This is a long form article on MichFest’s co-founder and current producer Lisa Vogel. The article contains extensive text of what Vogel has stated regarding trans people over several decades, as well as analysis and commentary on her carefully evolved language, but unevolved perspective, that trans women are males.
Lisa Vogel, a co-founder and the producer of the Michigan Women’s Music Festival (known more commonly as MichFest and by the acronym MWMF), has consistently defined trans women as both men and male in decades past, but her phrasing to describe this point of view over the past twenty-three years has softened and changed. This August 1st she’s stated that she believes trans women as womyn — something she shifted to in her statements since 2006 — but in that shift she’s carefully since then not referred to trans women as female. It’s the same rhetorical device that Cathy Brennan was using in 2011 to separate trans women from cis women.[pullquote align=”left”]”We do not believe that a man without a penis is a woman any more than we would accept a white woman with dyed skin as a Black woman.” -Lisa Vogel[/pullquote]This piece tracks the shifts in rhetoric that Vogel has used throughout the years, from labeling trans women as men to frequently comparing womyn-born-womyn to people of color; from MichFest blocking a trans woman from attending the festival to when the policy shifted to a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, then to a policy of one asking for trans women to self-segregate themselves from other women.
Over decades, Vogel has called for radical discussion about the womyn-born-womyn policy with no apparent intent to ever change the policy (that she now refers to only as an intent) — she holds out false hope to trans people that she one day won’t embrace trans-exclusionary radical feminism .
Vogel stated her intent never to change her intent for MichFest to be trans exclusionary most clearly in a MichFest August 24, 1999 press release.
We are aware that some individuals associated with Camp Trans have not respected the Land as womyn’s space. We know that many of you are angry about this, and have questions about whether this is a change of festival policy. There is no change in Festival policy, politics or intention regarding womyn’s space. We too are angry that this has been disrespected, and we are dealing with it now the best we can. We want you to know that we always have been and always will be committed to the Festival as womyn’s space.
And at that point she clearly stated that she didn’t believe trans women/womyn are womyn. In response to six trans women from the Transexual Menace/Camp Trans entering through the gates and attending the festival, the 1999 press release — to which Lisa Vogel was listed as the point of contact — stated this in a paragraph about the trans attendees:
In response to the presence of men on the land, several Festival participants chose to leave the Festival earlier than planned. Others expressed appreciation dismay that Festival organizers had not done more to prevent men from entering the Festival. Others voiced support for changing the womyn-born womyn intention. Many expressed appreciation for the statement issued by organizers and the way the events had been handled.
This isn’t the first time Lisa Vogel had signed onto a document that referred to trans women with misgendering. She was, in 1977,one of the signatories of a letter sent to Olivia Records — printed in the June issue of the publication Sister, stating Olivia Records needed to fire Sandy Stone (emphasis added).
We are writing concerning your decision to employ Sandy Stone (formerly __________) as your recording engineer and sound technician. We feel that it was and is irresponsible of you to have presented this person as a woman to the women’s community when in fact he is a post-operative transsexual.
That same letter also contained this paragraph:
We do not believe that a man without a penis is a woman any more than we would accept a white woman with dyed skin as a Black woman. Sandy Stone grew up as a white male in this culture, with all the privileges and attitudes that that insures [sic]. It was his white male privilege that gave him access to the recording studio and the opportunity to gain engineering practice in the first place. He has never had to suffer the discrimination, self-hatred or fear that a woman must endure and survive in her life. And he cannot possess the special courage, brilliance, sensitivity and compassion that derives from that experience. How can we share feelings of sisterhood and solidarity with someone who has not had a woman’s experience?
The rhetorical comparison women of color’s experience and womyn-born-womyn’s experience should be noted: in evolving forms it’s been a reoccurring talking point in many of Vogel’s statements over many years.
In 1991, MichFest blocked Nancy Burkholder from attending MichFest. Co-producers of MichFest, Lisa Vogel and Barbara Price, signed a letter that was published in Gay Community News (GCN, a newspaper in Boston) where they discussed what happened from their perspective. In the letter they stated:
In the simplest of terms, the Michigan Festival is and always has been an event for womyn, and this continues to be defined as womyn born womyn. We respect everyone’s right to define themselves as they wish.
