Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

Melissa M. Wilcox

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SISTERS OF PERPETUAL INDULGENCE TIMELINE

1979 (April 14):  Holy Saturday. The first manifestation took place in San Francisco. (The anniversary is celebrated each Holy Saturday, the day before the Western Christian holiday of Easter, not each April 14).

1979 (August 19):  The Sisters first manifested as an order of nuns at the Castro Street Fair.

1979-1980 (Winter):  The order was named the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

1980 (March):  The Sisters joined their first protest.

1980 (July 27):  The Constitution and Rules of Order were ratified (these applied only to the San Francisco house once other houses begin to form, but they contained the well-known mission statement that constitutes the mission of all members of the order).

1981 (June 28): The Toronto house was founded, beginning the presence of the order in Canada.

1981 (October 17):  The Sydney house was founded, beginning the organizational presence of the order in Australia.

1982 (June):  The first edition of Play Fair! was published.

1986 (October 1):  The Toronto house publicly announced its closure, explaining that “Our image has blinded many to the work we were doing.”

1990-1991:  Houses were founded in London, Paris, and Heidelberg (the latter soon relocated to Berlin), beginning the organizational presence of the order in Europe.

1990s (Early):  The Colombia house was founded, beginning the organizational presence of the order in South America.

2000:  The Montevideo, Uruguay house was founded.

FOUNDER/GROUP HISTORY

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are an international order of religiously unaffiliated, noncelibate, volunteer nuns who “manifest” as their Sister “personas” anywhere from a few times a week to once a month or so but who take vows for life. Though most of their members identify as LGBTQ, the order welcomes members of all genders and all sexualities. The Sisters trace their origins to a chance outing on Easter  Saturday in 1979. As their “Sistory” (Sister history) tells it, three friends were bored that day and decided to put on the retired Roman Catholic nuns’ habits that one of them had left over from a drag show and stroll through some of the gay areas of San Francisco [Image at right] (the Castro neighborhood and Lands End, the location of a famed gay nude beach). The clearly male nuns, one wearing white pancake makeup and toting a slender toy machine gun, made such a splash that they considered manifesting again. The next month, one member of the original group recruited another friend, and they showed up to cheerlead at a gay softball game. Sistory has it that they stole the show.

The third manifestation of the order took place in August of that same year, at the Castro Street Fair. Two of the group of three that first manifested were back in the habit, as was the one who had joined in for the softball game. They added one more friend to round out the picture, and one of them suggested that they should have names and should not just dress as nuns but be nuns. They took the names Sister Adhanarisvara (better known by her later name, Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch), Sister Solicitation (better known by his later name, Sister Hysterectoria), Sister Missionary Position (now known as Sister Soami), and Reverend Mother, the Abbess.

During the fall the new Sisters recruited additional members, often including them simply for a photo shoot or a dance performance (Sister Hysterectoria is a choreographer and dance therapist). Sister Hysterectoria and Reverend Mother had attended the first Radical Faerie Gathering in September, and many of the new additions to the order came from those they met while there. In the winter of 1979/1980, the new nuns decided on a name and declared themselves the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. By March, they had joined their first protest, intoning a Rosary in Time of Nuclear Peril as they processed through Golden Gate Park with anti-nuclear protesters to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island. That summer, not much over a year after the founding of the order, its original constitution and rules of order were ratified by the membership. Although the order is acephalous and decentralized organizationally, and these rules of order therefore apply only to the San Francisco house, the mission statement articulated in this original document has been taken up in one form or another by every house of Sisters around the world.

The early San Francisco Sisters engaged in a wide variety of activities, from protest to eclectic and self-directed forms of spiritual exploration to performance to fundraising. In 1982, through the work of several Sisters who worked in health care and with the help of Toronto cartoonist Gary Ostrom, the house produced the first-ever sex-positive safer sex guide written by and for gay men. This is one of the order’s most important early accomplishments, and it came at a time when a new syndrome of illnesses was beginning to spread rapidly through their community. The pamphlet, entitled Play Fair!, [Image at right]  lists among other sexually transmitted infections pneumocystis pneumonia and Kaposi’s sarcoma. Just a few months later, these would come to be known as symptoms of AIDS.

