Posted in: Feminism, Gender, Psychology & Law
Published on Aug 31, 1994 by Phyllis Chesler
Sister, Fear Has No Place Here
Mississippi Feminists Under Attack
Some say lesbians are dangerous. I'd always hoped this was so, but time and experience taught me that lesbian—and for that matter, heterosexual—feminists are not dangerous enough. Feminists of all sexual persuasions often sport a brand of politics more royalist than democratic, more academic than activist. And, like brotherhood, sisterhood is an ideal, not a reality. Feminist homophobia, racism, and misogyny have, over the years, driven many feminists out of coalitions and into "queer" or "racial" organizations—or back into civilian life.
It's hard to remain radical in feminist terms when your sexual preference is feared and hated, not only by your opponents, but by your comrades. It's hard to remain "in service" to others when you yourself remain unsafe at every moment. That's why what Brenda and Wanda Henson are doing at Camp Sister Spirit, a 120-acre feminist education retreat in Ovett, Mississippi, is so important. The Hensons have not dropped out—nor have they sold out. In the face of violent attacks, they and their full-time supporters—Pam Firth, Arthur Henson, Andrea Gibbs, Cheri Michael and Kathy Wilson—are maintaining a level of visibility and virtue that is almost pure science fiction.
Ovett (population 1,200) is about three hours northeast of New Orleans and about 40 minutes northeast of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Driving from Louisiana to Hattiesburg, I search the horizon for some sign that we're in the South: a bayou, a creek, a weeping willow. But at any given moment you could be anywhere, in New England or in the Pacific Northwest; the same familiar chain-stores and motels you passed 50 or 100 miles ago are always waiting to greet you.
There's always a Holiday Inn, a Howard Johnson's, a Burger King, a Wendy's—as if there's nothing indigenous left in America, except the trees maybe, and the sky—as we move fast, hurtling forward into the future, on the great American highway.
At a local restaurant in Hattiesburg, a woman tells me she lives in Ovett.
"Ovett?" I say. "Isn't that where Camp Sister Spirit is? What's going on there?"
"Oh," she sighs, "I think the media's been exaggerating things. Local folk—as long as you leave them alone, they'll leave you alone." Lowering her voice, she adds, "Well, truth is, they're very strict in Ovett. They're not as liberal as they make out. They're Baptist." (Later I learn that the Baptist church has prevented local people from opening a bar where they can drink, smoke, and dance; disgruntled locals are beginning to identify with and encourage the women at Camp Sister Spirit.)
Then the woman says, "I'm glad to meet someone from a big city. I miss that. I once spent some time in Chicago."
"Greyhound still goes to Chicago," I say.
"Oh, I can't leave," she says, in a resigned matter-of-fact voice. "If you're married to a redneck, you can't go nowhere. And even if you do, he'll come after you and bring you back."
In another restaurant, another hostage in Ovett says this: "Those women (at Camp Sister Spirit) are going to die. It's only a matter of time. See, Ovett folk don't like outsiders and they don't like anyone who's different. The people in Ovett are crazy. They're all kin, or married to kin. Once, the phone company installed a phone booth in the center of town. Some of the boys just wrenched that booth loose and towed it out of town on top of their car."
"When we are under attack . . . three of the sheriff's deputies have acted in a professional manner with genuine concern for our safety. But often response time drags into hours with explanations of slight traffic infractions being the holdup while we wait in terror."
This quote and those that follow are from Wanda Henson's testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee, July 6, 1994.
Given the local attitudes, I found it remarkable that American feminists, lesbians mainly, but not exclusively, are risking their lives, not as saleable commodities, not for their own bedroom entertainment, not even for the sake of money, or careers, but for the right to practice feminism.
I wanted to meet the Hensons and their supporters, gauge who'd be there after the media and the federal mediators were gone, the initial money depleted, and the national community's attention diverted elsewhere.