It’s very clear here: Lisa Vogel specifically excluded trans women in her definition of womyn. But that isn’t all that’s in this letter. A few paragraphs down Vogel and her co-producer intentionally misgendered Nancy Burkholder by referring to her as a “transsexual man.”
When it was clear this summer there was a known transsexual man attending the event, the festival security staff dealt with it as respectfully as possible.
Moving forward to the August 1999 press release again, it should be noted that the Vogel again use a direct comparison of black experience to womyn-born-womyn’s experience — one of many over the years.
We believe that individuals and organizations who are committed to disrupting or destroying womyn-born-womyn space are acting with ignorance and complete disregard for the legacy of misogyny and sexism that still pervades our daily lives. Just as many Womyn of Color express the need for ‘room to breathe’ they gain in Womyn-of-Color space away from the racism that inevitably appears in interactions with a white majority, womyn born womyn still need and value that same ‘room to breathe’.
In August of 2000, MichFest put out an official handout entitled Community Discussion On Womyn-Born Womyn Space.[pullquote align=”right”]”I ask that you respect that womon born womon is a valid and honorable gender identity.” -Lisa Vogel[/pullquote]In it, the “we” — that can be safely assumed includes Lisa Vogel — stated that the WBW policy was in effect, and identified in point 5’s fourth bullet point that MichFest’s WBW policy was enforceable as a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
5. These are our bottom lines:
[pullquote align=”left”]”We also have an obligation to run the Festival in a way that keeps faith with the womyn-born womyn policy, which may mean denying admission to individuals who self-declare as male-to-female transsexuals or female-to-male transsexuals now living as men (or asking them to leave if they enter).” -Official MichFest Handout[/pullquote]When one looks to why there’s a comparison between MichFest’s WBW policy and the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policies of the US military between 1993 and 2010, it’s bullet point four of line item five of that official handout that identifies why the comparison is apt.
And too, as in most of the earlier letters and press releases since the 2000’s, Lisa Vogel and MichFest ask that trans women self-segregate — that they choose to embrace that they’re the only kind of women who by clear messaging are not welcome or desired at the festival.
In 2005, the Indigo Girls performed at MichFest, and Amy Ray decided to do a series of interviews about the festival. The third of the three was of Lisa Vogel. Amy Ray asked Vogel “Do you mind making a statement about the transgender issue and Michigan Womyn’s Festival’s “women born women only” policy?” Note that the question was about what she called a policy, and that Lisa Vogel didn’t object to it being called a policy.
As a queer community we’re all struggling around how we explore and expand gender definitions, and the women here who are creating this festival are part of that. And I feel very strongly that having a space for women, who are born women, to come together for a week, is a healthy, whole, loving space to provide for women who have that experience. To label that as transphobic is, to me, as misplaced as saying the women-of-color tent is racist, or to say that a transsexual-only space, a gathering of folks of women who are born men is misogynist. I have always in my heart believed in the politics and the culture of separate time and space. I have no issue with that for women-of-color, for Jewish women, for older women, for younger women. I have seen the value of that and I learned the value of that from creating this space for so many years. So the troublesome thing is, in the queer community, if we can’t, not just allow, but also actually actively support each other in taking the time and space that we need to have our own thing, then to come together, in all of our various forms, is going to take that much longer. And I understand how certain activists in the Camp Trans scene only see this as a negative statement, and I think that there’s a lot of connection that’s getting lost. Because, I really think that folks aren’t understanding how crucial this space is, as it is, for the women who come here. And, maybe that’s just it.
Again, invoking race in a comparison between people of color and womyn-born-womyn; again, excluding trans women from her definition of womyn.
In 2006, trans women from Camp Trans purchased tickets for, and then attended MichFest. Camp Trans put out a press release that year stating “The Michigan Women’s Music Festival began admitting openly trans (transgender/transsexual) women last week, bringing success to a longstanding struggle by trans activists both inside and outside the festival.”
