Cover Story - Ladyfest Atlanta surpasses girl power

Progressive festival returns for a second year to inspire radical conversations and actions

Ladyfest Atlanta
Mon.-Sun., May 16-21. Prices, times, and venues vary. ladyfestatlanta.wordpress.com.

Nine months and two days after the Supreme Court of the United States ruled to legalize same-sex marriage, a divisive bill awaited Gov. Nathan Deal's signature or veto. Critics warned that House Bill 757, also known as the "religious freedom" bill, would allow people to discriminate based on their religious views. If enacted, HB 757 could open the door to any number of oppressive, bigoted acts, particularly those aimed at the LGBT community. A woman might be prevented from sending her wife flowers to celebrate an anniversary. A catering service could legally snub a gender nonconforming couple, critics said. The public protested. Businesses threatened to leave or never come to the state in the first place. After weeks of uncertainty, Deal vetoed the bill on March 28. Even though HB 757 didn't pass, the fact that it was seriously considered shows there's still much to be done for equality in Georgia.

"There's people who say we're post-feminism, which I don't believe," feminist scholar and Northeastern University postdoctoral fellow Moya Bailey says. "There's definitely an assertion out there we won all the rights; the movement is done."

The organizers of Ladyfest Atlanta would likely agree with Bailey. The two-year-old annual festival is an intentional community for queer and feminist artists. It's a place to inspire radical conversations and the actions to advance them.

"This isn't about fucking girl power," Ladyfest co-founder/-director Chelsea Dunn says. Although the name Ladyfest is gendered, Dunn and other organizers have a broader, more inclusive definition of lady. "A lady is someone who doesn't benefit from male privilege," she says.

Dunn says the organization keeps the Ladyfest name because of its origins and global network.

Ladyfest had its world premier in Olympia, Washington, nearly 20 years ago. In the year 2000, folks were still amped from the late-'80s/early-'90s hardcore feminist/DIY Riot Grrrl movements. Feminist activist group Guerrilla Girls were still performing publicly, after lifting off about 15 years prior. As a hotbed for riot grrrl music (namely, Kathleen Hanna-led punk band Bikini Kill), the port city of Olympia in 2000 seemed the ideal setting. The first Ladyfest gathering featured feminist acts and artists such as Sleater-Kinney and Bratmobile, and invited people to adapt Ladyfest in cities around the world. Many did. Ladyfests popped up from Berlin to Miami to Ottawa, although most tapered off around the mid-00s. Norcross native Dunn was among those continuing the progressive push in Amherst, Massachusetts, while attending Hampshire College. After graduation in 2014, Dunn returned home.

"I was like, 'Oh, there's got to be a Ladyfest Atlanta, because Atlanta's a big city,'" Dunn says. "Then there wasn't." Fired up to befriend like-minded people and remedy Atlanta's lack of Ladyfest, Dunn announced an effort to spearhead the first one following an open-mic performance at the Mammal Gallery.

Dunn and Nina Dolgin combined forces to organize the first Ladyfest Atlanta, running the two-day fest almost entirely themselves. 2015's maiden voyage lasted just a weekend and focused on live music and visual arts. Dunn and Dolgin say it was more of a party than a radical community gathering to discuss social change. As two cisgender (an adjective describing when a person's gender identity corresponds to the gender assigned at birth) white women, they also attracted some criticism from the queer community.

"I feel like it's kind of shameful to have anything like that if you're in Atlanta," LFA 2016 panel organizer and visual artist Ify Akiti says of last year's lack of diversity. "That's like kind of—"

Dunn finishes: "That's not what we wanted."

Dunn and Dolgin went into Ladyfest Atlanta's second go with a conscious effort to better represent Atlanta. 2016's event rallies around the theme of public health and will focus on HIV/AIDS and reproductive rights. Dunn and Dolgin have enlisted about 20 core organizers and another 20-ish volunteers for 2016. Those on the LFA bill encompass a spectrum of identities and experiences. Most are under 30 years old.

"We're working as hard as we can to get people involved and find different voices," Akiti says. "That's what makes us stronger."

Many of the organizers use phrases like "give space" and "take up space" in reference to marginalized people operating in a male-dominated society. In that sense, they say, occupying space is a pretty political act.

"We are providing space, holding space for people," says Lee Heikkila, a Ladyfest panel organizer and musician. "I think that is something necessary in a time where a lot of trans, gender nonconforming people in Atlanta right now obviously feel threatened by a lot of the laws and things that have happened over the past year."


