The Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence started on the streets of San Fran with an AK-47, fought through the Aids crisis in the 1980s and are still here today – defiant, daring and in drag
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration
I hate Wordsworth. His poetry’s shit, and he’s wrong. Some nuns aren’t quiet. And if they’re breathless, it’s probably because they’re trying to fundraise, dance, keep their wimple on and do drugs all at the same time.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an order of queer nuns founded in San Francisco, aren’t your typical convent. Most nuns don’t win prizes for riding a fully functional missile in the middle of San Francisco Pride to raise publicity for their War On Venereal Disease campaign. Nor do they get photographed smashing metal barricades through the window of the State Building when the governor vetoes LGBT rights bills.
The order was born in San Francisco on Easter weekend, 1979. As the gay community succumbed to the stiflingly butch aesthetic of the ‘Castro Clone’ and distinctly conservative ideas of what masculinity could be, three men took to the streets. With full beards, nuns’ habits, whiteface and an AK-47, Ken Bunch, Fred Bungard and Baruch Golden traversed the Bay Area, swinging by restaurants and bars, finally heading up to the city’s notoriously cruisy nudist beach.
“We did it due to boredom,” says Bunch, soon after known as Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch, “but it was like dynamite – psychological car wrecks left and right. We knew we had something explosive that we could put to work for political ends.” Along with Sister Missionary Position, Sister Hysterectoria-Agnes and Reverend Mother, the order was founded. In the words of Sister Kitty Catalyst, the order’s archivist, “a legacy was born”.
The order was formed with an explicit mission statement: “to promulgate joy and expiate stigmatic guilt”. In the context of the nascent but growing movement towards LGBT liberation a decade post-Stonewall, it felt defiant and celebratory. Now, as a statement released just before the Aids crisis broke in ’81 and decimated queer life throughout the world, it feels profoundly tragic and morbidly prescient.
“In 1987, as the Pope flew into New York, the San Francisco Sisters performed an exorcism on an effigy of the Pope in defiance of the rabidly homophobic and deadly message the church was preaching”
In expelling shame and spreading joy, forming an order of nuns makes a strange kind of sense. If the duty of a nun is the unremunerated and selfless service of a community – particularly the poor, marginalised and forgotten – the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence aren’t just performance artists, they’re fully fledged nuns. Some Sisters – though not all – are resolute about this. They aren’t drag queens. They’re nuns, with a lifelong vocation to serve their community.
That said, drag aesthetics are integral to the Sisters’ mission. Their flowing black habits clash with flawless whiteface, the canvas on which each Sister makes and remakes themselves. “It’s intrinsic to being a Sister that you violate social norms,” declares Sister Vicious. The very act of appearing as a Sister is disruptive; simultaneously parodying religion, gender, sexuality, and institutional conservatism, it’s hard to imagine other aesthetics that are quite so politically potent.
“Just putting on drag does not make you political or anything more than a humourist,” explains Sister Dana Van Iquity. “It’s what you say in drag, what you do in drag, where you appear in drag, and for what purpose you don the drag that matters.” As activists, their carnivalesque attack on gender necessarily draws the attention of oblivious straight society. As fundraisers for a range of charities, the visual excess they embody draws crowds and dollars. The Sisters forged a unique aesthetic and weaponised it.
Their parody of religion has drawn the most vehement criticism. To this day, they perform queer blessings, benedictions and appear at weddings, always dealing in high smut with lashings of high camp. In 1987, as the Pope flew into New York, the San Francisco Sisters performed an exorcism on an effigy of the Pope in defiance of the rabidly homophobic (and in the context of Aids, deadly) message the church was preaching. Condemnation from across Christian America poured in, and they earned themselves a spot on the Papal List of Heretics.
Safe to say, the righteous fury of conservatives extracted about as many fucks as you’d expect from the Sisters. “Like, please,” drawls Sister Kitty with a side-eye so pronounced she might as well have had cataracts. “It’s publicity. Whenever the Church complains, we make tonnes more money.” With more than $1 million raised in San Francisco alone, it seems that they’re right.
On the whole, the Sisters’ brand of satire isn’t a particularly malicious form of parody, and many of their flock see their activism, community work and fundraising as profoundly spiritual. For Sister Vicious, “the real spiritual revelation of being a Sister is what you discover about yourself through becoming a Sister”. Simultaneously a process of self-discovery and a turn to broader ideals, their story is basically The Pilgrim’s Progress but with way, way more dick.
Maybe the subtlest work the Sisters do, however, is queering religion to reveal the extent to which it’s already profoundly queer. “Nothing’s camper than Christmas,” squawks Kitty Catalyst as she adjusts her habit, and with “2-4-6-8, the Pope wears a dress and so will I” being a favourite chant of the Order, it seems the Sisters are in agreement.
When the Catholic church revels in aesthetic excess and high ceremony, and urges its members to don the sort of sweeping gowns that queers on the streets get killed for wearing, the theatrical mirroring that the Sisters engage in reveals the Catholic church as something it would rather not admit to itself: deliciously camp.
