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Book on Sisters looks at intersection of camp, drag

by Brian Bromberger

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence led a funeral march at an ACT-UP Day of the Dead action at the state Capitol in Sacramento October 29, 1993. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence led a funeral march at an ACT-UP Day of the Dead action at the state Capitol in Sacramento October 29, 1993. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

It all started on Easter weekend 1979 in San Francisco, when three men with nothing else interesting to do donned retired nuns' habits that had been donated by a convent in Cedar Rapids, Iowa "for a theatrical production." They added whiteface with some rouge and lipstick, and then walked through the Castro. Later that day they appeared at a gay nude beach at Lands End, followed by a stop at a high-end coffee shop in Pacific Heights.

In August they presented themselves at the Castro Street Fair as an order - that's when the fair took place then - passing out cards soliciting for members to join the new drag nuns' group. This was the birth of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, self-described as "21st century queer nuns," whose mission is "to promulgate universal joy and the expiation of stigmatic guilt," by offering outreach, support, and protest on behalf of more than 83 communities on four continents.

A new book, "Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody," written by Melissa M. Wilcox and published by New York University Press, gives the background, history, and insights into the role the Sisters play across queer culture and the religious landscape. Wilcox is professor and chair of religious studies at UC Riverside. She has written two well-received books in the field, "Coming Out in Christianity: Religion, Identity, and Community," and "Queer Women and Religious Individualism," both published by Indiana University Press. Wilcox, 46, declined to state how she identifies. She was interviewed via email for the Bay Area Reporter.

Wilcox's interest in the Sisters developed having grown up in the Bay Area, where she saw them at Pride parades, as well as interviewing one for her "Queer Women" book. Wilcox, who did her doctoral work as part of a research group that encouraged the study of religion in unexpected places, and having spent her career writing about interaction with religion in LGBTQ communities, saw the Sisters as a "fascinating opportunity to think about religion, sexuality, gender, embodiment, and activism that reflect the complex communities in which the Sisters work and from which they draw their members."

She sees the Sisters as embodying serious parody, which is defined as "a form of cultural protest in which a disempowered group parodies an oppressive cultural institution, while simultaneously claiming, for itself, what it believes to be an equally good or superior enactment of one or more culturally respected aspects of that same institution."

The Sisters aren't just camping or spoofing Roman Catholic nuns, but argue quite seriously that they are nuns.

"That makes what they do more than performative protest or camp, even as what they do is in part both performative protest and camp," Wilcox wrote in her email.

"Many Sisters would claim the term camp," she added. "I don't know that it's either a compliment or criticism. I'd call it description. I argue in the book that camp may be the key to understanding and, perhaps even, resolving the apparent paradox of serious parody. While I agree with the many writers who have refused to fix camp in place by defining it, I like their approach of understanding camp not through a set definition, but through its practice. 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 a part of; it's how serious parody is done."

Ken Bunch, who as Sister Vish brought those nun habits to San Francisco in 1979, told the B.A.R. he helped start the order because he wanted a creative outlet.

"I would say that the conformity of the 1970s led to my boredom, and boredom breeds great creativity," Bunch wrote in an email. "If I had not brought those nun's habits from Iowa, we might be the Clowns of Perpetual Indulgence."

Misconceptions
One of the biggest misconceptions about the Sisters is that they're mocking nuns. Wilcox insists mockery is different from camp in that the former implies a level of contemptuousness, when, in fact, many Sisters admire Roman Catholic nuns. Wilcox noted that one way to bring a tear to a Sisters' eye is to mention there are Roman Catholic nuns who respect them and their work. Wilcox noted that Roman Catholic nuns, like everyone else, have a wide range of theological and political commitments. Some have commended the Sisters' work, while others find their parody and their criticisms of the church to be too sharp.

"Another way to say this is that some respect the serious side and take the parody side in stride or even appreciate it, whereas others either aren't aware of the serious side or feel that the parody negates it," Wilcox wrote. "I'd guess that more Roman Catholic nuns have come to appreciate the Sisters' work over the years as the Sisters have become more widely (and better) known."

In fact, Wilcox argued that the serious part of their parody - the activist and charity work they do - is what makes the Sisters stand out.

"The combination of the two - seriousness and parody together - is what makes them successful," Wilcox wrote. "And the Sisters themselves have known that from very early on."

HIV/AIDS
Soon after their formation, the Sisters had to deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Wilcox noted that unlike other groups, they were prepared to do this work.

"By the summer of 1980, the Sisters had already developed the mission statement that they still have today," she wrote. "They were exploring theatrical work, protest, fundraising, and even spiritual development as aspects of the order. So, although the AIDS epidemic shifted the focus of the order, at least for awhile, and at least in San Francisco (less so, in some ways, in the Australian order, for instance), the fact that the order survived the devastations of the epidemic is due in part to the fact that major groundwork had been laid well before people began dying in significant numbers."

Also, very early on, the Sisters promoted safe-sex education among the masses and fundraising for HIV/AIDS care with many houses still prioritizing sexual health as their main focus today.

The Sisters now have houses throughout the world, many of which are long-standing.

