Tuesday, May 6, 2008

We're back from Ovett, Mississippi

Brent Cox of Mississippi ACLU speaks at LGBT Summit

It's hard to put into words the feelings we had after spending three days in rural Mississippi at the LGBT Activists and Allies Regional Summit at Camp Sister Spirit (http://www.campsisterspirit.com/401.html). For people like us who live in San Francisco it felt almost like a step back in time to the dark days when gay people in this country had almost no visibility. And what little visibility we had was anything but positive. On the other hand, to see the courage of the people who attended and their willingness to connect and move forward was exciting. There was a job to be done and they were seeking ways--tentatively and with little outside support--to "get er done". Here are some of the difficulties that were articulated:

  • isolation

  • limited resources

  • apathy

  • developing a critical mass/mobilizing

  • survival

  • failure to see the bigger picture

On the agenda were workshops by Brent Cox of Mississippi ACLU entitled "Queers Looking for Trouble", a presentation about the rise of HIV/AIDS in the state by Paul Overstreet and another on reproductive freedom/AIDS action by Shawna Davis and Valencia Robinson. Also in attendance were members of the University of Southern Mississippi Gay/Straight Alliance. Check out their video on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZQ9JbTcWDI&feature=related.

The weekend culminated in a drag show in a pig barn on the property. Something like a dozen drag queens from all across the state performed for us, an audience of about fifty people that included the summit attendees, a group of witches (heterosexual) from the area and some assorted straight guys and even a couple of teenaged girls. The divas performed for tips only that were eagerly stuffed into their bras or hands as they performed and returned as a donation to the financially struggling Camp Sister Spirit. You know you've witnessed something special when an elderly straight women in the rural south dances up to a tall, skinny black drag queen and folds a dollar bill into her outstretched hand as the audience applauds and cheers. The weekend changed my thinking--which to be truthful consisted of half-hearted redneck and right wing religous stereotypes--about the deep south.

Overseeing it all was Andrea (Andie) Gibbs-Henson, guiding light of Camp Sister Spirit. In spite of the fact that her neighbors are somewhat more accepting of her and the camp now than in the past, it wasn't so long ago that harrassment, including the killing of a dog and bullet holes in her mailbox were all too common occurrences. Andie attributes the turnaround in thinking to her readiness to help--when the government was virtually a no-show--in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The camp contributed massive amounts of food to local residents who had been devastated by the storm and took in a group of Pentacostal women when the local Baptist churches would not.

Up next will be a report about our attendance at the Equality Forum in Philadelphia.


Anonymous said...

I'm a queer guy from MS, and have attended the summit in the past, but couldn't this year, unfortunately.
Thank you for covering this event.
However, I find your stereotyped view of MS very concerning. Phrases like "stepping into the past," for example. I assure you, it is 2008 in MS as well as in San Francisco. Being a rural, Southern state we do have our own challenges to overcome, but liberal/progressive/and radical Mississippians are challenging racism, homophobia, poverty and gender oppression daily.
Your class-based assumptions are really harmful, that all (poor) Mississippians are rednecks or repressive religious types.
I'm thankful that you said the summit made you think about such things, and I would encourage you to challenge others with stereotyped regional stereotypes. Truly, I can be a vegetarian, queer, socialist, and anti-racist Redneck Christian if I want. If you are interested in building a queer community, please check your clasism at the CA state line.
To address the notion of a "backward" place, I assure you that I, for one, do not want MS to "progress" toward being like San Francisco. Not that San Francisco is a bad place, but We are Mississippi, with our history of violence and struggle, race relations, music, food, hospitality and people. Yes, I fight for LGBT equality and visibility in the state, but when it is achieved it will not be that we are becoming more like you, but that we are calling on our unique traditions and culture to realize the call of equality for all our citizens.

Andie Gibbs-Henson said...

Well, you see what the summit has done. Educated people..which is the purpose of Ed and Bob's play to begin with. Let's face it folks...Mississippi is a unique place to work and live, especially if your different. People from all over the WORLD think we still have outhouses and we still lynch people (and we do right in Parchman Penetentiary...I got back up evidence to prove it)It is up to us to educate a world not just a few people here and there. Ed and Bob's venue will allow us to reach out to many people who believed the way they did before they came and met us. This is a success! Nothing negative about it. Look at the BEST side of this. Please. I am so sick of the complaining and moaning. Folks need to get out of the bars and into the streets! I personally attest that the MAJORITY of queers in Mississippi are in the "bar culture". This needs to change if we are to prove to people that we are not stereotypical. Don'tcha think?

Andie Gibbs-Henson, M. Ed.
Camp Sister Spirit Folk School
and a Proud Mississippi Lesbian and VOTING democrat!

Ed and Bob said...

To Prince-Mab we'd like to say thanks for engaging with this issue. Your comments and viewpoint are very much appreciated. Without them, and others like them along the way, the theatre piece we are trying to create will not have an authentic voice nor will it be the wakeup call we want.

Your point that Mississippi is its own unique place and not beholden to San Francisco or anyplace else for its direction is well taken. It is not our intent to impose outside values but only to record our impressions. The comments about redneck and right wing religious stereotypes, we realize now, are insensitive but as you pointed out Camp Sister Spirit made us think. And it gave us the opportunity to change. So now when the standard stereotypes of what it's like in the south are brought out we can challenge them--that's not a bad outcome. Which is not to say that we're experts on LGBT life in the south after a three-day visit, but we know more now than we did before.

We hope that you will drop back into our blog again and continue to say what you think.

Anonymous said...

Rights of Passage are personal, compelling stories that need to be shared.
In 1997, I was assistant to the COO of a nationally known HMO. At a senior management retreat conducted by a “facilitator”, each member was asked to describe for the group a painful period in their life. I “came out” to my coworkers for the first time. I also shared about being in a relationship with a man for the twenty years. I described the pain and isolation of living through a betrayal and breakup of that relationship.
From that moment forward, the COO of the HMO would not work with me. I will never forget the shock and humiliation of that experience which resulted in my leaving the company. I did not look for work again in that region of CA and moved to the Bay Area.