Unsurprisingly, the church had plenty to say about the Sisters. When congregations across the Bay Area caught wind of the Sisters’ movement, they sent preachers into the Castro, San Francisco’s queer district, to harass, shame and abuse the community. The Capitol Christian Center in Sacramento run by Reverend Coal was singled out for repeated attacks on LGBT communities, and the Sisters made sure to respond.
Sister Flatulina Grande led the Sisters and the Queer Army to the doors of the church to protest their attacks on queer life and disrupt Easter morning services. While most of the congregation poured out of the church to spew vitriol, one choir member felt differently. He joined the Sisters’ protest, and outed himself in the process. His church rejected him. His family rejected him. He was taken in by the queer community, offered a home, and joined the Order as Sister Lost and Found. The State of Nebraska intervened. He was removed from his gay fathers and forced back into a foster home. Not wishing to return, he committed suicide.
“It was a warzone over here, a battle-zone with bodies just everywhere. We couldn’t even get funeral homes to take their bodies” – Kitty Catalyst remembering the Aids crisis
Sister Lost and Found’s story isn’t isolated, and the Sisters organised against homophobia and transphobia on multiple axes. Sister Roma pioneered the STOP the Violence campaign in 1991 to combat the spate of attacks in the Castro. Homes across San Francisco installed placards in their windows, marking them out as havens for those under attack. While physical violence was nothing new, and could be targeted with tried-and-tested strategies, the Sisters faced a unique threat with the onslaught of Aids. The crisis first broke into the press in June 1981 as reports told of a cancer affecting young gay men. Informally known as Wogs (Wrath of God Syndrome), then Grid (Gay Related Immune Deficiency), then finally termed HIV and Aids, the pandemic exploded queer communities at the very time they were beginning to establish themselves as open, proud and defiant social formations.
“It was a warzone over here, a battle-zone with bodies just everywhere,” says Sister Vicious, the first time in our discussion that the tone falters, the wit and irreverence pauses, and tragedy seeps in. “We couldn’t even get funeral homes to take their bodies,” remembers Kitty Catalyst. The queer community and the Sisters participated at every stage. They fundraised for Aids charities, holistically cared for the dying, led marches on state buildings, held memorial services for their hordes of dead friends, lovers and allies, and, inevitably, tried to spread some joy in a time of tragedy.
Aids irrevocably altered queer identity. “The Aids pandemic brought about this whole understanding that quality of life counts, not quantity,” says Sister Kitty. It forged a coalition amongst disparate communities across class, race and gender divides, and fundamentally changed notions of what it was to be queer, what it meant to be a community, and what it meant to love, fuck and care. As sophisticated antiretroviral treatments have limited the fatality of Aids in the west (though notably not in sub-Saharan Africa and other impoverished areas of the world), the Sisters have moved with the times, while never forgetting their dead.
“For queers, so much of our history is just automatically expunged and erased,” said Sister Kitty. “I think it’s part of our job to resurrect it, relive it, honour it and understand it. It takes time. It takes effort. But I’m also very hopeful – I see it happening.”
The Sisters’ importance isn’t just historical, like some kind of monolith of a bygone age of queer campaigning. They’re still acting up, tackling homophobia, transphobia, the intersections of race and sexuality, class issues and the tech boom induced housing crisis plaguing San Francisco. With over 30 chapters in the States, dozens more worldwide, and new orders being formed each year, they’re continuing to make waves.
Their views on the current state of queer culture are insightful. On drag, Sister Vicious is withering: “A lot of drag now is like musak, you know that shitty music you get in elevators?” I grin. “It’s a bit like disco music, it was so cutting-edge, then it died and moved into hotel lobbies. That’s what a lot of drag is now.” The Sisters admire what Ru Paul has done in raising awareness of the richness of drag culture, but each seems dissatisfied with the depoliticisation that comes with mainstreaming.
If drag has lost some of its political commitment, some Sisters fear the queer community at large has too: “Lately the protest crowds are visibly thinning out. Where have all the activists gone?” Sister Dana’s point is echoed by Sister Kitty: “People get so caught up in the daily minutiae of a partner, kids, that sort of thing, that they forget to look outside of their world” – a worry that with same sex marriage, with a certain class of privileged queers gaining greater acceptance, might become even more acute.
Ultimately, they’re optimistic about queer culture, and refuse some of the in-fighting that has flared up in recent years. They vehemently refuse that drag and trans issues are inimicable, demanding that both communities learn from and communicate with each other. They refuse to accept homophobia, AIDS or marginalization are over, whatever #LoveWins might imply. And crucially, they still “promulgate joy” whether by genderfucking their way through Pride performances, hosting queer nights and sex parties, or by livening up a gay community that’s cripplingly close to settling into a pair of cream chinos and having shit vanilla sex in their sea-view four bed.
“We Sisters will remain relevant until all our wish-list is fulfilled,” states Sister Dana, “Civil rights for all will have been achieved. That means everyone - not just us queers.”
So fuck Wordsworth. The best nuns aren’t quiet. They’re here, they’re queer, and they’re really fucking fun.