Lisa Vogel, speaking for MichFest that year, disagreed in a press release entitled Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival Sets The Record ‘Straight'” with the assertion that MichFest had changed their policy and trans women were welcome at the festival. In her own voice, she stated:
“I deeply desire healing in our communities, and I can see and feel that you want that too. I would love for you and the other organizers of Camp Trans to find the place in your hearts and politics to support and honor space for womyn who have had the experience of being born and living their life as womyn. I ask that you respect that womon born womon is a valid and honorable gender identity. I also ask that you respect that womyn born womyn deeply need our space — as do all communities who create space to gather, whether that be womyn of color, trans womyn or trans men… I wish you well, I want healing, and I believe this is possible between our communities, but not at the expense of deeply needed space for womyn born womyn.”
Vogel’s written request that Camp Trans organizers respect the Festival as womyn-born-womyn space was consistent with information provided to Camp Trans organizers who approached the Festival Box Office. “Does this represent a change in the Festival’s commitment to womyn-born womyn space? No.” says Vogel. “If a transwoman purchased a ticket, it represents nothing more than that womon choosing to disrespect the stated intention of this Festival.”[pullquote align=”right”]”I feel very strongly that having a space for women, who are born women, to come together for a week, is a healthy, whole, loving space to provide for women who have that experience. To label that as transphobic is, to me, as misplaced as saying the women-of-color tent is racist, or to say that a transsexual-only space, a gathering of folks of women who are born men is misogynist.” -Lisa Vogel[/pullquote]This is where Lisa Vogel, speaking for MichFest, first claimed womon-born-womon is a gender identity. Vogel appropriated the trans movement’s defining term of gender identity and then used it as a rhetorical tool to discriminate against that movement’s members. This press release was also the first referenceable public text where she indicated that trans women could be womyn (“If a transwoman purchased a ticket, it represents nothing more than that womon choosing to disrespect the stated intention of this Festival.”).
In this press release she demonstrated that she could change her rhetoric without changing her objective of keeping trans women out of MichFest. But even in changing her rhetorical tact in those notable ways, she still resorted to using race in her arguments to compare people of color and womyn-born-womyn.
In the final paragraph of that press release, within quotation marks Vogel stated:
As feminists, we call upon the transwomen’s community to help us maintain womyn only space, including spaces created by and for womyn-born womyn. As sisters in struggle, we call upon the transwomen’s community to meditate upon, recognize and respect the differences in our shared experiences and our group identities even as we stand shoulder to shoulder as women, and as members of the greater queer community. We once again ask the transwomen’s community to recognize that the need for a separate womyn-born womyn space does not stand at odds with recognizing the larger and beautiful diversity of our shared community.
Again, she asks trans women to self-segregate. Trans women are no longer referred to as men, but her desire to be separated from trans women at her festival didn’t change at all. And, she acknowledged that the intent is policy — the policy mentioned in the 2000 handout.
While this is widely pointed to by Camp Trans supporters as a “policy,” it was a situational response to the heated circumstances of 1999, intended to reassure the womyn who have attended for years that the Festival remained – as it does today – intended for womyn who were born as and have lived their entire life experience as womyn, despite the disrespect and intentional disruption Camp Trans initiated.
As a white, lesbian woman, Vogel believes she can tell trans community members she isn’t transphobic and therefore it’s true. And again, she used race to make her point.
We strongly assert there is nothing transphobic with choosing to spend one week with womyn who were born as, and have lived their lives as, womyn. It is a powerful, uncommon experience that womyn enjoy during this one week of living in the company of other womyn-born womyn. There are many opportunities in the world to share space with the entire queer community, and other spaces that welcome all who define themselves as female. Within the rich diversity now represented by the broader queer community, we believe there is room for all affinity groups to enjoy separate, self-determined, supportive space if they choose. Supporting womyn-born womyn space is no more inherently transphobic than supporting womyn of color space is racist. We believe that womyn-born womyn have a right to gather separately from the greater womyn’s community. We refuse to be forced into false dichotomies that equate being pro-womyn-born womyn space with being anti-trans; indeed, many of the womyn essential to the Michigan Festival are leaders and supporters of trans-solidarity work. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival respects the transsexual community as integral members of the greater queer community. We call upon the transsexual community in turn to respect and support womyn-born womyn space and to recognize that a need for a separate womyn-born womyn space does not stand at odds with recognizing transwomen as part of the larger diversity of the womyn’s community.
