'Fest-A Survivor's Story

I wake from a nightmare, heart pounding, scared, nervous, and sweaty, then run my hand desperately up my body to my breasts and realize my waking nightmare. I sink back into the bed from my startled position, hear my therapist's words of nightmare advice, "Remember to breathe, take a few deep breaths till you feel oriented again."  What she doesn't know is I won’t feel oriented again, ever! I feel like a burglarized house whose occupant issued the thieves their very own name-engraved key, where I handed over my two most prized possessions personally! Deep breaths, deep breaths, deep breaths. Okay I should get up; get showered for there are places to go, and a life to be lived. The life I've been fighting for no matter how high the cost, cuz what it boils down to is simply this, life is all I have. A hard lesson to learn, one most if they are fortunate won’t discover till they approach death's door as an old woman or man. Why did I have to learn it at 30? Stop feeling sorry for yourself Pattie, you're alive, therefore rich, and rich with life.
The shower is its own nightmare these days, equipped with its own horrifying realities and daily realizations. The mirror too, and clothes - at least tops. But I'm brave today and face the nightmare deciding instead to focus on and enjoy the wonderful honey and goat's milk smell of my new shower gel. Ah. Good. Life is full of small goodnesses and I am learning to find them and appreciate them all. I towel off and dress, trying to forget or make routine that one article of clothing  I no longer need to remember because...because I don't. I open wider all the windows in my apartment, circulating the mild morning air before the August sun burns it off with its heat. I survey my packed bags making sure I have everything I'm supposed to for the next five days. I printed off the checklist from the website, tick off each item with a new check mark just to make sure. Seems I'm ready, at least in terms of items. Am I ready to spend five days around several thousands of women who are just so happy and proud to be women? That I can’t say with any certainty right now. But my best friend Susan who has been to Michfest six times in the last decade assures me this is just what I need since my...Yeah...Anyways my bags are ready. And the experience was a treat from Susan and a few other close friends, so I'm ready to appreciate where their love and care is taking me, even if I cannot appreciate myself quite yet.
Better eat something before Susan picks me up. A coffee and a toasted bagel with some light cream cheese should do nicely. Something to stick to my ribs as my long since dead grandmother would say. Fitting since ribs are all I have, but unlike my grandmother, I have my life. God why does even the most mundane take me there? Deep breath, I smell my bagels then a moment later hear the toaster eject. The smell makes me hungrier than I thought I was. I eat half the bagel when the phone rings; it's Susan. She's on her way to pick me up. I quickly eat the other half of my bagel, swill down my remaining coffee, and wash the dish and coffee cup. I get my bags from my room, putting them by the door. Other than work I've hardly left my apartment in two months. I admit I'm feeling a tad agoraphobic while I wait for Susan. But she's right and my father and brothers are right. I need to get out, get back into life. I may not be ready to sink my teeth into it, but I know damn well I'm capable enough to spread a little on my bread and nibble.
I wait five minutes, then go around the apartment closing and locking all my windows. Susan lives about ten minutes from me. *Honk Honk Honk* I hear her beep, grab my bags and I'm off! Susan is standing by the passenger side back seat holding the door open when I walk up to her car. "I have my stuff in the trunk, there is plenty backseat room for your bags," she says. I put my bags into her backseat, and then she gives me her best friend hug she is famous for. I wince. "Sorry...I...I forget...are you still sore?"

