'Lesbian vision' clashes with small town's culture

March 23, 1994|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Writer

OVETT, Miss. -- Redbud trees are abloom in the Mississippi hills, their sprightly lavender flowers enticing spring from the pine-dark forest. But another lavender hue in the woods outside this country town has become a harbinger of a different sort.

Here, where men hunt raccoons at night with prized hounds and women fold backyard pecans into sweet pies, tree trunks along a stretch of rural road are girdled in lavender paint. They lead to the lavender gate of Camp Sister Spirit, the home of a lesbian couple whose plan to open a feminist education and cultural retreat center on their land has brought preachers from pulpits, grandmothers from kitchens and a menacing presence from the placid hills.

Members of the conservative Christian community in the area have risen to their feet in protest. They fear the effect an 180-bed retreat center founded on "lesbian vision" will have on their way of life, their families and the future of a town with little more than a general store, a post office and an auto parts house operating on a tumbledown Main Street.

"We oppose what they stand for. It's a classic cultural clash," said John S. Allen, a Southern Baptist pastor from nearby Richton, Miss.

But this clash of cultures has triggered a nasty current of rhetoric amid allegations of intimidation and harassment. It has been played out on Oprah and Jerry Springer, in the Village Voice and the Baptist Record, and soon, before federal and local courts and perhaps a congressional committee in Mississippi. Townspeople here resent the glare of the national spotlight, the ensuing characterizations of some as bigots and rednecks and the interference of Washington officials.

To Brenda and Wanda Henson, the dream of bringing their brand of social activism and sister spirit to rural Jones County has become a nightmarish struggle to overcome what they say is a prejudice bred from misunderstanding and fundamentalist Christian tenets. They have endured harassing phone calls and threatening letters. They say they hear gunshots at night, another means to intimidate. Federal mediators, with the authority of the attorney general of the United States, have tried to intervene in the ever-widening rift between the Hensons and some of their neighbors.

Both mothers with ex-husbands, the Hensons are ardent feminists on a mission -- not from God -- but, they like to say, inspired by "divine guidance." Their "lesbian vision" promotes "a safe space for all." Their aim is to teach "nonoppressive life ways" and address racism, sexism, family violence, homophobia, fat oppression, job equity and 14 other social issues. They are both doctoral students in adult education.

In Gulfport, about 90 miles south of Ovett, the Hensons ran a feminist bookstore that doubled as a community crisis center. But they had a greater need to serve. After scouring the countryside for two years, they found a 120-acre former pig farm on Bogue Homa Creek. There were four pig barns with concrete floors and dry roofs; two outbuildings stood a mile from the road.

To the Hensons, it was "a place to start" -- all for $60,000. They bought it in July.

"Our dream was to combine some basic education with feminist philosophy for the empowerment of disadvantaged women in Mississippi," says Brenda, 48, who shares her mother's maiden name with Wanda, a native Mississippian and partner of 10 years. "We are American citizens, and we have our rights to live our dreams."

To the people of Ovett, it has become the nation's window into their world.

Matter of lifestyle

The stock in the Ovett Little General Store says as much about the nature of this Mississippi town 25 miles northeast of Hattiesburg as the herds of cattle grazing on winter rye grass and the spring-fed catfish ponds that surround it. Fried chicken and fishing lures, pacifiers and Pepsi, plastic roof cement and crickets for bait (3 cents each, 100 for $3) and T-shirts that proclaim: "Ovett Mississippi USA. In God We Trust. We Have Our Rights Too."

The lifestyle the Hensons lead, two women in love who would most likely marry if the law permitted such a union, has run afoul of the fundamentalist moral code here. To live quietly on their property is one thing, some residents say. But to build a 180-bed lesbian center that may draw like-minded women from across the country to a town no bigger than a crossroads?

"Homosexuals and lesbians are not unknown to our community," said Mr. Allen, who has joined two church members in the fight to stop the retreat center. "The lifestyle has never been condoned. But they have never been harassed. To a large measure, this is about a community. Can a community define itself?

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