New Book Takes Serious Look at Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and their 40-year history as queer activists and drag nuns are the subject of a new book, Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious ParodyAuthor Melissa M. Wilcox, chair of religious studies at UC Riverside, chronicles the history and work of the group founded in San Francisco’s

Castro district, which has now grown to include chapters across the country and worldwide.

On their website, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence describe their order in terms of activist goals and community outreach, in addition to the elements grounded in camp and performance:

“The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is a leading-edge Order of queer nuns. Since our first appearance in San Francisco on Easter Sunday, 1979, the Sisters have devoted ourselves to community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment. We believe all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty and we use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit.”

While one of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the Sisters is their appearance and participation in drag, their community outreach work has spanned decades. Since 1980 they have worked in fundraising for HIV/AIDS treatments and educating about sexual health and safe practices, and recent years have included additional outreach with LGBTQ+ youth and extensive fundraising for similar work.

In an interview with Brian Bromberger of the Bay Area Reporter, Wilcox shared her understanding of the camp elements of the group:

“Camp in the Sisters is how the order can engage simultaneously in respectful emulation of Roman Catholic nuns and sharp denunciation of the institution those nuns are part of; it’s how serious parody is done.”

Two Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

Bromberger writes: “Wilcox noted that one way to bring a tear to a Sister’s eye is to mention that there are Roman Catholic nuns who respect them and their work.”

While elements of the Sisters’ projects have drawn criticism by some conservative clergy and lay members of the Catholic church, many have found reason to celebrate their dedication to their work and activism. Wilcox stated:

“The Sisters have built bridges before with Roman Catholic religious priests, monks, and nuns, and with Roman Catholic laypeople—including some of those laypeople as their own members. There’s no reason to believe that they won’t keep doing so.”

Wilcox says that many of the Sisters she interviewed for the book “saw their ministry with the order as an outgrowth and an expression of their spirituality, and a few saw the Sisters themselves as a source of spiritual development…many Sisters speak of a sense of calling.”

In general, Wilcox is hoping that the publication of her book and the continued sharing of the Sisters’ work and story will lead to a broader awareness of their existence and activism:

“People tend to understand the parody and overlook the seriousness, and as a result the Sisters are part of the wallpaper in any number of books and articles on queer activism yet have hardly ever taken center stage. More needs to be written.”

Spreading the word about the continued work of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence provides a broader understanding about the many ways that performative gender and religious parody can open up conversations of widespread justice and acceptance. The Sisters, according to Wilcox, place a deep emphasis on joy in their activism: “Rage is such a critical part of activism and is so valuable in many ways, but many activists find that it becomes unsustainable; people burn out on rage. They don’t on joy.” It is a joy to share the work of these Sisters, and we hope that joy and faith can continue to fuel more projects to improve the world.

Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, August 10, 2018

3 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    I’m really sorry (and somewhat reluctant) to say it, but that close-up photo of the two “Sisters” has an almost demonic ambiance. I find it very creepy, bordering on downright scary. Does anybody else have the same reaction? If so, why would we be feeling this way? Perhaps it would radiate a different kind of energy if they were at least smiling? Any thoughts on this?

    Reply
  2. Sawchuk
    Sawchuk says:

    Holy Fools

    I am a Catholic woman and a PFLAG mother. I had the opportunity to meet with some of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. I was skeptical about them, particularly about their “habits.” It was a stretch for me. This is what I learned.

    The Sisters themselves see their mission as essentially spiritual, as one member put it: “The lightness of everything, in addition to the white face and the nuns’ habits, are a mechanism to reach out to people. When we’re dressed up like that, kind of like sacred clowns, it allows people to interact with us.” Far from belittling women in religious orders, they believe their dedication to community service “honors and emulates the unstinting devotion” of actual nuns who work within their neighborhoods.

    They explain their outrageous costumes as a way of making the world safer for LGBTQ individuals: “If there’s room for us to look like we do, then there’s room for you to be who and what you are without shame.”

    The habits also enable them to talk with members of the LGBTQ community others can’t reach. They go to places where LGBTQ persons meet and talk about safer sex practices and HIV/AIDS prevention. They also listen. Many people they meet feel able to tell these “sisters” about their lives–their struggles and pain, the rejection they have experienced, their marginalization and even self-hatred.

    I am glad that this book has been written about them, and hope other people will take the time to find out what they are all about.

    Reply

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