"You're fine, no need to apologize. Only slightly sore." She opens my car door, I get in and put my seat belt on while she walks around to the driver's side and gets in. "You ready for the time of your life?" she asks.
"As ready as I'll ever be," I laugh. Then we drive off down the narrow brick street of my small apartment complex heading for the freeway for the hour and a half drive we have ahead of us.
Susan is trying to make small talk. She still doesn't quite know how to act around me, but unlike other "friends" she doesn't avoid me. Instead, she seeks me out. Her way of telling me that everything is okay, nothing has changed, and at least nothing between us has changed. She has a pretty profile, a pretty everything to be honest. If I had to describe her in one word, perky would cover it. She's perky, in personality and looks. She has short blonde hair, just above her shoulders which she keeps in a 50's style sort of pageboy cut. I tease her she could not only pass as a Dinah Shore dyke, but Dinah Shore herself! She's trim, keeps fit not from golf, but from a combo of racquetball and a weekly gym routine. She dresses conservatively, wearing nearly knee length tan shorts with a stylish off pink top and white tennis shoes. She has one of those unique personalities that could have her talking shop with high powered CEO types one minute and sharing a laugh at a crude joke made by one of the cleaning men in her building the next. 
"No bandanna then?" she asks me.
"Nah. I figured what the hey, I'm past the peach fuzz point and besides isn’t this trip about owning ourselves?"
I say.
“Precisely!" she exclaims smiling at me. We loosen up with each other, both forgetting momentarily, at least, what changed us...me, and have an enjoyable ride to our five day destination. We arrive and pull behind a long multi-coloured caravan of vehicles whose roof tops are covered in camping gear and whose insides are full of noisy women hollering to each other from vehicle to vehicle, unable to contain their Michfest excitement. We don't contain ours either and join in the back and forth with the other cars that surrounds us as we slowly edge towards the front moving nearer to where we park. An hour of edging and whooping it up and we finally pull through the gate and are directed to where to park. Since we have plans to camp with some friends of Susan's from her college days, we're traveling light compared to many of the other women we see unloading their cars and trucks. We gather our two bags each and move towards the shuttle area as directed.
We're herded into a tent for some orientation video, then afterward sign up for kitchen duty to fulfill our work requirements.  Then we're herded again back out to the shuttle area, where we had abandoned our bags. We gather ourselves and our gear, and hop on a flatbed trailer that deposits us near where we meet up with the two women we're to camp with. Julie and Naomi already have the rather large tent put up and are just making finishing touches when we approach them. Susan introduces us and right away I get a warm feeling from both. Julie looks to be about mid-forties, tallish, long auburn hair intertwined with gray and white strands. She's dressed in some sort of long baggy black yoga-type pants with a close fitting woman's tee. Pretty without trying to be pretty, fit without trying to be fit. Naomi is a bit shy, mid-thirties I think with a tan complexion dark hair and dark eyes that hold a seriousness to them. Her lavender shorts reveal toned calves and muscular thighs and her wife-beater betrays a strong womanly upper body. Susan and I put our bags into the tent next to the queen size blow up mattress we're to share, then come out to mingle with Julie and Naomi.
We spend some time just talking, with Susan getting reacquainted with her friends, and her friends and I getting to know each other a little better. Soon our conversation turns towards our "fest" program guides and we map out all the things we want to do and see while we're here, figuring out which things we have common plans on attending so we know which we'll attend together. We've figured out some workshops all four of us will attend, some of the other different components of our foursome will attend in various twos and threes, and some we alone have interest in attending. Between talking about the workshops and the music performers and looking about as tents grow up around us like instant grass; I feel my excitement grow as I continue perusing the program guide. I'm ticking off yeses and maybes to myself as I go through the program guide again till one of the workshops that I've missed seems to have jumped right off the page out at me. I feel myself shrink and withdraw. It feels as if this workshop took its fists, pummeling me in the belly so that I feel nauseous. Susan realizes I've gone quiet, looks over at me and notices I've gone quite white as well. "Everything okay?" she asks.
I numbly reply, "Oh everything is fine," as I stare blankly at my program guide.
We have a relatively quiet rest of the evening filled with good conversation, good food and the beautiful din of female voices in the air. The next few days, however, are anything but quiet! Those days are occupied from the moment our eyes capture the morning light, to the moment night fills our eyes with blackness and sleep. It’s a hustle-bustle hodge-podge of one workshop after the other, kitchen duties, concerts and plain old good fun -- and a freedom I have never known. I'm not exactly sure if freedom is even the right word.  Maybe there isn’t a right word because in the real world, the world of men and women, there are men. Here you soon realize there are no men! It's not even that threat of harm all females learn and live with from infant to grave; it is ALL things male that females learn to live with from birth to grave. I quickly revel in not having to make small talk, the small talk of men, those men who are always about you where ever you go. That small talk they do, used only as a means to objectify you to a greater degree, not simply in seeing you at work, or at the gym, or the grocery store but in having some part of you wrapped around their gross dicks! Here I have become arms and legs and feet and hands. Here I am the entirety of my skin and what lies beneath! I am no longer tits and ass. I am whole. I think to myself if twenty-five percent of women in the world ever felt this wholeness even once in their lives, there truly would be a battle of the sexes, only this time it wouldn’t end in women gaining the luxury of working outside the home while still having to work full-time within it. This time there would be blood!
