sternly signing, “Oh no. You are not getting into my pants. You’ve been trying that move for years. You know I’m not into that.”
My eyes met Melanye’s, we smiled, and I thought of how reliable Lynda was.
It wasn’t long before the damp cold of late-night Michigan prompted goosebumps, and the transgressive scene became less fun. We said our goodbyes to Mel and began our walk back.
We waved to Biker Gal as we passed the entryway towards the paved path. Halfway there I leaned against a tree, pulling Lynda to me. “Let’s not waste the night off.” Lynda’s fingers parted the slippery sides of my gown as we remembered old moves we hadn’t used in a while. Titillated by the danger and thrill of public sex, we silently agreed that on this, a moonlit night among the ferns, with pheromones everywhere, and the kid in childcare, the night was romantic.
As I think back to that night, I miss those days when space was held where women could explore, rediscover, and take risks together. Lesbian culture has faded into a nostalgic blur in this age of queer memes and taken-for-granted television characters. MichFest ended in 2015 after forty years. These days, dangers are few – or appear to be so – for expression of lesbian love and lust. Yet I am wistful.
That nightgown was never quite the same, but we’d learned we could still manage a Mom’s night off. At least in the woods of Michigan, surrounded by women.
*Deaf with a capital D indicates a cultural identity for people with hearing loss who share a common culture and have a shared sign language.