Volunteers Lucy, 37, a hairdresser and long-time abortion clinic defender from Sacramento, and Sasha, 23, a recent college graduate from Pittsburgh, drive us on the back roads from Hattiesburg to the camp. Our headlights are the only lights for miles around; there are no streetlights and few houses. Lucy makes casual conversation. "Yes, we still hear gunshots around the periphery of the property," she says. Sasha adds: "The fear we feel is so real, but we're learning to deal with it. You work it out by keeping busy. This creates a positive energy. It helps you distance yourself from what can happen."
Lucy interrupts to remind us: "Pam Firth from Mississippi—she's here permanently—was shot at five times in a drive-by shooting. She had to jump into a ditch to avoid being killed. She tried to make it a citizen's arrest. It took a long while but now the police are at least charging the man with disturbing the peace."
There we are, me and my friends, unarmed visitors with overactive imaginations, driving a long distance in the darkness, without guns or walkie-talkies, trying to act safe, not scared. For one moment, I allow myself to feel terrified. It's no hard. I think if Emmett Till, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Violet Liuzzo, and especially of the murdered civil rights workers James Chaney, Micky Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.
Many warriors have both waged and ultimately lost the "good fight" in Mississippi. In 1971, 20 acres were purchased near Jackson for a separate nation to be known as the Republic of New Afrika. The FBI and the state police smashed the residences on the land, arrested 11 people, and sentenced them to long prison terms for sedition. In the mid-to-late 1980's, Mississippi mothers Karen Newsom and Dorrie Singley were forced to 'kidnap' their daughters and/or flee the state to rescue their (allegedly) sexually abused children from court-awarded paternal custody. (After Newsom's arrest, the Hensons picketed the jail on her behalf.)
I remind myself of the steadfast bravery of Mississippi black women like Fanny Lou Hamer, Ruby Doris Smith (Robinson), and Unita Blackwell, who is now the mayor of Taylorsville, Mississippi.
I half expect the state police or the Klan or church terrorists to suddenly stop our car, but no one does, and we proceed on to Camp Sister Spirit.
The moon's out, and it's enchanted. Twenty women, from at least ten states, are sitting in an open-air circle in the sultry southern night. They introduce themselves by name, age (21 to 65), and sun sign, and when I mention that hours before I was hit on the head and neck in a freak accident, a woman immediately materializes out of the darkness and starts giving me a massage; someone else brings me ibuprofen and an ice pack. It's unimaginable that guns and hate are trained on women like these.
"We do not seek tolerance and acceptance. We seek freedom from oppression, intimidation, and harassment. We seek justice and a legal system that is capable and willing to defend our rights."
Camp Sister Spirit is like Woodstock, Lesbian Nation, and the Michigan Women's Music Festival, but it's also like Mississippi Freedom Summer, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a Goddess Grove, and a Girl Scout Camp. Ah, it's like nothing else. It's as if Diana Rivers' tale about a tribe of psychic-military lesbian feminist warriors (Daughters of the Great Star) has come to life, and I'm sitting with them. (Magically, Rivers herself is here, too.)
Camp Sister Spirit is not a young, butch, para-military encampment. True, there are swaggers, buzz cuts, muscles, and bared breasts galore, but there are women in skirts and jewelry here, too, women in their 50's and 60's, mothers and grandmothers with gray hair, and smiling wrinkles. No one has come here to die. They are here to support the kind of grassroots work that feminists have been doing for years.
We're so naive, so American, we don't believe we can be killed for our (feminist) beliefs, not in the land of the free, the home of the brave. And yet, Camp Sister Spirit has been under siege since November, 1993. The Hensons and their supporters have become high-profile symbols of feminist resistance. I've waited 27 years to see feminists gathered together—not on television panels, or at conferences or parties, but on collectively-owned land, taking a stand for what they believe in.
"Our family members are terrified. Many family members have asked us to leave the land. The legacy of the old South mentality is frightening to us."
