Lesbians Say Mississippi Clash Is Civil-Rights Fight but Townspeople Say Values Are at Heart of Dispute

By Peter Applebome 1994, New York Times News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), February 22, 1994 | Go to article overview

Lesbians Say Mississippi Clash Is Civil-Rights Fight but Townspeople Say Values Are at Heart of Dispute


Peter Applebome 1994, New York Times News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


HANK CARDE, a retired Navy commander who is active on AIDS issues, came here expecting to find the world of "Mississippi Burning." What he found may have bothered him more.

"I went to the First Baptist Church expecting an extremely rigid Klan-country type of mentality," said Carde, who drove from Washington last week to help a lesbian couple who want to start a women's retreat here and have been threatened with violence. "Instead, I found what seemed like a genuinely caring congregation. They just seem to have a blind spot on this issue that's really sad and disturbing."

In their first gay-harassment case, federal civil-rights mediators on Friday visited the retreat, Camp Sister Spirit, on the order of Attorney General Janet Reno. Reno asked the mediators to resolve a potentially violent dispute that has dragged on for four months.

But Carde's experience may be a reminder that the language and symbols of civil rights do not necessarily translate to emotional, religiously charged issues involving gay men and lesbians.

"If the KKK was harassing blacks and Jews and trying to kick them off their land, do you think it would be allowed?" asked Wanda Henson, one of the two leaders of what is planned as a feminist and lesbian retreat and conference center. In her case, she said, "people think it's different."

"Well," she said, "it's not."

The unlikely war of nerves that has careened from the world of Oprah Winfrey to the Justice Department began last November when Henson and her partner, Brenda Henson, bought 120 acres of land for $60,000, put a lavender gate outside and with various associates, most of them lesbians, began building Camp Sister Spirit.

In literature describing their aspirations, the billed the camp as a retreat dealing with issues like "racism, sexism, family violence and abuse, rape, incest, homophobia, ableism, fat oppression, classism, recovery from substance abuse, ageism, job equity, hunger, housing, AIDS, religious freedom, ecology, human rights and peace."

The plans soon drew the ire of neighbors in one of the most conservative corners of a conservative state. Since then the Hensons have been the subject of threats and intimidation, including threatening letters, a dead dog draped over their mailbox, verbal abuse and gunfire near the property.

Opponents say the gunfire is from hunters and is not aimed at the women. The Hensons say it is dangerous intimidation. About eight to 12 people, most of them lesbians, have been staying at the camp, sometimes patrolling the land with firearms.

Most opponents of the Hensons say their argument is not with the Hensons' sexuality but with their plans to build a 180-bed retreat and training center the opponents say is clearly incompatible with the values of Ovett, a dog-eared town of 1,200 dependent on lumber and agriculture.

"I don't care if they live on that property or what their sexual preferences are; that's their business," said one outspoken critic, James Hendry. "But if they're running a business where they're promoting lesbianism and running a 180-bed dormitory, that's the kind of business we don't want, just like we wouldn't like it if it was a right-wing extremist, neo-Nazi training camp or a house of prostitution or a strip joint. …

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