OVETT, MISS. -- Brenda and Wanda Henson are two lesbians in love, but when they painted their gates and tractor lavender and revealed their intention to open a feminist retreat here, someone shot a dog and draped it over their mailbox, and the harassing phone calls began.
At a meeting last week, about 250 residents and local religious leaders decried the Hensons as strident "loud and proud" lesbians out to recruit daughters of the community into a homosexual lifestyle the neighbors believe is damned by God. They want to run the Hensons and their nonprofit group, Camp Sister Spirit, out of little Ovett, a one-store town in the pine woods of southeastern Mississippi, where residents erect yard signs with Bible quotations.
The Hensons and national gay and lesbian leaders are describing the controversy over Camp Sister Spirit as a civil rights battle and have called on the Justice Department and Attorney General Janet Reno to intervene. Last week, the federal Community Relations Service, an arm of the Justice Department, assured the Hensons it would monitor the situation and alerted the FBI.
"Is sexual preference a civil right?" asked Paul Walley, a lawyer from nearby Richton who is advising the antifeminists and seeking ways to legally force the Hensons off the 120-acre hog farm they bought earlier this year for $60,000.
"We don't want to see Ovett turned into Lesbianville, U.S.A.," Walley said. "They're going to be busing lesbians in from all over the country. They're going to be loud and proud in our stores, and we're just terrified."
Meanwhile, Brenda and Wanda Henson, who took the same last name although their union is not recognized by the state of Mississippi, say they too are afraid.
In the last month, someone shot and killed a stray female dog, placed its carcass on their mailbox and stuffed the box with sanitary napkins.
Low-flying helicopters have buzzed their property. Brenda Henson said that drunken armed men and teenage boys have appeared on their land in the middle of the night and that the couple has received harassing phone calls.
"Drunk rednecks calling from bars," Brenda Henson said. "Calling us 'lesbuns' and saying things like, do we sell women, and 'Can we watch?' "
The women sounded air horns into the phone to deter the callers. They also are fortifying their hilltop retreat by installing lights and security cameras, and arming themselves.
"We're going to do whatever we have to do to stay here," Brenda Henson said. "I know the kind of people I'm dealing with." She called the harassers "rednecks" and said they were the same people who donned the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan 30 years ago.
The couple had not expected this sort of reception when they bought the property near the DeSoto National Forest in Wanda Henson's home state, where they had hoped to establish their feminist retreat.
"I know this, those ladies are scared, and someone is probably going to get hurt," said a young cattleman who lives nearby and asked that his name not be used. "I'm more live-and-let-live than a lot of folks around here. If they bought the property fair and square, it's nobody's business what they do with it."
But the cattleman said it is only natural that teenagers, "lit by a couple of beers," would sneak onto the property to have a look. "If I was a little younger, I'd probably be up there, too, trying to convert them. That's the way it is."
Those opposed to the feminist retreat, however, say they fear it is the Hensons and other lesbians who will do the converting. They also worry that women attending retreats at Camp Sister Spirit will try to tell the children of Ovett that being homosexual is natural and normal.
"Jones County, this is our wake-up call!" J.D. Hendry, an Ovett resident and a leader of the group opposed to the camp, wrote in the local newspaper. "Our community is full of fine, Christian citizens, who welcome strangers with open arms, but I feel we must stop this lesbian colony from growing roots in our land. . . . I am personally not ready to have South Mississippi turned into a haven for every stray lesbian that wants to settle down in Jones County."
Hendry and others point to a newsletter written by the Hensons that refers to "land-dyke" work (such as fixing roads) and showering in pairs. The Hensons say the newsletter was written for their lesbian friends and probably was stolen from their mailbox before being passed around Jones County.
The neighbors also say that "no males allowed" signs were erected on the fallow farm and that the newsletter said all "womyn" (as the Hensons and some feminists spell it) and girls would be welcome at the retreat, but boys only to the age of 8.
"They're trying to link us to some kind of pederast groups," Brenda Henson said. "For them to suggest that we would harm any child is repugnant to me. Our lives are about helping people and educating the ignorant."
A nonprofit organization run by the Hensons, also called Camp Sister Spirit, has been operating a food bank in Gulfport, primarily for older women, and the couple has been helping battered women and people with AIDS.
"Some of us are lesbians," Brenda Henson explained. "Some are non-lesbians."
The Hensons and dozens of volunteers will continue their charitable work on the Gulf Coast, she said. The Hensons envision their farm as a safe, affordable place for women to hold retreats and workshops. They are building a kitchen and dormitories to house about 200.
Walley, the attorney, said, "Let's call it what it is, a lesbian camp."
Those opposed to the retreat are to meet again on Jan. 4 to discuss their options. Walley said the Jones County Board of Supervisors could pass ordinances against the group, or residents could sue, citing a danger to "the health and morals" of the community, or could try to oust them as a public nuisance. But he acknowledged that those possibilities "are slim chances."
So far, none of the local religious leaders or residents has met with the Hensons. "I don't see any common ground," Walley said. "What can we say but 'We don't want you here and we want you to leave'. . . . It's a Mexican standoff."
Brenda and Wanda Henson said they're not leaving, except to appear this week on the Oprah Winfrey show. Brenda Henson said offers of support have been pouring in.
"We've asked for other women to come and show their support," Henson said. "And now there's going to be a lot of women -- including lesbians -- on this hilltop, which is exactly what these people feared most."