I remember when I told my father and brothers I needed to have one breast removed, and before I had a chance to continue, my father interjected in panicked voice, "But your mother's...."
I stopped him from continuing. "DAD! I know mom's came back in her other breast! That's why I've opted to have BOTH removed," I said and burst into tears into my father’s arms. I will never forget the look of seriousness and fear in my father's tearing eyes when he pulled me away from himself just far enough to look into my eyes and said, "YOU are NOT going to die!" Die? I hadn't even thought about dying. Dying didn't even figure in as an option! He's worried I'll die? Then my middle brother chimed in a consoling tone (obviously having not considered me dying either) and says, "It will be okay Pattie, at least you're a lesbian right?" Being a lesbian I had, of course, felt at times angry towards straight society's misunderstandings of my lesbian nature but THIS, and from my brother, really took the cake!
All he knew was what it meant to take breasts in his hands and mouth to elicit a biological reflex so simple it has been manufactured in tablet form! He knew nothing of what it meant to share, to give them over, placing your breasts in the hands of another woman, wrapped in the soul of your love, affection and ultimate desire! No longer having this sensual sexual intimacy available to share with a woman, my future love and lover, that is my ultimate fear. A fear that figures so large, it is a fear that has not simply drowned out the fear of death but the very thought of it! A fear so great for a woman, for a lesbian especially, it IS a fear worse than death because without that sensual, sexual, soulful, shared intimacy the death I had forgot would firmly plant itself in my life like a giant redwood. And so while not dying exactly, the life that remains would be a dead life, a life lived by a dead woman and that isn’t life.
I wake early the next day, vague slivers of morning sneaking through every available crack, my tent mates still very much asleep unaware of the light. I stare at the thin shadow cast offs standing next to the light slivers, trying to convince myself I should attend the Surviving Breast Cancer workshop at nine. I create a mental list in my head of all the reasons I should go. The two that most stand out are meeting other lesbians who have been in my shoes and learning from those lesbians how they survived after they survived is what pushes me to unzip my sleeping bag, get up, grab some clean clothes and head for the showers.  That and the only reason I could locate for why I shouldn't go was fear. Fear of what exactly I wasn't sure.  Maybe fearing that I would find out from other women like me that there wasn't any life after surviving. That the same dullness I felt in my chest since my surgery would continue thudding through my life like a defective heart. I shower quickly and dress quicker; it’s nearly 8am now and I want to have coffee and a little something to eat with the girls.
When I get back to the tent Susan has already got the kettle on the fire and some eggs cooking in a pan. Inside the tent, I hear Julie mumble something to Naomi, so it seems we're all up now. "Can I help?" I ask Susan.
"Under control," she smiles towards me and she looks me up and down. "Plans?"
"Yes," I say and look at the ground. I break the fog of silence that rises up, blurting out, "Going to the workshop on Surviving Breast Cancer."
"I think that is a great idea!" she exclaims as she approaches me with open arms for a hug.
"I'm hoping." I leave it as Julie and Naomi exit the tent. We have a nice breakfast of scrambled eggs and Russian bread and butter washing it down with our instant coffees, bitter tasting as I first remembered it when I tried it at a school friend’s home once when I was 12. The food helps to fill the nervous pit I feel in my stomach as time approaches for the workshop. At five till nine I grab my book bag containing a couple of mindless lesbian novels, a full water and a blank paper pad and pen and start to head towards the area where the workshop is being held. Susan gives me a look before I go, asking with her eyes if I'm going to be okay. "I'll be fine, it will be good," I say out loud, trying to smile as I leave.
As I approach the area where the workshop is being held, I scrutinize the fronts of the women I think are attending. A short, short haired woman of about fifty wearing a lavender t-shirt with the slogan "Cancer Free" in white written on it is handing out some sort of reading materials.  It seems she must be heading the workshop. I walk up to her, she smiles and says, "Thanks for being here."  She says it so literally that I feel my skin instantly gooseflesh. She hands me one of the pamphlets with the title of the workshop printed on the top of page, then gestures for me to sit down in one of the empty chairs in front of her. I plant myself in one of the chairs with an empty chair on either side of me. It’s just after nine and in between glances at the pamphlet; I notice that the empty chairs are quickly filling up, including the two on either side of me. The woman with the pamphlets places the remaining pamphlets in a little pile on the table she's standing behind then introduces herself. "Hello," she says in a big voice. "My name is Mirella and thank you all so much for courageously coming to the Surviving Breast Cancer workshop!"