The order spread steadily through the 1980s and 1990s, despite, perhaps because of, the ravages of AIDS in LGBTQ communities. The second house to be founded took shape in Toronto in June 1981, and the third in Sydney that October. Following the 1983 founding of the Melbourne house, the order became widespread in Australia and even had a brief presence in New Zealand in the early 1990s. The Toronto house, however, faced public opposition that it struggled to overcome, including from prominent gay leader Brent Hawkes, pastor of the Toronto congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church. In October 1986 the house announced that it was closing.

The order began to spread across the U.S. in the late 1980s, with the founding of a house in Seattle in 1987. Some of the new houses also maintained the radical activism that the San Francisco house had come to be known for; the first manifestation of the house in New York City, for example, took place at the 1989 Stop the Church protest at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral that was organized by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and WHAM! (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization).

The turn of the decade saw the beginnings of the order in Europe. An Australian Sister named Mother Ethyl Dreads-a-Flashback (also known as Sister Mary-Anna Lingus) came to London as a missionary and founded the first formally-constituted house in that city. At nearly the same time, with the support of the San Francisco house, the house in Paris took shape; its Investiture Mass was held in June, 1991. A few months later, inspired by a write-up of the Sisters by gay journalist Mark Thompson, a group of Sisters began independently manifesting in Heidelberg; these eventually became the founding members of the Berlin house.

Perhaps as the result of a workshop Mother Ethyl gave at the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA; now the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association) conference in 1990, or perhaps through other influences, a house formed in Colombia in the early 1990s. It had relatively little direct contact with other houses, perhaps because of the relative dearth of Spanish speakers in the order, and dropped out of sight ten or fifteen years later. In the meantime, though, in 2000 a house formed in Montevideo, Uruguay that remains active as of this writing, and another (less often recognized in the worldwide order) took shape in Buenos Aires shortly thereafter. Sisters also began returning to Canada in the 2000s, with missions (houses in formation) cropping up in Toronto, Vancouver, Montréal, Edmonton; as of this writing, Vancouver and Montréal now host full-fledged houses.

DOCTRINES/BELIEFS

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are neither a religion nor a spiritual organization, although some individual members find spiritual expression, sustenance, and even development through their ministry. Individual members of the order range in their own religious commitments across many of the religions (and lack thereof) represented in the societies around them.  [Image at right] The order is home to staunch atheists, agnostics, “spiritual but not religious” people, evangelical Christians, Roman Catholics, Unitarian Universalists, Jews, neo-Pagans, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and the occasional Sikh, among others. The order remains predominantly white, so many (though not all) practitioners of religious traditions that are not predominant in Europe and its settler colonies are converts.

In addition to their ministry, what members of the order share around the world is their mission, drawn from the original San Francisco constitution: “the promulgation of universal joy and the expiation of stigmatic guilt.” Some houses and regional orders add to this mission: “through public manifestation and habitual perpetration.” These commitments serve as orienting principles for many decisions that individual members and entire houses make, often on a daily basis.

Sacred story in the order commonly takes the form of Sistory, and members in formation are typically expected to learn the early history of the order and demonstrate the ability to retell it to others. Apocryphal stories also play a role in shaping members’ perceptions of the order. Among the more popular apocryphal stories in U.S. houses are the claim that the Sisters are on the Papal List (or, upping the ante, the Papal Top Ten List) of Heretics in the Roman Catholic Church, and the claim that early members of the order began wearing white pancake makeup because they were all sex workers and feared the impact on their business if their clientele realized that they were dressing in drag on the side. Neither story, to be clear, is true.

RITUALS/PRACTICES

The Sisters’ ministry varies significantly from house to house, but focuses generally on community-based activism, ranging from education and fundraising to street protest. Having been a thriving part of the San Francisco gay community at the advent of the AIDS epidemic in that city, the Sisters continue to have a particular focus on sex-positive, queer- and trans- positive safer sex education and advocacy, and many houses distribute updated, gender-inclusive, and multi-lingual editions of Play Fair! along with the safer-sex supplies many carry in their capacious purses.

Like many organizations, the Sisters have established rituals for people who attain various statuses within the order. These include elevation rituals for people moving up the ranks within the order and rituals of canonization for those becoming Saints (unlike in the Roman Catholic Church, in the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence one does not need to be deceased to attain this status).

Some houses of Sisters also perform rituals for the general public, including blessing and cleansing rituals, exorcisms, and Masses (though not, to be clear, Roman Catholic ones).

