“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.”
- Wanda Henson’s testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee, July 6, 1994
Camp Sister Spirit is a feminist retreat and safe space located in Ovett, Mississippi. The group was co-founded by Brenda and Wanda Henson (Wanda changed her surname to Henson, on December 16, 1988 to honour their special love bond by sharing Brenda’s mother’s surname). Sister Spirit Incorporated/Camp Sister Spirit’s mission statement is to make available information, referral, education, advocacy and meeting space to address social issues including but NOT LIMITED TO racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, looksism, fat oppression, anti-Semitism, family abuse/violence, sexual abuse/incest, housing, hunger, health care, fair labor practices, animal rescue, economic justice, and environmental issues.
In 1987 the Henson’s leased a much needed community resource and base for their ever growing advocacy. This ranged from gay and lesbian concerns, abortion clinic escort provision, assisting mothers with custodial rights, sexual abuse victims, HIV treatment and food provision for those less fortunate. However, the centre, the Southern Wild Sisters Unlimited community bookshop, was forced to close down within 2 years. A forced closure attributed to prejudice and ignorance surrounding HIV and for others within the Gulfport community, the use of lavender paint by the Hensons at the front of their shop was perceived as strident or defiant. A step that would open flood gates of vilification and further pave the way for a “witch hunt” against the bookshop owners, primarily from religious fundamentalists. This closure prompted a search by the Hensons for a base they could own outright and this opportunity arose in a 120 acre pig farm site in Ovett, the present day home of Camp Sister Spirit.
Their camp, a 120 acre site in Ovett, Jones county Mississippi was purchased in July 1993, for $60,000 and by all outward appearance the location was a perfect, idyllic and isolated rural safe space setting. However, any sister spirit euphoria was short lived, because what followed shaped the “camp sister” dream into an intense 2 year nightmare and struggle, rife with fear, akin to the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan lynching era, 30 years previous, when Ovett’s townsfolk and leaders learned that their new neighbours, the Hensons, were Lesbians.
The Hensons’ puppy had been shot, stuffed with sanitary napkins, then draped over the camp mailbox with the note “Die Bitch.”
Ovett’s opposition against the Lesbian humanitarians manifested itself in Camp shoot- bys, burnings, intimidation, violence, bigotry, hate, smear, the killing of the Henson’s pet puppy, law suits and television talk show appearances and intervention by federal mediators from the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service on the instruction of US Attorney General, Janet Reno. The public opposition against Camp Sister Spirit was headed up by about 18 Southern Baptist Ministers and the Mississippians for Family Values Group. A campaign the “Sisters” countered with their gentle but permeating humility and a determined desire to remain true at all costs, as visible humanitarian women, feminists and lesbians. It was this deep determination within the liberated American women, (who also, happened to be in love with each other), that emerged from the “Old South” style violent confrontation strongest and indeed, steadfast in the “post Jim Crow” state described by Wanda Henson when speaking to a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee, July 6, 1994 as a state where, “The traditional Southern standard that lesbians and gay Americans are sub-human must end.” A minuscule beginning to this long end arrived in July 1995, when Judge Frank Mac Kenzie ruled against a nuisance suit, filed by the Ovett, Mississippians for Family Values’ and when Mac Kenzie declared camp Sister Spirit a legal retreat.
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