LGBT History: The Hensons and Camp Sister Spirit

Published on November 16 2014 4 Comments

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“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” – Brenda and Wanda Henson

For decades, Wanda and Brenda Henson advocated for activists who provide food and clothing to poor communities. They protected women seeking rightful custody of their children. They were leaders of the struggle for lesbian and women’s rights in Mississippi and the South. Much of this happened at Camp Sister Spirit.

In 1993, Camp Sister Spirit was founded by Wanda and Brenda Henson in Ovett, Mississippi. It was a charitable IRS-recognized organization committed to providing people counseling, information, education, referral, advocacy, and meeting space to address social issues. It primarily focused on women’s issues and hosted women’s festivals and pagan celebrations. The camp’s goal was to offer an environment free from discrimination.

Wanda and Brenda, along with countless volunteers, provided a place for all people to be as they were in a safe, caring, supportive and enriching environment. Individuality was encouraged and respected at the camp regardless of sex, marital status, race, age, sexual orientation, gender history, religious or political beliefs, different-ablity, family responsibility or family status.

The accepting environment and the wild lands provided thousands of people with a safe space to connect with nature, women/womyn, LGBTQ folks, and spirituality through workshops, festivals, and weekend retreats. It was a sacred space to countless Mississippians and global visitors.

The Hensons and the camp hosted an annual statewide summit meeting and training for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists.

But, it wasn’t always an easy venture. In fact, in the beginning, Wanda and Brenda faced hostility on a scale few people experience in their lives.

After one of the camp’s newsletters got into the hands of a nearby church, the terrorism began. In the night, gunshots could be heard. Dead animals were left at the entrance to the camp. Nails and glass were placed in the driveway. Hate mail was delivered. Bomb threats called in. Countless harassing phone calls were received and numerous death threats were made. Rumors spread that the lesbians were out to steal and recruit children.

Partly in response to the presence of the Hensons, a local militia group was formed. Their newsletter, “The Revolutionary”, fabricated a story about a missing 13-year-old girl being held against her will at Camp Sister Spirit. Militia members put up a sign near Camp Sister Spirit that read, “The Spirit of America is Going Strong — Any Other Spirit Don’t Belong”. At the University of Southern Mississippi the Hensons were approached by a young woman who, apparently fearing for her husband’s wellbeing, warned that he and other men were planning to kill them.

The public opposition against Camp Sister Spirit was primarily headed up by about 18 Southern Baptist Ministers and the Mississippians for Family Values Group.

Still, Wanda and Brenda were not ones to quit and vowed to move on. And they did.

They called for reinforcements from women, witches, the LGBT community, and allies around the country. Their son, Arthur, moved to the land to help with the camp and provide another level of security and strength.

After working with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and a featured piece on Oprah, the camp and case became national headlines. During 1993 and 1994, the attacks on the Hensons drew national attention. In November of 1993, reporters from around the country set up camp in Ovett. The Hensons appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s widely watched television program, the television news magazine 20/20, and CNN’s Larry King Live. Their struggle was featured in national news media, and they made speaking tours throughout the USA. The coverage was largely sympathetic, although conservative columnist and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan referred to the Hensons as “nature-worshipping jezebels”. It was during this period that the Hensons became recognized nationwide as advocates for the rights of lesbians and feminists. Finally, intervention was necessary by federal mediators from the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service on the instruction of US Attorney General, Janet Reno.

Wanda Henson, when speaking to a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee, on July 6, 1994 described Mississippi 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 MacKenzie ruled against a nuisance suit, filed by the Ovett, Mississippians for Family Values’ and when MacKenzie declared camp Sister Spirit a legal retreat.

Over time, people came to know Wanda and Brenda (and the camp) and realized they were just people. And the perception in the community of Camp Sister Spirit began to change. By then Wanda was exhausted and in debt, and Brenda had cancer. They stepped aside and let others carry on. They made their place in Ovett, Mississippi and made their presence known throughout the world.

The change in the community is apparent when Hurricane Katrina hit the poverty-stricken area. Women and men, mostly lesbians from all across the country who had visited there in earlier times, loaded their trucks with chainsaws, non-perishable foods and dollars, and came to help. A few days later, a note appeared on the door of the local firehouse. “We’ve been up too many nights and we’ve got to get some sleep. If you need anything, go on down to the camp. The girls will take care of you.” The climate had changed.

Sadly, the land is now idle and the buildings empty. Brenda passed away in 2008. Wanda opened a medical clinic on the coast and treats victims of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Everyone who found themselves on the campground was changed by it. Some have even called it the Stonewall of the South.

The Hensons were often asked why they chose to settle and establish their organization in the hostile climate of rural Mississippi. Wanda replied, “Why not in Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation and the most oppressed? It’s where I was born, it’s where I’m from”. Brenda says, “They don’t need Camp Sister Spirit in California.”