Last weekend I went to the longest-running lesbian festival in Germany: Lesbenfrühlingstreffen, or “LFT” for short. For those not familiar with LFT, trust me – it's a big deal. In 2019, almost 800 lesbians attended in Cologne. This year, it was hosted from a studio in Bremen with the motto “Lesbenfrühling - Rising to the Roots,” an homage to the radical roots of the lesbian-feminist movement.
Almost every year since its inception in 1974, LFT has been organized by a different team of lesbians from across Germany. Each team hosts the festival in a different city with a different lesbian-centered motto. The 2020 festival planned for Heidelberg was unfortunately canceled because of the pandemic, but the 2021 organizers rose to the socially-distanced occasion and hosted this year's festival online. These hard-working women spent two tireless years trying to get everything just right. What they didn't plan for was the extreme fallout that threatened to tear it all down.
LFT was initially founded in the midst of the women’s liberation movement to center the needs and experiences of lesbians as distinct from those of gay men. The intention of the space is to include all lesbians regardless of race, class, disability, age, or migrant status. In an effort to include lesbians internationally, I was invited to join the moderating team; it was my job to introduce upcoming speakers, workshops, and performances in English.
"Almost every year since its inception in 1974, LFT has been organized by a different team of lesbians from across Germany."
The intersectional effort to make events and ideas accessible is what feminism thrives on, and this lesbian festival has historically strived to center popular feminist themes. After all, lesbianism and feminism share a common practice of centering women. However, it’s important to say that LFT is not an explicitly radical event.
Two years ago the LFT motto was, “Das LFT schaut in die Sterne” (“The LFT looks up at the stars”). This was in reference to the new queer-friendly use of the asterisk (*) referred to as a “star” in the German language. This punctuation mark hangs on the end of woman-specific words like Frauen* (women*) or Lesben* (lesbians*) to signify the inclusion of women who call themselves queer as well as males who transition and call themselves lesbians.
It’s worth mentioning that this year’s LFT wasn’t the first to be the target of external harassment. The LFT2019 organizers clearly catered to queer ideology, but at the same time they also welcomed a dialogue on the topic. They were still pressured by an LGBT youth organization to cancel a workshop on the topic of teenage lesbians transitioning.
Although I attended and helped moderate the event, I am not a spokeswoman for the Lesbenfrühling organization but rather sharing my experiences from the perspective of an outsider. It’s entirely possible that my radical feminist views and the intentions of LFT2021 — or any event for that matter — do not align. This should not be a problem. Disagreement does not imply disrespect. On the contrary, I have the utmost respect for the lesbians involved in LFT, and I believe the intentions of any women's space deserve to be honored as autonomous.
At the same time I recognize the simple fact that our sexual oppressors have no such respect for us; they use inhumane tactics to colonize every aspect of our being (e.g. compulsory heterosexuality, rape, pornography, forced motherhood, prostitution, genital mutilation, etc.). I am of the strong opinion that men should never be welcomed to violate our boundaries in any way, least of all by calling themselves lesbians.
My personal politics on this specific topic are well-known. I've spoken publicly many times on how sex self-identification harms women and children in every aspect of life. Part of the controversy here comes from the fact that I spoke on right-wing platforms for the Women’s Liberation Front. I also testified in Congress twice, but that's much less controversial, and therefore less newsworthy. My colleagues at WoLF and I seemed to have blasphemed patriarchy’s latest sacred cow, so naturally my inclusion at this year’s LFT was seen as a provocation.
"Popular news outlets copied exaggerated statements from Twitter, where the full names and job titles of organizers and speakers had been posted."
But misogynists were already harassing LFT2021 before I joined the team. One main point of contention was the fact that organizers explicitly welcomed lesbians who have detransitioned, but such a clear invitation was not equally extended to males who transition and call themselves lesbians. This was considered unfair to them, while in reality they had not been excluded at all.
The storm they whipped up this year was in direct proportion to their fears of free-thinking women. It didn’t take long for accusations of right-wing bigotry to pop up. Lesbians in Germany were encouraged to boycott the festival. Popular news outlets copied exaggerated statements from Twitter, where the full names and job titles of organizers and speakers had been posted. A flowchart was shared online to prove guilt by association of anyone involved.
It seemed like every publication slamming the lesbian festival justified their claims by painting the organizers, speakers and moderators, including myself, as anti-trans. In an effort to play fair, L-Mag, a longstanding German lesbian magazine, ran a three-part interview series in which my participation was questioned twice. This was before I ever met any of the organizers in person. It was a strange position to be in: at once a stranger and yet to blame.
