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
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
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. …