The Sisters’ early history intersects closely with that of the Radical Faeries, a neo-Pagan new religious movement for gay men that was founded by Harry Hay, Don Kilhefner, and Mitch Walker in 1979. Because of this, and particularly in the U.S., many Sister rituals have neo-Pagan overtones such as calling the directions at the start of the ritual and invoking the Goddess in her various forms.

Perhaps most prominent in the Sisters’ practice is the presence of what I term “serious parody,” in which an oppressed group parodies a culturally-valued aspect of an oppressive institution while at the same time laying claim to other aspects of that same institution. The Sisters parody Roman Catholicism, while at the same time they are very serious that they are an order of nuns, just not Roman Catholic ones. So while a Sisterly Mass, such as the Mass Against Papal Bigotry [Image at right] held in honor of Pope John Paul II’s 1987 visit to San Francisco, will have clear elements of parody and protest (a time-honored combination in queer activism) it also has profoundly serious elements. Held in a popular public square and major tourist destination in San Francisco, the Sisters’ included a solemn rite exorcising Pope John Paul II of the demons of homophobia, the distribution of gold foil-wrapped condoms on a large tray by scarlet-clad acolytes, and the canonization of assassinated gay rights leader Harvey Milk. The condoms returned at the Paris Investiture Mass in 1991 as the “Condom Savior,” accompanied by a solemn vow taken by participants in this condom communion to practice safer sex as a way of honoring the sanctity of their and their sexual partners’ lives and bodies. As scholars, we should ask ourselves how much parody and how much literally deadly seriousness is involved in the canonization of a gay Jewish activist in protest against the visit of a homophobic Pope, or in the replacement of the communion wafer and Jesus’ promise of everlasting life with the condom and its far more tangible and immediate (and reliably anti-homophobic) promise to protect against a disease that was killing more people every day.

ORGANIZATION/LEADERSHIP

Navigating a fine line between the anarchism of radical queer activism and the Radical Faerie movement, on the one hand, and the practicalities of state involvement for community organizations, the Sisters are acephalous and regionally organized. While the San Francisco house holds the trademark for the order’s name in the United States due to infighting among larger-than-life personalities in the early- to mid-1980s, it makes use of this power only when the name of the Sisters is grossly misused (as with a group of homophobic Christians seeking converts in Chicago’s Boystown in the mid-2000s, according to anecdotes from within the order).

The Sisters are organized into city-based or regional “houses;” this is a term of art indicating chapters, as the order is not residential. In North America, houses must undergo a period of growth as missions before becoming fully professed houses. During this period, they are mentored and, if successful, eventually approved through the elected, representative body known as the United Nuns’ Privy Council, or UNPC. Although at times in the past some regional or national orders (such as the French Order and the German-Speaking Order) have had a single Mother House and a single Archabbess or Archmother with the authority to approve and support the formation of new houses, the wider pattern and certainly the pattern most evident today is one of individual autonomy for houses. When a new house begins, its members often benefit from the mentoring of an established house and its more senior members, but at times houses start simply based on what they can learn from books, the Internet, and chance encounters with workshops at international conventions.

Most houses follow a hierarchical internal structure that is maintained more or less strictly in terms of the actual power held at each level of the hierarchy. Those interested in joining the order begin as Aspirants, who observe the work of their chosen house for a period of months before requesting elevation to the rank of Postulant. All elevations are decided through a vote of the fully professed members of the house, or “FP’s.” Postulants begin to learn to do the work of the order under the mentorship of one or two fully professed members, either as a Sister or as a Guard. The latter are members of the order who do more of the behind-the-scenes work and who serve as added protection for Sisters in areas where unwanted sexual advances from community members or homophobic and transphobic violence are a concern. Postulants who complete that stage of their training to their house’s satisfaction are elevated to become Novice Sisters and Novice Guards, again with formal mentorship from one or more FP’s. After a period ranging between six months and two years and often including the completion of a novice project, the novice is eligible for elevation to fully professed status, taking on the title of Sister or Guard and, for Sisters, the privilege of wearing the black veil (or whatever else she wants).

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

Being a sizeable, geographically widespread, and acephalous organization creates a number of structural challenges for the order, ranging from communication to membership policies (For instance, can someone who was excommunicated from one house become an Aspirant in another, and how would the new house know anyway?). Such an egalitarian structure among houses can also support schisms, and indeed a few cities have become well-known for being home to multiple, competing houses at the same time due to this issue. On the other hand, despite the democratic voting structure in many individual houses, the presence of a single, senior house leadership position (Mother, Abbess, Prioress, or whatever may be the title) does open houses up to the risk of autocracy. The small size of some houses can make them cliquish, or can make them vulnerable to collapse if one or two members need to step away from the order due to other commitments or to a move.