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NATIONAL DISCUSSIONS around gender and sexuality have swelled in the past year. In Georgia, and in states throughout the country, "religious freedom" bills were the rage among conservative lawmakers. Georgia's final version got the boot from Deal after widespread public outcry and pushback from business titans. North Carolina recently green lit the so-called "bathroom bill," which bans people from using public restrooms that don't correspond to their genders assigned at birth. House Bill 2, as it's officially known, has also attracted a lot of heat. Artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, and Ringo Starr, among others, have cancelled concerts in protest. On May 4, the Justice Department told North Carolina the bill violates federal civil rights laws and five days later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state. Gov. Pat McCrory continues to defend the law, and filed his own lawsuit against the Justice Department the same day.

There are positive strides being made, however. Target announced in late April a transgender-inclusive restroom policy for the chain, indicating people should use the binary bathroom that best matches their gender identity. Last month Merriam-Webster added the word "genderqueer," defined as a person whose gender identity cannot be described only as male or female. "Cisgender" and the gender-neutral address "Mx." (an honorific like Mrs., Ms., and Mr.) were also added. This all follows the logic that explains gender on a spectrum.

"There's more trans representation in popular culture," Bailey says. "At the same time there's all of this backlash in terms of these bathroom laws we're starting to see in different states. There's a push-pull with this. More visibility is helpful in some ways but there's also been backlash in people trying to clamp down on a conditional understanding of gender as well."

LFA 2016 has a plan for public restrooms and inclusivity.

"If the venue has binary bathrooms, while Ladyfest is there, we will put up signs so that all the bathrooms will be gender non-specific," Dunn says. From deep within the binary center of society, such a measure may sound superfluous, but for many oppressed groups like transgender or genderqueer people, something that should be as simple as relieving oneself can be a political act. Not to mention such dilemmas can place transgender and genderqueer people in danger. With Target's tolerant announcement, it still favors the binary genders, even if said genders aren't cis.

"Bathrooms are spaces where you reaffirm your identity," says Lam Nguyen, a genderqueer performance artist and storyteller helping with LFA's performance art sector. "If you don't feel male or female or if you don't want to give in to the politics of male and female, where do you go? So even within this transgendered sphere, there are marginalized people. The genderqueer are marginalized within a marginalized community."

As it's generally understood, feminism's third wave (preceded by the abolitionist and suffragette movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the Women's Liberation Movement and Freedom Struggles of the 1960s forward) focused on female identity in social and political contexts and was most prevalent around the '90s riot grrrl era, Bailey says. During this time, the "big, broad category of 'woman'" was dissected and broken down into specific, varied meanings. Progress has occurred, but that knowledge hasn't finished transferring to the mainstream.

"Trans violence is an area I don't think there's been enough from the mainstream feminist movement about — why non-cis women in particular need extra support about how they've been represented in popular culture and how that impacts the ways they're treated in society," she says.

Although Merriam-Webster's update was a win, conventionally practiced language has its limitations in sensitive, clear communication. Perhaps the most confounding is the gender-neutral pronoun "they," a common preference among many non-binary people. Historically, they refers to more than one person, thus potentially creating confusion for some individuals, regardless of their gender identity or sexuality. The sharing of personal gender pronouns is commonplace in the queer community. "It's like a natural exchange in the introduction," says Akiti, who identifies as genderqueer. "It's easier to ask and know than it is to assume and be wrong."

Last year's LFA had a selection of buttons available, each printed with one of a number of pronouns so attendees could identify their personal gender pronouns without saying a word. Dunn says they plan to have something similar this year, too. There are no hard and fast rules for personally defining gender. Most everyone I spoke to involved with Ladyfest agrees it's hardly a scientific category based on organs or what a doctor assigns during someone's first few moments in the mortal universe. "Identity is more an endpoint," Nguyen says, pointing out the limitations of simply identifying one's gender and moving on.

"I try to focus more on experience because experience is not something that can be appropriated. Experience is not something that you can take, repackage, and sell. Experiences are unique to yourself and experiences dwell within you and produce knowledge that only you can produce and if you change your thinking from identity to experience, it is extremely empowering."

Nguyen prefers non-binary pronouns such as s/he, zay, and they. They typically interweave such experiences into their performance art.

"You can look at your experiences and you can say, 'OK, so my experiences are leading to an end; I am a culmination of my experiences.' I can look back at my experiences and say, 'This is real. It happened. This is forming an identity,' instead of just saying, 'I am male,' or 'I am female.'"

Nguyen roots much of their work in stories they've lived, from being raised the second son of a "poor refugee family" on Atlanta's Westside to a tragic brush with bigotry as an adult that landed Nguyen in the hospital.

"How I walk through life is political," they say. "How I choose to perform myself is a political statement and some people won't agree with that political statement and so they will inflict violence upon you. They will get in your face. They will shoot you. I have been shot at. ... I have been beat up. I've been hospitalized. This is my experience, and these experiences, if I were passing as female, I wouldn't experience that. That man wouldn't want to hurt me because I'm passing enough as female. ... That's privilege."

The word privilege gets mentioned a lot during these interviews. There's the obvious examples — male privilege, white privilege, financial privilege — as well as, like Nguyen mentions, female privilege, or simply binary privilege.

