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Lesbians face hostility in Miss. town

Published Jan. 9, 1994|Updated Oct. 6, 2005

A lesbian couple building a women's camp in the pine woods of south Mississippi has roused opposition from angry townspeople and several Baptist ministers, hostility they fear could become violent.

Brenda and Wanda Henson, who consider themselves married, have already found a dead dog draped over their mail box.

They have found armed men on their property, a former farm they hope to turn into an educational and cultural retreat for women. They live behind a locked lavender gate, protected by volunteer guards.

Their arrival in August in this rural community of 1,200 has stirred intense emotions.

"It's a sin the way they're living and it's corrupting our community," said Clint Knight, an Ovett resident who is working with a group trying to block the camp. "We are a God-fearing community."

A meeting of the group at the Jones County Courthouse in nearby Ellisville on Monday drew more than 400 people, some of whom laughed as they watched videotape of a talk show on which Brenda Henson wept as she told Oprah Winfrey of her fears.

She said she was afraid to bring her 88-year-old mother to live on the property that she and Wanda call Camp Sister Spirit, where they want to hold workshops on subjects like sexual harassment and abuse, and women's legal rights. Women are warned not to visit or leave after dark.

They have filed charges against a man who threatened to burn the camp down. They tracked him through the telephone caller-identification system they installed after hostile phone calls began in November.

At Monday's meeting, residents contributed $852 for a lawsuit to block the camp. Paul Walley, a lawyer from Richton, Miss., who is advising the group, would not discuss the legal grounds.

Robin Kane, a spokeswoman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, spent three days in Mississippi and attended the meeting, hoping to gather information that would persuade federal authorities to intervene.

"We've hit a dead end in certain areas because sexual orientation isn't covered in federal civil rights law," she said.

Ron Tomalis, spokesman for the Justice Department's Community Relations Service, said his office was not legally able to be involved.

Townspeople express resentment at news reports that they thought portrayed them unfairly as bigots, and many have said that they wished no harm to come to the Hensons.

"We don't want to hurt those people," Knight said. "I just think they need to pack their bags and go on back to New York or California or wherever they came from."

Others say there is an undercurrent of hatred.

After the meeting on Monday, two men who had attended were surrounded by an angry crowd of people who decided the two were homosexual. The crowd shouted "queer" and "sinners," and the police escorted the men to safety.

Not everyone in Ovett actively opposes the Hensons. "I don't go for it, but as long as they leave me alone, I'll leave them alone," said Bonnie Graham, a clerk in a store here.

Sheriff Maurice Hooks of Jones County, who has investigated the dog incident as well as several complaints of shots being fired near the camp, said the Henson "have as much right to be there as anyone else."

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