Mirella begins the workshop by telling us about her experience with breast cancer from when she first found out right up to her being cancer free for the last six years. Like me, and a few other women I see nodding in agreement, Mirella shares with us that she too only needed one breast removed but opted for having both her breasts removed for fear of cancer returning. After her breast cancer story, a story that at moments brought tears to Mirella's eyes and many others in empathy and understanding, Mirella outlines briefly what the three hour, two day workshop would entail. She ends her introduction by telling us that by the end of the workshop it's her "hope" that every single women in attendance will feel "revitalized" as women; that the nurturing, healing female energy given off by the thousands of women here would spread throughout "the land," embracing us with the wisdom and strength to mourn but let go of the "breasted" women we were and "live and be proud" because we lived, of the "breastless" women we are today. And on that note, and with her face raining down tears, Mirella miraculously removed her "cancer free" lavender t-shirt tossing it to the ground, bearing her scars. I think at that point we were all of us in both tears and awe of Mirella, some women needing only Mirella's inspiration to remove their shirts right then and there, not needing the requisite full two days workshop for the hope of feeling that comfortable in their scars. I was among the latter.
Mirella uses the rest of our time to, one by one, allow us to stand up and briefly tell our own breast cancer stories, and then to relate what we fear most when we were given the news. I'm shocked at how many other women there share my worst fear. That while yes, the fear of death was present and still hovers in the background, the greatest fear for those of us who are single is no woman would ever find us attractive again, while those of us partnered would be rejected by our lovers because we're no longer womanly enough! Listening to each woman's story, I don't think I cried so much, save for the first night after I found out I had cancer and the day after I had had my breasts removed.  But these tears aren't a selfish burden; if anything, they're freeing. Freeing in the sense that, for the first time in half a year, crying for someone else besides myself I thought I'd lost that altruistic part of my woman-ness, thought it too had gone in the waste bin along with my breasts.  But no, it's back. It only needed to be reawakened by beautiful woman after beautiful woman.
And that's what I realize partway through next day's workshop. That one breast or no breasts, one scar or two, women were still beautiful and still women! The day after Mirella had removed her t-shirt, she teaches the entire workshop topless. Little by little throughout the day, more and more women relinquish their shirts too. Each woman gaining strength, courage and a pride in being the woman that they were right now.  As more women feel this pride, the more we all feed off each others' pride, the more shirts come off. As I slyly eyeball the shirtless among us, I saw in their bodies what I hadn't been able to see in mine: sexiness, something to be desired. Their bodies are, without breasts, still a woman's body and I'm still a lesbian attracted to a woman's body. I realize my desire for other women hasn't changed; it was the desire for me that had.  If I feel desire for other women's breastless bodies, then surely I can find it in me to embrace mine.  And if I can't, no else ever will either.
Mirella closes the workshop with an inspiring speech about hope and life, and life after breast that lifts me up in way that no book or poem or patch blue sky ever has. And along with the other women in the room still in shirts, I rise to my feet and follow suit. I not only remove my shirt, I fling it up into the air where, at that moment, a gust of wind catches it and carries it into the branches of the tree overhead. There's no going back, but there's going forward! It feels so freeing to have removed my shirt in front of so many, and cleansing not to have the chance to put it back on when I leave the workshop and head back to our tent.
When I arrive back at the tent, Susan's putting out the fire we used for coffee. She looks up at me. First with an air of shock, then she smiles and walks, over to me giving me the biggest, gentlest hug. We look into each other's eyes and begin laughing. During this laughing fit that comes from where I know not, Susan tears off both her shirt and bra and, still laughing, says, "Let's go get us some lunch!"  We hook arms and off we go to the lunch area, about a ten minute walk from our tent. I'm so giddy that I don't notice or care if anyone looks at my scars while we walk. I'm on top of the world and nothing's going to change that. My breasts are gone, yes, but my life remains and it's up to me how I want to live that life and feel in it. As we near the food area, Susan realizes she forgot her wallet, and she wants to buy more ice for the cooler we keep our water in. There's a huge line of women already, so I take our place in line while Susan goes back to fetch her wallet.
From the time we arrived at "fest" I've seen quite a few shirtless women, so when one sees a woman without a shirt it's not especially noticeable. So when I get in the lunch line, I don't assume the naked back in front of me is one from our breast cancer group. I hear her say something to the woman in front of her who's standing sideways, also shirtless. I'm immediately taken aback by the low, almost male-sounding voice that booms from the woman in front of me, as well as the fuzzy chin of the woman she speaks to. I look closer at the woman with the fuzzy chin and see the familiar scars. The hair on her face, arms and legs seems excessive and it frightens me. GOD! I wonder if the loss of my breast going to cause my hormones to do that to me. I haven’t read anything like that in the literature, and Mirella didn't talk about this being a result of the surgery.  As I ponder these thoughts and fears, the woman in front of me turns around after Fuzzy Chin nods her head towards me. I pretend not to have seen the nod and quickly look in another direction.
