by Brenda & Wanda Henson
At Mississippi’s Camp Sister Spirit, survival is the best revenge.
Here in the deep South, where you come from and who you belong to is everything. Folks will go to great lengths to find out who your people are and who belongs to you. What might be considered “nosy” in other parts of the U.S. is considered “caring” here at home. For four years, Sister Spirit Incorporated worked to raise money so that a feminist educational and cultural retreat center could be built in Mississippi. The core group of women wanted to create a place for self-sufficiency and autonomy from the patriarchy, a place for creating indigenous lesbian culture, a place from which to share food and clothing with neighbors, a place to work and to care.
We wanted to be able to work with whoever came through our door. Some have labeled our work “action feminism.” We call ourselves “doers” — we do what needs doing, with whatever we have to work with. Since our struggle became national news in November 1993, sisters and brothers from all over the world have responded.
When the violence against us broke out three years ago, we had daily contact with only one neighbor. He told us that since he owned the 100 acres to the north of us and the 100 acres to the south of us that he has always hunted the land — even the 120 acres sandwiched between his land, now legally owned by Sister Spirit Incorporated. When we told him that our land was a wildlife refuge and would never be hunted again, he was enraged. He told us that we had no right; considering himself the patriarch of this community, he thought he could run us off. So far he has failed. People from around the country have stuck by us.
We can hardly believe that three years of our lives have passed so quickly. We are proud, amazed and grateful for what more than 3,000 volunteers have done. We have succeeded in creating our dream: a feminist educational and cultural retreat center with what we call a “land dyke” focus; a safe space — no violence in word or deed; a space committed to sobriety. Camp Sister Spirit now has a 33-bed bunkhouse for womyn-born-womyn only, an eight-bed cabin and a six-bed bunkhouse for men or womyn. The cabins are ramped for access by the disabled, though the bunkhouse upstairs is not. Our meeting space can hold about 75 folks; our kitchen is large and well equipped. Our pantry doubles as a community food pantry, and we feed more than 100 people each month. One mile of used tin fence protects the perimeters of the 120 acres and the electric front gate, given by Robin Tyler’s West Coast Womyn’s Music and Comedy Festival participants, is remote controlled and lavender. In the face of terror, we have managed to survive.
We continue to connect with other groups and charities to make referrals and to complete joint projects. We call our efforts fellowshipping, or “networking for peace.” Recently, after four months of speaking to local ministers, community leaders and volunteers, we were able to get a wheelchair ramp put on the trailer of a neighbor who recently lost her leg to diabetes. This effort was followed by a letter to the local newspaper editor, thanking all those we had spoken with as well as those who actually helped. Mennonites from five counties over built the ramp. Several other churches offered money, but could not find folks within their congregations willing to volunteer to do the work! Several women we’ve connected with who share our desire to make Mississippi a better place to live, (including the directors of the local Red Cross and Good Samaritan Center), are now making referrals to us. We in turn refer to them. Our list of professionals, people who are willing to work on a referral basis and accept sliding scale fees, is limited but growing.
Despite the local fundamentalists, we are who we are and we are working to make life better. We have found that our place is in the whole community. We have earned the respect of many who “did not have an opinion one way or the other” about lesbians or gay men. We have earned the respect of many who may have had a strong negative opinion, but who admire our willingness to stand up for what we believe in: as one neighbor said, “You gals are tough.” We have also earned the scorn of those who tried hard to get us out of their “Christian community” and who now are revealed as “bearing false witness” against us. We have not done what the preachers said we would do: We have not marked any babies; the divorce rate has not gone up; we did not turn out to be “The Gay Agenda.”
Many brothers and sisters come for the Camp Sister Spirit experience. Mamma, Brenda’s 91-year-old mother who lives here with us, says she never knows from day-to-day who will be here for supper. True. We now have three land caretakers, Brenda, Wanda, and Mattie; two more apprentices will be here come spring.
Although the indictments and the outright threats of our neighbors have dwindled, we still face harassment from others, notably our neighbor. In September of 1995, for example, we received a water bill for 187,000 gallons of water — for one month. Usually, our bill is, at most, for 18,000 gallons monthly. The woman at our community water service tried to convince us that we must have a leak.
We began turning the water on for an hour or so, long enough to wash dishes and bathe, then we’d turn it off. The turn-off valve is across the road at our neighbor’s. Sometime after I talked to the water service, I went down to cut the water off and noticed that the dial had stopped spinning. I called the representative to report my discovery. “Like I said, your pipe was broken. You must have fixed it,” she said.
Our pipes run across our neighbor’s field, yet he has refused to let Brenda check for a leak on his land, even though our water company has a verbal easement. To get access to his land, we would have to take him to court. We decided instead to hire a company to drill a well for us. After waiting two months for an appointment with the company, we called to ask how much longer it would take. The company representative said, “Sorry, we accepted a larger contract and we are not available.” All the other drillers are booked until February 1997. Brenda and I managed to resume our doctoral studies during the fall. But as soon as the semester is over, I will rent a trencher. We hope by the time this article is published that we will have installed a half-mile of water pipe all the way to the front road.
I am not from Jones County. I’m a native of Jackson County, Mississippi, 80 miles south, so I’ll always be considered an outsider here. But Jones County has a remarkable history of African-American liberation and integration struggles, which include the hard work of many lesbians and gay men. Now the first generation of folks since the Civil Rights Era of the 1950’s and 1960’s have faced off in a battle for lesbian and gay sovereignty. Thus far, social justice is ahead.
The land feels enchanted by the loving energy brought here by the thousands of volunteers who’ve worked with us. The land feels clean, washed by the tears of those who lived through those first two years of fear on the land. The land feels blessed by all the prayers, rituals and gatherings in the name of our protection on the land. And most importantly, the land now feels safe for those who are interested in coming to volunteer, visit, do an internship, do a class project, or whatever you can.
What have we learned, you might ask? Lots. But the major lesson we learned — and the reason we could not get into court to stop the aggression against us in the first few years — is that there are no civil rights laws to protect us as lesbians and gays. Therefore we do not have civil rights under the U.S. government. I read in the gay press all the time about gay and lesbian civil-rights-law violations. Not so. Violations, yes, but no laws.
I feel that the United States is in violation of the International Human Rights laws, which mandate governments to protect their citizens from being terrorized. As global citizens, we have the right to live without fear. Yet fear is a way of life for many gays and lesbians here in the U.S.; just see how many of us are closeted. I can’t tell you how many times African-American Mississippians have stopped us in town and said, with an air of hope and of trying to get us to understand the real issue, “Listen, this is what it is. We got our rights. You can get yours, too. Keep on going.” It’s the hugs that always follow this advice giving that lets me know that change is possible.
Many folks have asked us why we do what we do, “in of all places, Mississippi.” We do it because Mississippi is our home. When you move because you are forced to, you become a political refugee. Fundamentalists do not have a right to force their religious understandings on us. Our own religion, Unitarian Universalism, honors our lesbian love and our being loved. For us, being refugees is not an option.
Brenda and Wanda Henson are two of the founders of Camp Sister Spirit, located in Ovett, Mississippi.