In 2013, a trans woman named Red Durkin started a petition towards MichFest becoming trans inclusive. She targeted the 2013 performers at the festival, and asked them to boycott the festival until it became inclusive of trans women. Performers Nona Hendryx, Andrea Gibson, and Sea of Bees decided not to perform after the petition was generated, and the Indigo Girls stated that their 2013 appearance would be their last until the policy was changed. The petition had effect.
Lisa Vogel responded on April 12, 2013. In an email entitled Letter to the Community, she began her equivocation over the word “female” as a new tact, and again appropriated trans community language to alienate and discriminate against trans women.
The Festival, for a single precious week, is intended for womyn who at birth were deemed female, who were raised as girls, and who identify as womyn. I believe that womyn-born womyn (WBW) is a lived experience that constitutes its own distinct gender identity.
She again claims she’s not transphobic, and that excluding trans women in the intention of the festival is inherently transphobic, while again bringing up the comparison of people of color and womyn-born-womyn.
[pullquote align=”right”]”I reject the assertion that creating a time and place for WBW to gather is inherently transphobic. This is a false dichotomy and one that prevents progress and understanding.” -Lisa Vogel[/pullquote]She again calls for discussion…just more discussion. It’s clear that when Vogel states “I passionately believe the healing in our community will occur when we unconditionally accept transwomyn as womyn while not dismissing or disavowing the lived experience and realities of the WBW gender identity,” it means that she can continue her belief in and intention towards segregating trans women out from the broad community of women.
I reject the assertion that creating a time and place for WBW to gather is inherently transphobic. This is a false dichotomy and one that prevents progress and understanding. I believe in the integrity of autonomous space used to gather and celebrate for any group, whether that autonomous space is defined by age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, gender, class or any other identity. Whatever spaces we carve out in our community to encourage healing and rejuvenation should be accepted, and we should support each other in this endeavor. Nobody should be asked to erase the need for autonomous spaces to demonstrate that they are sisters in struggle.
Clearly, our community struggles with the wide-ranging opinions that have formed around this question. Womyn who love the Festival deeply have intense feelings on all sides of this issue. There have been a great many good, loving and smart discussions between womyn who profoundly disagree, and there have been disrespectful and dehumanizing behaviors on both sides of the debate that demean all of our feminist political ideals. We all must stand up against hate speech, harassment and threats in any form, against any individual and against all of our communities.
I passionately believe the healing in our community will occur when we unconditionally accept transwomyn as womyn while not dismissing or disavowing the lived experience and realities of the WBW gender identity. Sadly, the extreme voices on this issue have driven much of the discussion, and the aggressive rhetoric leaves little room for building the alliances that are critical to everyone’s survival, growth and integrity.
We must find ways to be allies in this discussion. I know that for some, WBW space seems flatly incompatible with honoring and supporting transwomyn within the larger womyn’s communities. Regardless, we must listen to those who believe in the power of every womon’s voice, and commit to stay in a process with open hearts, open minds, and abiding respect even when that conversation gets incredibly hard. Space for WBW and a true solidarity with the trans community can and does co-exist.
The extreme positions being repeated, stoked, and disseminated on the internet do not represent the complex wholeness of the Festival voice, and they overshadow the more measured communication that will heal this divide.
That sentiment doesn’t seem likely due to Vogel’s intransigence on the issue of trans inclusion.
When people ask me about writing and speaking, the piece of advice is know your audience. When Vogel speaks to the public, she speaks of discussion. When she speaks to those she considers her festival family, she drops the pretense that discussion will ever change her point of view as long as she’s MichFest’s producer. This again can be seen in her May 15, 2013 email entitled “Festival – How You Can Help to those whom she refers to as her “sisters.”
We are embroiled in a very public struggle about the Festival’s intention to create self-defined space for WBW.
…Sisters I believe now as much as I ever have that the space the Festival holds for our community is vital, precious and beautiful. The Festival will not go on forever, but I know this is not her time to end. Please join me in that belief and show your support towards the continuation of our community in whatever way you are able.
The phrasing that Vogel uses in that email seems to be indicating that she’s not counting trans women among her sisters.