"Hi.  Again, the distinctly male voice from the woman in front of me. I look back and up, my eyes taking in very hairy legs that I hadn’t noticed before, up to the scars where her breast had been. Surrounding the scars are several tattoos, along with a chair full of hair matted to her moist chest. I'm not sure but think I gasp at the sight of her chest hair. My eyes reach hers and I stutter, "H-hello, how are you?" She smiles, and I notice a light mustache. 
"Great!" she answers.  "I'm Aiden and this is my best bud Cliff." She looks at my scars, saying, "Your chest looks GREAT buddy.  Who did your surgery?" My brain can’t quite take everything quick enough to process an answer. Before I can formulate one, she continues, "Cliff and I had our nasty growths cut off about two years ago. We both used our student loan money to pay for it." She snickers and Cliff chimes in with a "Fuck yeah we did bro!"
"Nasty growths?" I think to myself. Have I fallen into a modern day Twilight Zone episode or something? I stand there blank, unable to speak. They both shrug and turn back around in the line, leaving me to my blankness.
In this moment, I want to scream, scream at them at their ignorance and callousness and indecency and utter lack of awareness.  Instead I leave the lunch line, tears of anger and rage streaming down my face. I don't even see myself pass Susan as I run back towards the tent. I hear her yell something at me but I keep running till I get back to the safety of our little space. I quickly put a shirt on before falling to the ground, hugging my knees and sobbing.  After a few moments, Susan catches up with me. "What happened?" she pleads. "What's wrong?"
I can’t answer. I'm just so angry I want to pound my fists into the ground till they're hamburger. "How could they, how dare they!" I mutter.
"Who sweetie, who are you talking about," asks Susan in a desperate voice.
"Oh GOD, those he/shes in line.  I thought this was supposed to be a safe place for women, you said, the website said, the pamphlet said, so WHY are there men here? And worse, men who were women, women who had a choice to keep their breasts, when I had no fucking choice! Mine were wrenched from me! But it was them or my life, that was my choice and that isn’t a fucking choice now is it!" I scream at her, in a fit of tears.
She holds me tight and says "Honey I am so sorry, I forgot that some transmen attend fest. It didn't even cross my mind. I can’t believe they would have a breast cancer workshop AND allow transmen onto fest grounds for survivors of breast cancer to possibly run into.  This is fucking preposterous!"
We sit there on the ground in silence with Susan holding me while my whole body shook for what seems like several hours. I break the silence by saying "I LOVED my breasts, they were beautiful, I WAS beautiful." Susan sits in silence as I continue, "I felt SOOOOOO good after the workshop, why why why did I have to see that and hear that? I just want to go home, crawl back into my bed under my covers and never come out again."
Susan pulls me away from her enough to look me in the eye, saying forcefully, "Pattie, do NOT let those transmen or anything they said rob you of what you gleaned through that workshop.  You were beautiful with breasts and you are beautiful without them!" I hug myself back into her and cry a little more. Later, Susan helps me up and into the tent, tucking me into my sleeping bag, before starting a new fire to make us some tea.
I lay there starring at the top of the tent trying to reconcile Mirella's last speech to us and the images and voices of the transmen and find myself unable to do so. I think about Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, the passage where Clarissa spoke of throwing away a shilling while Septimus threw away his life by leaping from a window. That's the gulf I'm trying to reconcile between myself and the transmen, an impossible gulf, one that Evil Knievel at his greatest wouldn’t have attempted to jump.  So why am I?
Susan comes into the tent with our tea and some cut fruit for our lunch. As she settles down next to me, I tell her, "I can’t pretend to understand what would drive a woman to mutilate her healthy body, and then inject it with male hormones, BUT why, after they've done so, would a bastion for women allow them in this space?"
Susan says the "outdated policy" is what allows them entrance and their lack of respect for women allows them to "ignore their personal change in venue."
"I'll never come here again till that policy is changed to match the times we live in," I say firmly. We sit quietly sipping our tea and eating our fruit. By the time Naomi and Julie return to the tent, Susan and I are sitting near the campfire playing cards. They join us for a few games of Hearts before we all head back out for dinner.
We all get up early the next morning. It's our last day there, and Julie and Naomi have a long drive ahead of them. We all pitch in, taking the tent down, packing and cleaning up our area. By 10 am we're finished and headed back towards the shuttle area. We say our goodbyes to Julie and Naomi, and then hop on the shuttle to go back to our car. As I step onto the shuttle I hear a pretty voice behind me.  One that isn't Susan's. "Weren't you at the Breast Cancer workshop?" the voice asks. I turn around and notice the deepest blue eyes I have ever laid my eyes on, smile and say "Why yes, yes I was."