The Sisters began as “an order of gay male nuns,” wording that was initially descriptive rather than prescriptive. They began in a city whose main gay neighborhood was dominated by white men, at a time when insistent gender conformity (known as the “Castro clone” look) dominated the scene. Despite their roots in the radical, intersectional gay activism of some branches of the Gay Liberation Front and the early and persistent presence of smaller numbers of people of color, cisgender women, and transgender people within the order, these origins (repeated in other cities where the order took root in the 1980s and the early 1990s)  have encouraged self-reproduction of the dynamics of race, sex, and gender identity in the order. Some houses have made it a priority to broaden the populations they serve and those from which they draw their membership, and these efforts have clearly been paying off to at least some extent in recent years.

The Sisters also present profound yet generative challenges to scholars of religion. They are quite clear, for instance, in claiming the role of nun for themselves. Yet many observers and commentators cannot quite accept this claim, insisting on placing “nun” in quotation marks when writing about the order. What would be the consequences for the field of taking the Sisters at their word? Scholars do not, for instance, question the status of Jain nuns or Buddhist nuns, even in Western countries where nuns are equated with Roman Catholicism. We would do well to ask how our understanding of nuns, or of vowed religious in general, might change if we also resisted the urge to dispute or dismiss the Sisters’ claim to the word “nun.” Likewise, the Sisters challenge us to think in more complex ways about the location of religion. The Sisters are not a religion, no matter how broadly one defines that term, but religion (again, broadly defined) is happening in and is deeply relevant to the Sisters. Attempts to pigeonhole the order as “religious” or “secular” teach us more about our own assumptions than about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. These nuns, I submit, are good for us to think with.

IMAGES
Image #1: (Clockwise from top) Sister Adhanarisvara, Sister Roz Erection, and Sister Missionary Position at the first manifestation of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Easter Saturday 1979. Reproduced by permission of Soami Archive.
Image #2: The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence pamphlet entitled Play Fair!
Image #3: The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence group photograph.
Image #4: (Left to right) Michael Hare (spelling unknown) as Pope John Paul II, self-titled Fag Nun Assunta Femia, forebear of the order and Sister Missionary Position’s “mother in religious life,” and Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch at the 1987 Papal Mass. Photos by John Entwistle. Reprinted by permission of Soami Archive.

REFERENCES**

** The following profile is drawn almost entirely from original archival and ethnographic research. For a more complete discussion of this research, see Melissa M. Wilcox, Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody (New York University Press, 2018).

SUPPLEMENTARY RESOURCES

There are very few scholarly resources on the Sisters, as most commentators misidentify them simply as a street theater group or an unusual group of drag queens. Many call them “nuns” (in quotation marks) and ignore or simply fail to notice that the Sisters lay claim to the role of nun in all seriousness, even as they also engage in parody of Roman Catholic traditions. As a result, although the Sisters make a cameo appearance in much research on queer activism and queer community history, they rarely are considered to merit more than a single sentence in an entire book.

Published Works
Published works in which the Sisters receive more complete and accurate consideration include:

Altman, Dennis. 1986. AIDS in the Mind of America. New York: Anchor-Doubleday.

Glenn, Cathy B. 2003. “Queering the (Sacred) Body Politic: Considering the Performative Cultural Politics of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,” Theory & Event 7(1): n.p. (online resource).

Lucas, Ian. “The Color of His Eyes: Polari and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.” In Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality, edited by Anna Livia and Kira Hall, 85–94. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Wilcox, Melissa M. 2018. Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody. New York: New York University Press.

Wilcox, Melissa M. 2016. “The Separation of Church and Sex: Conservative Catholics and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.” e-misférica 12(2): n.p. (online resource).

Online Resources

Humperpickle, Sister Titania. “SisTree.” Accessed from http://perpetualindulgence.org/tree/ on 20 December 2018.

Newman, Marjorie, dir. Altered Habits. 3 mins. Stanford University, 1981. Accessed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0pNMNOT82M on 20 December 2018.

“Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.” Accessed from https://vimeo.com/thesisters on 20 December 2018.

Post Date:
21 December 2018

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