"The Sisters became popular abroad long before they became popular in the U.S.," Wilcox wrote. "Until around the turn of the 21st century, houses within the U.S. were outnumbered by houses beyond the U.S. and at least three houses were founded outside the U.S. (in Toronto, Sydney, and Melbourne) before the second U.S. house (Seattle) began.

"So, the question is, really, why they're experiencing such rapid growth in the U.S. - and have been doing so for roughly the last 13 years," she continued. "There are lots of possible explanations, and most likely the real story contains some complex combinations of them. They include political changes, the shifting fortunes of drag, the internet, internal organization to support new houses, and, perhaps, the coming of age of a generation keenly responsive to irony."

Controversy
This is not to say that the Sisters haven't engendered controversy. One of the biggest misconceptions about the Sisters is that they're all gay, cisgender men. In fact, women and transgender people have been members for many years.

"I argue in the book that serious parody, like all forms of parody and camp, is a double-edged sword that, wielded incautiously or unthinkingly, can do unintended harm," Wilcox wrote in her email. "The Sisters are fond of saying that they are mirrors of their community. They mean that they mirror the community's beauty, and that is true in very profound ways. But caught up in that same mirroring can also, at times, be an uncritical reiteration of the biases and limitations of the communities that the Sisters draw their members from."

Wilcox said that at times, women "have encountered significant sexism in the order; trans, nonbinary, and genderqueer folks have sometimes encountered transphobia or heterosexism; and Sisters of color have encountered racism."

Some left the Sisters, while others fought back.

The Sisters most famous controversy happened in San Francisco in 2007 at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in the Castro, which Wilcox describes in detail.

"In 2007, Archbishop [George] Niederauer was scheduled to say Mass at Most Holy Redeemer, the Roman Catholic parish in the Castro district," Wilcox wrote. "It became clear quite quickly that some conservative Catholic groups, suspicious of Niederauer already, were concerned about how he might represent the church in the so-called gay parish, and were planning to attend. Two members of the San Francisco house of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence shared that concern (though from the other side of the theological and political spectrum), and they also decided to attend, in habit. Both partook in the Eucharist, one being Roman Catholic and the other one mistakenly believing that it would be disrespectful not to do so, and the archbishop served them without batting an eye.

"The Sisters were welcomed by parishioners and all appeared well until one of the conservative Catholic visitors to the parish posted a video he'd taken of the archbishop serving the Sisters," Wilcox wrote. "The video went viral, the scandal went international, [Fox News'] Bill O'Reilly went apoplectic, and the rest is history, (with Niederauer eventually publicly apologizing, which bishops almost never do)."

Wilcox said the incident showed the complexity between the Sisters and the church.

"The archbishop served the Sisters politely and respectfully; they received the Host equally politely and respectfully. At least some of the people at Mass that day appeared to be grateful for the Sisters' presence. The folks who went off the rails about the event were conservative Catholics who seem to have all been laypeople," Wilcox wrote.

"By the time the dust settled, the story had been reshaped to be about a couple of upstart drag queens who went up to take Communion in order to stick a finger in the church's eye," Wilcox wrote. "Social conservatives of all stripes and sexualities and genders thought that was terrible, and folks who oppose the church - or at least the hierarchy - thought it was amazing, and the true complexity of the story got completely drowned out. The Sisters have built bridges before with Roman Catholic religious priests, monks, and nuns, and with Roman Catholic laypeople - including having some of those laypeople as their own members. There's no reason to believe that they won't keep doing so."

Wilcox's answer implies there is an interest in spirituality among the Sisters, even if they aren't a religious group.

"As an order, as an organization, spirituality isn't central to them," Wilcox wrote. "But it is important to many individual Sisters, and in some houses spirituality also plays a role. Quite a few of the members of the order whom I interviewed (mostly Sisters and guards, who protect them from verbal and physical assault) 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.

"That said, the order also welcomes atheists and people who find both religion and spirituality suspect," she continued. "However, many Sisters speak of a sense of calling. They join to serve their communities, and to do so fabulously. Community service and glitter - what's not to love?"

But one could also say that however they may individually define spirituality, it may indirectly influence the Sister's activism. Wilcox noted that "what many members of the order value about activism is the emphasis on joy. Rage is such a critical part of activism and is so valuable in so many ways, but many activists find that it becomes unsustainable; people burn out on rage. They don't on joy."

Wilcox, in her work, wants to get the word out that there are queer and trans folks who are religious and any work done in this field has to go beyond what straight people think or say about the LGBTQ community. Wilcox hopes her book will entice other people to explore this concept of performative religious activism vis-à-vis serious parody.

"I can't imagine that the Sisters invented that tactic and that no one else has ever used it, so I'm interested in seeing where else it shows up and how it might be useful for activist movements in the future," she wrote.

Another takeaway from the book is Wilcox's desire that readers will understand the order better.

The initial reaction of the Sisters to her book has been positive and enthusiastic.

"I see so much promise in the Sisters' work and any questions I raise is done to try to support the order in coming even closer to its ideals," she wrote in the email. "It's shocking to me how little has been written on the order and I think that's because writers (unlike photographers) haven't known quite what to do with it. 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."

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