"I think part of what Ladyfest is trying to do ... is choose artists who, their art isn't political, but they hold certain political beliefs, or ethical practices," Heikkila says. "In terms of who they work with and do they think about how their art is going to impact people? Do they think about what privileges they have and how they can use them? I think that's what I think of more when I think of political."

People directly involved in LFA and allies rallying for the movement are encouraged to pour whatever privilege they have into making the progressive ideologies and inclusivity more permanent.

"Spaces shouldn't just have a queer night, or have Ladyfest one time a year and then feel inaccessible or uncomfortable to the queer community all year round," Dunn says.

To truly be inclusive — not just to female-identifying and nonbinary people, but to cisgender men, as well — LFA welcomes all with an open mind and genuine interest in arts and radical conversation.

"It's really for anybody," Heikkila says. "It's not like I would want to say, 'Oh, it's for women who are feminists,' because it's not. It's a festival that gives space to people that are normally not heard."

ACCESS TO RELIABLE, affordable health care continues to be a struggle for Americans. In Georgia, the governor refuses to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. As a result, more than 300,000 Georgians are uninsured. Rural hospitals are closing. State lawmakers did, however, OK a proposal for $2 million in public funds for Crisis Pregnancy Centers, unregulated health resource outposts that are rarely staffed by medical professionals and are widely regarded as having an anti-abortion agenda. Even tampons, a necessity, are taxed in Georgia, while something like candy is sold sans the added cost. Health care issues are often amplified for members of the LGBT community.

"If a trans man is trying to seek an abortion, that could be a really difficult process," Akiti says. "People will look at you and say, 'Well, why are you here in this space seeking these services?'"

The South, and Atlanta in particular, is at the center of an HIV/AIDS epidemic. The South made up nearly half of new AIDS diagnoses in the country in 2010, according to the CDC. A December 2015 Al Jazeera America article likened Atlanta to 1980s New York, citing a CDC study ranking Atlanta No. 5 among U.S. metropolitan areas with new HIV diagnoses and Georgia as second in the nation among other states.

Akiti and others have arranged a panel (6 p.m., Mon., May 16, at Murmur) with organizations including Georgia Equality and Someone Cares to discuss Atlanta's HIV epidemic and how it affects marginalized populations. Philanthropic group the Peach Coven is slated to collect menstrual supplies to disperse to homeless shelters in need. SisterLove, a local women's AIDS and reproductive justice nonprofit, will also be distributing rapid HIV testing for free throughout the entire festival.

Bailey points out that reproductive justice goes beyond abortion access. "Women of color and low-income women really pushed for reproductive justice to be understood as different and apart from a pro-choice only agenda because the needs of women of color and low-income women are different," she says. "It's not just a question of if you have access to abortion, it's also raising the question, 'What does it mean to live in a world where your children might be murdered by police?' If that's a reproductive justice issue. 'What does it mean if you don't have access to quality food in your community?' That's a reproductive justice issue."

At LFA, there'll be a panel dedicated to reproductive justice with an emphasis on access from outside the cisnormative lens (6 p.m., Tues., May 17, at the Central Library). "Health care options are a privilege that not everyone has access to," Akiti says.

Atlanta Film Society, the parent organization of the Atlanta Film Festival, is sponsoring a screening of Trapped (7:30 p.m., Thurs., May 19, at the Plaza Theatre), a gripping feature-length documentary that looks at the scattered abortion access of women in the Deep South.

"I think that it's very important to combine forces in terms of feminism in film and women in film," says Katie Hinshaw, organizer of LFA's film branch. Hinshaw notes how banding with both AFS and New Mavericks, a women-focused support group for film workers in Atlanta, lends legitimacy to LFA. The partnerships also have the potential to broaden LFA's appeal to other age groups without losing creative control. "It's not like some big corporate sponsor that's making us do weird things or mess up the message or anything like that," Hinshaw says.

Even the comedy arm of the fest has a mission. "I speak a lot about race relations and street harassment in my comedy," comedian and LFA comedy organizer Amber North says. "To be more Georgia-specific, I definitely would love to talk about how we almost lived in a state that would have permitted bigots to use their 'religious freedom' to refuse service to those in the LGBT community. I'm still in awe of that because I believe the governor vetoed it only after Hollywood major players threatened to boycott. That really should not have been as close of a call as that was."

It's refreshing to see the range of programming spanning visual art, music, comedy, and open dialogues with experts LFA has planned this year. For all their efforts at inclusivity, the 20-ish organizers have intermittent patience in untangling unfamiliar language and acronyms, creating what could be a barrier for the unfamiliar.

"People who the fest is for are probably familiar with the words we're using," Dunn says. "We're not like using overly academic language."