Brenda and Wanda Henson certainly did not have confrontation in mind when they first bought these secluded 120 acres. In fact, they wanted to get away from the harassment they'd previously suffered on rented lands. The two met on January 15, 1985, defending an abortion clinic in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Each had been married at 16, quickly had two children, and then fled violent husbands. Brenda had vowed that "if I ever got away from this fool and got some place safe, that I would devote my time and energy to the battered women's movement." Wanda was also battered—by a man and by one lesbian lover—and lost (but re-gained) custody of her children for being a lesbian. Brenda and Wanda legally took the single name of Brenda's supportive mother, Henson.
Although the Hensons have painted their tractor and many trees (!) lavender, their version of feminism is essentially one of service. They're not "do me" feminists; they "do" food banks and clothes closets, they counsel battered women and incest and rape victims. After witnessing numerous prisoner-beatings and some so-called prisoner "suicides," including the "suicide" of the son of the President of the NAACP in Mississippi, the Hensons' daughter, Andrea Gibbs, led a successful campaign to close down the Jones County jail. (It's back in business, though.)
Camp Sister Spirit was created as a feminist and progressive education retreat. The camp is utterly sober: chemically, psychologically, and politically. The women are security-conscious—they have to be. Like nuns, they patrol the property in pairs, and communicate with walkie-talkies. Camp Sister Spirit has been forced, very much against its will, to build a fence around the property. ("We could have fed 100 families for ten years with the money the fence is costing us," Wanda Hensons says.) The women are legally armed. Everyone keeps track of where everyone else is. It's scary, isn't it, when women really start loving themselves enough to draw boundaries and defend their bodies, mind, and way of life from attack.
Questions abound. Why should the feminist government-in-exile choose Jones County, the historical heart of the Klan, as it's first outpost on earth? Why build a future where you're not wanted? (Tell that to the Israelis and the Palestinians.) "Why not in Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation, and the most oppressed?" Wanda asks. "It's where I was born, it's where I'm from." Anyway where exactly are radical lesbian feminists wanted? And where is land as cheap (120 acres for $60,000) as in Ovett, Mississippi?
I ask: "Are you afraid?" "Absolutely," Brenda says. Wanda tells me about her trips to San Salvador and Mexico to help women and children. On one occasion, most volunteers had canceled making a trip to San Salvador out of fear. The organizer, who'd been previously tortured and imprisoned in San Salvador, said to Wanda: "Sister, fear has no place here."
Wanda can thicken her southern accent until it becomes as thick as the sweetest syrup and I'm tasting it and it's making me giddy. The only time that tears interrupted Wanda's high-spirited flow was when she told that "black bodies still float down the Mississippi rivers. Where are they coming from? Who's killed them?" she asks, and she cried for others, not for herself.
"The traditional Southern standard that lesbians and gay Americans are sub-human must end. Democracy must be restored... We have one option. We will continue to live in freedom. And we intend to defend our lives."
When the Hensons decided to buy land, with the help of a grant from Lesbian Natural Resources, they sought to establish a place of refuge, not confrontation. Harassment, however, has been persistent: a 9mm bullet hole tore through their mailbox; two sanitary napkins and a dead female puppy shot through the stomach were draped across their mailbox; they received a stream of threatening phone calls and letters and bomb threats; shots were fired at their front gate; roofing tacks placed on their roads (with eight tires flattened as a result); their American and rainbow flags were torn down; intruders kept appearing on their property; low-flying planes took photos. "The local shopkeepers won't sell to us, or they charge us two to three times the going rate for something," Brenda said. A local lesbian supporter's house was mysteriously burned down three weeks ago. One caller warned, "Expect the KKK to burn a cross on you."
Combating violent, visible hate and racism is part of what Camp Sister Spirit is about. (The Hensons conduct a Passover seder every year partly because they're entranced by its vision of freedom—and as their way of taking a stand against anti-Semitism.) Until the media 'discovered' Ovett, one drinking fountain outside the local courthouse was painted white, the other black. Overnight, both were painted white. The first time the Hensons, Pam, and Shirley, believed the death-threats might be real, they put out a call for help. Ben Chaney (yes, the brother of murdered civil rights worker James Chaney) came and spent the long night with them.