At first it seemed like standard backlash I was used to facing for my activism in the U.S.. Same crap, different continent. But then, all of a sudden, major financial donors like the government-funded Federal Magnus Hirschfeld Foundation (BMH) started to withdraw funds. Even the patron of this year's festival, the senator of women’s affairs in Bremen, retracted her support. Only a few lesbian speakers and musicians canceled their contracts with LFT2021, but the sheer intensity of this situation still caught many of us off-guard.
The LFT is a grassroots organization that depends on funds and donations to function so, for many women, it became unclear whether or not the festival could happen at all. Some organizers wept in frustration and grief. Others spent hours on the phone with friends trying to make sense of it all.
With all of this stress at the front of my mind, I felt nervous on my way to the studio. It was the afternoon of Friday, May 21. After taking a rapid COVID-19 test, I met with my fellow moderators, Mahide and Simone, to quickly review our plans for the opening ceremony. We had only shared a few Zoom calls prior to meeting in person, but the three of us got along well, and the evening went even better than expected.
The studio was totally professional. A strong team of technicians led by a laser-focused woman gave us directions, kept close track of time, and operated all the soundboards, cameras, and lights. In the studio kitchen, a well-known lesbian chef cooked up delicious vegetarian dishes and deserts for everyone to enjoy. She even brought her famous homemade chutney for sale - and yes, I bought two jars.
On Friday night, lesbians at home could watch a film of their choice (Katzenball or Rafiki), and then join a Q&A session afterwards. They could also visit the virtual “bar” to meet with other lesbians in attendance. This open space turned out to be a huge success for lesbians who craved independent discussion.
"There was a strong feeling that we were all making history - or rather herstory, as Mahide said."
Saturday morning started bright and early with another COVID test. I grabbed a quick cup of coffee, got a microphone clipped to my shirt, and joined the opening ceremony. Organizers officially welcomed all the lesbians in attendance and thanked supporters of the festival for their help during the ongoing social media shitstorm. There was a strong feeling that we were all making history - or rather herstory, as Mahide said.
Around noon, we experienced technical interruptions that prevented a few of the presentations and lectures from going forward. Fortunately, organizers had the foresight to hire a professional streaming service which enabled us to get back online in less than three hours. Based on all the threats and harassment directed at LFT in the weeks leading up to the festival, some women expected much more hostile disruption. But we didn’t let any of those worries get us down.
We kept calm and carried on with our work. The day marched on into night. While lesbians at home participated in discussions and attended workshops, those of us at the studio grabbed something good to eat and got ready for the evening program.
I was feeling tired from the long day when I noticed three new faces. Women of Zuckerklub, a Berlin-based lesbian group, had arrived to warm up. The sounds of electric guitars and women’s voices woke up something joyful deep inside of me. When they played, those of us in the studio — and I’m sure the lesbians at home, too — grooved along to their carefree pop-rock beats. We all continued dancing late into the night with a party outdoors thanks to the other wonderful performers of the evening program.
Sunday started in a similar way as before: coffee, microphone, opening ceremony. Except this day was different — it was the last day of the festival. In the morning, lesbians discussed detransition, separatism, and feminist positions around the female body. In the afternoon, Simone mentioned to Mahide and me that we would soon be giving our last moderation together. For a moment, I felt the bittersweet sting of heartache. I didn’t want it to be over.
That night I realized how much fun I’d had with these women, laughing with them and learning from them. Susanne, one of the main organizers, shared with me how strong she had grown from events like Lesbenfrühlingstreffen. She said that nowadays when she wants to stand firm in the world, she puts her shoulders back and feels the presence of ten or twenty — or, depending on the situation, even one hundred — women standing right behind her.
"It is exceedingly clear to me that the backlash we receive is in direct proportion to the power we share when we stand firmly together."
This year, more than 500 lesbians stood together and attended LFT2021. It turned out that the organizers received so many donations from women around the world that the festival did not end in debt. In spite of everything thrown our way, lesbians came together in solidarity to discuss, connect, and celebrate.
The feeling of communal power is something women, especially young lesbians, desperately need today. The backlash we receive for centering women in our personal and political lives is not a random accident of social behavior. Lesbians by principle present a direct threat to the heteronormative operating system of male supremacy.
That’s why events like LFT are so special. They provide lesbians with vital opportunities to hash things out and create culture together. These events rejuvenate us with strength and a sense of belonging.
It is exceedingly clear to me that the backlash we receive is in direct proportion to the power we share when we stand firmly together. Lesbians have the right to organize our own events, share our own discussions, create our own politics and music - everything! We have the right to be free-thinking women, to be autonomous people in this world.
In Germany, LFT offers us a space to do exactly that. Here we can celebrate and criticize and carry on with each other, without those pesky patriarchal pressures from the outside. It depends on us to set our boundaries, and it’s through feminism that we learn to do so. I know I’m not alone in saying how fantastic this year’s LFT was. And I have the feeling that next year’s festival in Dresden will be just as fun.