Dolgin echoes her frustration. "There's so many resources available already on the Internet. ... It's a lot of emotional labor to explain these things over and over to people."

The frustration is justified. It'd be absurd to expect any other marginalized group — oppressed because of race, religion, physical ability, etc. — to cheerfully take on an educator role. Yet when a person willingly enters a position in which they orchestrate radical, educational events for the public like Ladyfest, patience is a factor.

Film Love curator, John Q artist collective member, and longtime Atlanta arts activist Andy Ditzler says organizers can benefit by rethinking how queerness shapes their mission.

"The DIY aspect of all this ... is what has historically brought a very inclusive attitude to the queer events," he says. "John Q, certainly, we didn't see ourselves as exclusively speaking to a queer audience. We were very much interested in looking into topics of wide interest to society in general through a queer lens. So we depended on the fact it wasn't going to just be queer people showing up to our events."

Ditzler also mentions the now defunct Memorial Day MondoHomo celebration, co-founded by the late Ria Pell, among those efforts celebrating queer culture and talent while remaining open to everyone.

"MondoHomo always struck me as a very welcoming space and, in fact, was very explicit in saying, 'We don't really care how you identify, if you're on board with what we're doing ... you're welcome to come to our party,'" he says. "That's also part of the legacy, right? When you start bringing together DIY aesthetic and from-the-ground-up activism, you are basically brought into this widespread and diverse practice that's existed for decades."

Ditzler brings up WonderRoot, Dashboard, and Murmur as examples of organizations that have survived their early years, a tough but essential hurdle to clear in a city famous for its transient nature.

"A lot of people move away," Ditzler says. "It's clear they see opportunity in other cities — what they see, what those opportunities are is a question for the people who left; how we can have more of that here and keep people here."

In addition to giving less-represented artists a chance to perform or exhibit, LFA wants to inspire and equip hopeful curators with the skills to assemble diverse bills. Organizers want the city's diversity reflected in the lineups getting staged after Ladyfest ends.

"A lot of people that were involved heavily with Ladyfest last year ... ended up becoming event organizers and promoters," Heikkila says. But instead of simply ticking off the diversity box Heikkila says LFA's role makes networking an organic experience. "There's no tokenizing there," they say. "They just literally invited their friends and were like, 'I have friends that do incredible art and music and they never get seen and now I have the knowledge, tools, and networking to actually bring them out to a show.'"

Powerhouse folk musician Larkin Grimm, a Georgia native, headlines LFA's music leg (10 p.m., Sat., May 21, at Mammal Gallery). "When I was a kid growing up in Georgia, there were hardly any female role models for me as a musician," she said in an email. "My dad and older brother were both excellent musicians but they would actually tell me that women were physically incapable of being good players, that women had no rhythm, that we were too gentle and afraid to play loud, etc. This was deeply hurtful to my development as a musician and it took me a long time to build up the confidence to get on stage."

She says unearthing the riot grrrl movement and associated acts like Kathleen Hanna in college was transformative. "I learned to replace the word 'crazy' with 'genius' whenever it is applied to a woman, because the heartbreaking reality is that this society does not make space for or recognize female genius," she says. "And that makes us crazy."

In the past year, Grimm pushed to normalize conversation surrounding rape and survivors. In February Grimm accused art rock band Swans frontman Michael Gira of raping her in 2008. Gira denies the accusations. She used the experience to rally for education about consent in schools, a mission in line with LFA 2016's public health focus.

The country and Atlanta are still far from post-feminist, but ambitious efforts like Ladyfest can help push along progress.

"People are less in my face about things," Nguyen says. "Maybe people are getting more aware that people like me exist and you should treat us like human beings and just let us live our lives the way that we want to and just leave us alone."

They advise to pair political acts with patience. "It involves a re-thinking; to have a whole generation to re-think something takes generations," they say. "Ladyfest is benign. So you just got to reach out and wait and when they're ready, they're ready. And it seems like the community is ready."

Ladyfest Atlanta’s best bets

The Case of HIV: When Stigma becomes Criminalization panel
Free. 7 p.m. Mon., May 16. Murmur, 100 Broad St. S.W.

Trapped screening
Free-$11.49. 7:30 p.m. Thurs., May 19. The Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E. 404-873-1939.

Comedy showcase feat. Laura S. Lewis, Hayley Ellman, and more
Free. 10 p.m. Thurs., May 19. Highland Inn Ballroom Lounge, 644 N. Highland Ave. N.E. 404-874-5756.

Don’t Be Sorry, You Rock!: A Conversation About Girls Rock Camp ATL and Unapologetically Taking Up Space panel
Free. Noon. Sat., May 21. 368 Ponce, 368 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E.

Closing performances feat. Larkin Grimm
Free. Performance art, 8-10 p.m. Live music, 10 p.m.-1 a.m. The Mammal Gallery, 91 Broad St. S.W. mammalgallery.com.