The media descended on Ovett in November of 1993. By mid-February of 1994, Attorney General Janet Reno had directed the Department of Justice to mediate the situation. The Hensons were thrilled that Janet Reno's mediators both turned out to be African-Americans; they thought this was ironic, a comeuppance, a measure of progress—and they also wondered, wearily, if that had contributed to making the mediation impossible. ("But who'd better understand how things are in Mississippi but an African-American, someone who comes from the state?" Wanda asked.) In a letter to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Reno wrote: "The intolerance and bigotry demonstrated by some of the people of Ovett have no place in this country." It was likely the first time in which federal mediators have been called in to deal with violence directed at homosexuals.
Ironically, understandably, despite everything they know, the camp is also trying to work 'within the system.' They've turned to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, local lawyers, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Justice Department. But Camp Sister Spirit is totally without protection—and is prohibited, by both law and custom, from arming itself. Everyone at Camp Sister Spirit knows they exist in a "no-man's land" where, although the law may punish them for trying to protect themselves (they cannot carry loaded firearms anywhere but on their own property), the law—including the FBI—may not be able to protect them or punish their prosecutors.
"The Hensons are feminists who happen to be lesbians," Lucy tells me. "Their deeds speak for them. Despite everything, calls for food and for help with abuse are starting to come in. A grandmother gave her pregnant 14-year-old granddaughter the number here." Gifts of tools, machine-parts, vegetables, or other staples are made surreptitiously; local, especially black supporters, have chosen to remain anonymous lest they suffer reprisals. (This year's Memorial Day Festival drew women from 18 states, all white. Women of color who'd attended before felt their presence would put themselves and the camp at even greater risk.)
Sasha tells me that the Hensons' son Arthur, who is 20 and "incredibly hardworking and loyal," is the only man who permanently lives on the land. "He left to make the festival an all-woman space." Sasha also says that other men, including a friend of hers from Pittsburgh, have come to help. "What we're doing is for a principle. The Camp's outreach to the poor infuriates the locals. I've always stood up for what I've believed in."
Sasha also points out that, in the ten-mile stretch between the towns of Petal and Ovett, there are about 16 churches. "Local lesbian support isn't that good—a lotta of them are in-the-closet Republicans." Brenda says that the local folk, who stand to gain the most from the camp's presence in the community, are being lied to and stirred up by Donald Wildmon's group, Mississippi Family Values, which is sponsoring anti-gay initiatives all over the country. They are also attempting to outlaw homosexuals from living in certain parts of Mississippi.
That the Hensons and their valiant volunteer supporters face danger daily can neither be denied nor exaggerated. The extraordinary willingness of so many presumably 'ordinary' and life-loving American women of all ages to share the Camp's fate is what's newsworthy. The fact that thousands more haven't been able to set aside their apathy, narcissism, terror, addictions, or political differences, is old news. Camp Sister Spirit has received thousands of letters of support (from both women and men in every state of the union, and from Europe and Asia, too); they've received donations, and volunteers. This is nothing less than a miracle.
Some ask: Why is the Camp courting such danger? Why not retreat to some "safer" place? That would be nice, but women are always in danger: in our homes, on the street, at work. One by one, as we're picked off by violent men, non-violent women (and men) deny that things are that bad, or they look the other way when women are humiliated, harassed, cut down to size, overworked, underpaid, raped, beaten, or killed. Refusing to become conscious about one's oppression doesn't make you safe; it just keeps you confused about what's happening to you.
At Camp Sister Spirit, the women are very conscious of danger: their own, and all women's everywhere. They've chosen to face the danger together, collectively. At Camp Sister Spirit, no death will go unmourned or misunderstood.
As Wanda told me: "A woman at the farmer's market put her hands on me and stood real close to me and said, 'Honey, what's your name?' I told her my name was Wanda Henson. She said, 'I thought so. This doesn't have anything to do with the fact that you're different.' I asked her what she meant. She said 'What's happening to you has to do with the fact that you're a woman. Look. I've been living in Ovett for 53 years and I'm a woman landowner and I still have men trespassing on my property. Keep doing what you're doing because you're doing it for all of us.'"
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