The subtle phrasing of Vogel in her September 4, 2013 email follow in the same vein. It begins…
Dear Sisters –
I am writing this from the Walhalla office, August has just passed, and we are in our last few days in Michigan. I want to thank all of you for this year’s most incredible Festival – for bringing your best selves to this beloved community – your big hearts, your incredible fire and creativity, your playful and thoughtful selves, your passion for creating this city of womyn together. This has truly been the Summer of Love in action. To the sisters who were not able to be with us on the Land this year, who lit a candle, sang a verse of Amazon, imagined the Land under the hope of the new moon – your spirits were strong and always part of our greater good.
If by intention trans women aren’t welcome on that land, then it’s hard to belong to the “beloved community” Vogel alludes to.
The community we create together can be so deeply magical, so profoundly transformative, and so gently healing. It is in this fertile ground that we plant the seeds of our beautiful, continual, revolution. For these precious weeks, we nurture a culture where we live within the rare, all-encompassing feeling of unity that allows us to solidify our commitment to righteous action and simultaneously dissolve the constraints of isolation, vanity and distrust. We create a revolution where we liberate our playful, fierce, foxy and feral selves – and move forward with trust in the union of our sisterhood. This is what we grow when we are together with clear intention. This is what we can create, nurture and pass on in every aspect of our lives.
The “we” of “womyn” is again identified in a way that that is meant to exclude trans women from the community of women…an intentional exclusion from sisterhood.
The messaging of the May 9, 2014 Letter to the Community has a paragraph where the term female for womyn-born-womyn, but not for trans women, and using it within the non sequitur context of girls being kidnapped and sold into sex slavery.
Trans womyn and transmen have always attended this gathering. Some attend wanting to change the intention, while others feel the intention includes them. Deciding how the festival’s intention applies to each person is not what we’re about. Defining the intention of the gathering for ourselves is vital. Being born female in this culture has meaning, it is an authentic experience, one that has actual lived consequences. These experiences provide important context to the fabric of our lives, context that is chronically missing from the conversation about the very few autonomous spaces created for females. This erasure is particularly mindboggling in a week when 276 girls were kidnapped and sold into sex slavery solely because they were female. This is the world females live in.
TERF Cathy Brennan at one point in 2011 made a distinction between the terms woman and female in a similar manner to the way that Lisa Vogel appears to have done since 2006. In an interview with Rev. Mother Meredith Moise for Baltimore OutLoud, Brennan described her then thoughts in this way:
I appreciate and respect that women of transgender and transsexual experience struggle to be accepted and recognized as women. I personally accept women of transgender and transsexual experience as women. Meanwhile, females in 2011 continue to struggle to be accepted as human. I would encourage women of transgender and transsexual experience to help us in our struggle as well.
If you note, Lisa Vogel has been more subtlety doing the same equivocation between womon and female that Brennan used to do between woman and female.
Rhetorically differentiating between trans women and females isn’t confined to just Vogel and Brennan — it’s a viewpoint that other trans exclusionary feminists have expressed. For example, the blogger of Gender Minefield posted this in her blog entry It’s time for trans women to step away from feminism:
[Cristan Williams] fights against safe spaces for women by continually denying the possibly that overly-vague gender identity laws open the door for abusive men to purposely trigger or victimize females in spaces designated safe for them. Williams routinely reacts to reports of these instances by trying to poke holes in the complainants’ stories, discredit the sources and blame ‘TERFs’ instead of entertaining the idea that a more nuanced and balanced approach to legislation and policy would benefit both females and trans women.
As another example of this, is from the blogger transgender-hurts-women in her blog Critical Analysis of Gender. Her post An Invasion of Female Space: Males attempting to invade Smith College includes these paragraphs:
Recently, there has been a push by trans activists to allow any male who “identifies” as a woman into this college, after a trans woman was rejected last year. Apparently, there should be no spaces where males are not allowed, and if you disagree, you’re transphobic and discriminating.
…From what I’ve read, the school isn’t giving in, yet but they are making “deals.” There should be no giving in, no meeting halfway, because safe spaces for females in our male dominated society are quickly fading away.
A third example is from the twitter account of @feministroar.
Vogel’s rhetorical differentiation between trans women and females isn’t unique at all in feminist circles. It’s a rhetorical differentiation that directly states, or indirectly implies, that trans women are male women.
Vogel had more to say in that May 14th letter.