  1. I can't personally relate to the cancer part, but I just wanted to say I'm so sorry for what happened and I that your not alone in your epxerience.

    It was incredibly disrespectful of those transmen to refer to breasts "nasty growths." My ex was a transman and he too refered to them as "nasty growths," "useless lumps," etc. It really made me feel uglier than I already did. He was abusive and misogynist as hell, had no respect for women or their bodies whatsoever. Sounds a lot like the guys you met. They really should change that policy-people who've chosen to have them removed are probably going to hurt someone's feelings, not to mention they just don't belong.

    (sorry if it posts twice, my net is being weird)

  2. Very intense story. I absolutely FEEL for this woman. I witnessed the same thing several years ago. One woman I knew in the leatherdyke community, fully a Dyke and fully a member of the Dyke community, had a double mastectomy because of breast cancer. Since she was self-employed, she had no insurance so we threw her a party as a fundraiser that was well attended to help her out.

    AT THE SAME TIME, a local women's organization we all belonged to, this young 20 something showed up and PROUDLY ANNOUNCED having her breasts removed(double mastectomy) and pulled her shirt up showing off her new pecs, as she now identified as FTM. My partner and I were ABSOLUTELY SICKENED by this, and didn't want to attend this organization anymore.

    Now, this same individual is coming across as a so called 'female identified Butch', but she has no breasts whatsoever, a total FTM attitude, scratchy hormone induced voice, and typical FTM drag. So, she's playing both sides. The one who had the double mastectomy, I haven't seen in years, she's gone somewhat underground, if she's even still alive, or healthy.

    I really, really feel for the woman in this story, and having been to Michfest myself, I can vouch that I witnessed several FTM's with body hair and breastless chests coopting the space. I feel strongly with keeping the Women Born Women policy, but somehow enforcing it, especially for those individuals who have altered their bodies and are so obviously presenting as male, with such hatred of their female parts. It's precisely to keep the space woman and dyke identified so Lesbians like this breast cancer survivor can heal, not just physically, but emotionally from the toll of the disease!

  3. This was so shocking, I'm speechless. We do have to be definite that once you transition to male, you are no longer a part of Michigan. Why is this so difficult to do?

  4. wow, so sorry this happened to you. I strongly believe that once a womon chooses to transition to male, he should that opt out of MichFest. This Festival is specifically for womyn who were born female, grew up female and are still living their lives as womyn. If this intent/policy of the Festival was respected, you would not have had this horrible experience. Male identified persons are so often so clueless about thow their sense of entitlement hurts womyn. It's maddening.


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