There are many who are trying to forge a conversation that is based on open dialogue — both as a political value, and as the best tool to reduce divisions and build strong empathetic understanding and alliance. We cannot allow the tactics of fear, bullying and harassment to control our community. We cannot stand by as people are harassed on Facebook and Twitter, as feminist artists and events are boycotted, communities are censured, and threats of violence are bandied around as acceptable speech.
As is true in all of our home communities, the Michigan community is of many hearts and minds in this conversation, and we are committed to shifting our focus towards building alliances across our multi-faceted identities and beliefs. We organized a series of workshops last year on the land that were a beautiful living model for how to forge dialogue, to speak to and hear one another through difference, to practice radical listening and to aid community building. Hundreds of womyn participated, including trans womyn, and some of the most radical and healing work was created by womyn representing the full spectrum of perspectives on this and other complex gender identity issues.
On one hand, trans women aren’t welcome at the festival, but on the other hand Vogel makes a point to say that dialogue is occurring in the MichFest land between cis women and trans women — and that it’s beneficial. It doesn’t seem to make sense to hang onto an intention that Vogel knows isn’t being followed, but it appears this functionally is about who is empowered to decide who is a woman and who is a man; who is a female and who is a male — and who is a male woman.
Between mid-May and early August, the situation between MichFest and the rest of the LGBT community changed radically. Equality Michigan came out against MichFest’s womyn-born-womyn policy and started a petition to end it. The petition lists six commitments by the petition’s authoring organization and its signatories, and these are:
A number of other LGBT and women’s organizations — that include the Human Rights Campaign, the Task Force, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, BiNet USA, BI Cast, Secular Woman, the Equality Federation, Pride@Work, and Affirmations, joined in calling for the end of the womyn-born-womyn policy (currently referred to by Lisa Vogel and MichFest as an intention.)
Particularly of note are GLAAD, the leading LGBT organization with a focus on media, and the National Black Justice Coalition, the leading LGBT organization focusing on the intersection of African-American and LGBT communities. GLAAD’s position puts significant pressure on LGBT community’s performers to not perform at the festival as long as the WBW policy/intention is in place, and the National Black Justice Coalition, by signing on to the commitments of the petition, takes a bit of the wind out of the sails of the frequent comparison by white lesbian Lisa Vogel between persons of color experience and womyn-born-womyn experience.
Just after the HRC signed onto the Equality Michigan’s call for MichFest to end their womyn-born-women policy/intent, but before GLAAD and the National Black Justice Coalition signed on, MichFest issued a Facebook statement on August 1st that’s phrasing and style reads as though written by Lisa Vogel — and most likely was.
Over the past week, a number of LGBTQ organizations (including Equality Michigan and the Human Rights Campaign) have asserted that the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (“MWMF”) believes transgender womyn are “less than” other womyn, and that the Festival’s intention is the equivalent of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. We once again passionately reject these allegations and write to speak our truths.
An intention is a deeply feminist approach to a complex community discussion. It is a purposeful focus that rejects the creation of hard lines; lines that have been used from time immemorial to subjugate and silence all womyn and to “keep them in their place.” Ours is a fundamental and respectful feminist declaration about who this gathering is intended for, and if some cannot hear this without translating that into a “policy”, “ban” or a “prohibition,” this speaks to a deep-seated failure to think outside of structures of control that inform and guide the patriarchal world. As we have said time and time again, we leave the onus on each individual to choose whether or how to respect this intention. Indeed, every year, transgender womyn choose to attend the Festival in the belief that the intention includes them.
It is that never ending discussion Vogel wants to have that won’t apparently resolve rooted in her “feminist approach” and “feminist declaration” the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival isn’t for all women/womyn.
She then equivocates over the term female in a manner similar to how she equivocated in 2006. Note how Vogel, between the second and third bullet points of the Facebook statement, pivots from referring to trans women as trans womyn to subtly switching to the term female to describe women who aren’t trans.
And, I believe the conclusion one may reasonably draw is that Lisa Vogel believes that cis women are females and trans women are males, and that she uses gender coded language to message that. This doesn’t show a shift of viewpoint since 1977 by Vogel, but a shift of language used to describe a consistent viewpoint. And that viewpoint is bigoted; that viewpoint is transphobic — despite all claims by her that it isn’t.
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