Jack Fertig, pioneering Sister, dies

  • by Liz Highleyman
  • Wednesday August 8, 2012
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Jack Fertig — a longtime gay Bay Area activist, spiritual devotee, and one of the first Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — died Sunday evening, August 5. He was 57.

Mr. Fertig had entered hospice care due to liver cancer and died at home with his partner, Elias Trevino, and other family at his side.

Though he went by several names over the years, Mr. Fertig was best known to many as Sister Boom Boom, a.k.a. Sister Rose of the Bloody Stains of the Sacred Robes of Jesus.

"He was the brightest star in the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence galaxy," said longtime friend and fellow activist Gilbert Baker. "He was a blasphemous clown, but with a very serious spirituality under that."

Mr. Fertig is widely credited with bringing queer consciousness to mainstream America, providing one of the most iconic images of San Francisco's unconventional style. The San Francisco Chronicle once described him as "the paragon of San Francisco's flamboyance."

"Jack Fertig was at once highly original and highly representative of our city," gay historian Gerard Koskovich told the Bay Area Reporter. "His most widely known creation, Sister Boom Boom, brought an inventive, sharp-witted, politically astute, and thoroughly queer edge to the long line of larger-than-life San Francisco characters that goes back at least to the Emperor Norton."

Mr. Fertig was born on February 21, 1955 in Chicago and grew up in Maryland, but his family had a long history in San Francisco dating to the 1850s so he always considered himself a native. His parents were civil rights activists and he attended political demonstrations with them as a young boy. At age 15 he told his parents he was gay, and described himself in high school as "a fat, unathletic, bookish sissy."

Mr. Fertig's interest in religion, spirituality, and the occult started early. A Pisces himself, he started studying astrology in the late 1960s and launched his professional practice in 1977. Though raised Jewish, at various times he embraced his Catholic roots and attended Episcopal churches, before ultimately converting to Islam.

"He was forever spiritually curious as he sampled faiths like good meals before finding a home in Islam," said fellow activist Waiyde Palmer.

Political activism

An activist from a young age, Mr. Fertig claimed to have attended the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, as a junior delegate rather than a protester. He gravitated toward the nascent gay liberation movement and said he was at the first New York City Stonewall March in 1970, commemorating the riots of the year before.

Making his way to San Francisco in the early 1970s, Mr. Fertig helped start the Fruit Punch gay radio show on KPFA, developed gay youth programs at the Pacific Center in Berkeley, and performed with local theater groups.

Sister Soami Delux, formerly known as Sister Missionary Position (who did not give her legal name), takes credit for recruiting Mr. Fertig to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at the 21st Street Baths in the early 1980s, when the group consisted of less than a dozen members.

As the AIDS epidemic hit the city, the Sisters produced "Play Fair," the first explicit safer sex pamphlet. In 1982 Sister Boom Boom and actress Shirley MacLaine emceed what is thought to be the first-ever AIDS fundraiser, a dog show in the Castro.

Sister Boom Boom made her mark on history when she threw her wimple into the ring in the 1982 San Francisco supervisor election. Listing her occupation as "Nun of the Above" and with a war chest of less than $1,000, she garnered more than 23,000 votes, but fell short of winning one of the five open seats. A memorable campaign poster was created for that race, showing Boom Boom flying on a broomstick, the words "Surrender Dianne" trailing in purple smoke, a reference to then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein.

"I think a good citizen should run for office once in their lifetime," Mr. Fertig would say years later, "and anybody who does it more than that is absolutely crazy."

Nevertheless, in 1983, Sister Boom Boom unsuccessfully challenged Feinstein in the mayoral race. In response, the city instituted a law requiring that all candidates use their legal names on the ballot.

In the run-up to the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, Sister Boom Boom led a ritual exorcism of Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly in Union Square that drew broad media attention.

"Those were exciting, exuberant times made so much more so by Jack's feisty, witty participation," Sister Soami told the B.A.R. "He was certainly one of our brightest and boldest and a most clever and talented Sister."

The memorable poster from Sister Boom Boom's 1982 supervisorial campaign.

The campaigns and the convention brought the Sisters nationwide and even international renown, and Mr. Fertig, in particular, became a symbol of San Francisco's unique culture — a role he would soon grow tired of.

"No large gathering in San Francisco's homosexual community ... would be quite complete without the appearance of a figure clad in a hiked-up nun's habit, black fishnet stockings, and a tightly drawn wimple that sometimes fails to hold in an unruly shock of red hair," wrote Michael Moritz and co-authors in a Time magazine roundup up of events surrounding the convention. "Outside San Francisco, Fertig's bizarre alter ego has come to symbolize a climate of tolerance gone haywire."

In addition to gay liberation, over the years Mr. Fertig embraced causes including workers' rights, racial equality, immigrant rights, and Palestine solidarity. According to his 1982 candidate statement, he worked with an alphabet soup of organizations including labor unions, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and gay liberation groups.

Spiritual journey

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Fertig's platonic "marriage" to the first female nun, Mystie Grey (aka Sister Mysteria of the Holy Order of the Broken Hymen), broke up, and he parted ways with the Sisters due to what an SPI memorial web posting calls "internal disputes."

Mr. Fertig began his recovery from alcohol abuse and remained clean and sober for the rest of his life. Asked about the fate of Sister Boom Boom, he told the Chronicle that she was "a cocktail waitress in purgatory" and he did not expect to see or hear from her again. "In sobriety we learn deeper and subtler satisfactions," he added.

In the years that followed Mr. Fertig was active in the Bay Area recovery and leather communities, and was a member of the sober leather group Trusted Servants. He returned to school periodically, studying subjects including history and foreign languages.

Mr. Fertig worked as a locker-room attendant at the Jewish Community Center, penned articles for the LGBT press, gave private astrology readings, and wrote the popular Q Scopes gay horoscope column. Other interests included opera, travel, and skydiving.

"In 1988 Jack had told me that on a certain date I would experience the culmination of a transformational crisis of sexuality and gender expression," recalled Max Wolf Valerio, who at the time had yet to begin — or even contemplate — his FTM transition. "After deciding to embark on that transition, I looked at the date, and realized that it was the same date he'd pinpointed. I'll never forget that, or Jack's amazing humor, compassionate spirit, and inspiring sense of mischief."

While Mr. Fertig's earlier flamboyance exemplified one aspect of gay life in the city, Koskovich noted that, "The arc of Jack's life in San Francisco also reflected experiences common to many gay residents of his generation, for example, his embrace of sobriety and his search for a critically aware, humane, and queer-positive approach to spirituality."

As Mr. Fertig's social views became more conservative over the years, coinciding with his study of Islam prompted by a trip to the Middle East, his economic views remained radical. A strong foe of gentrification, he described the contemporary Castro as "a shopping mall built over a graveyard."

"[I]n a typically American pattern of commercialization, [Pride] has become a crowded affair of commercialized sexuality, pornography, and alcohol," he wrote in an open letter to LGBT activists planning a local Pride march in the Maldives. "[P]eer pressure to measure up pushes young gay men to focus on their bodies, to ignore their souls."

Mr. Fertig's conversion to Islam in 2003, after a period of travel and study, was greeted with skepticism in some quarters, but he became a well-known voice for progressive Muslims, speaking out against sexism and homophobia and opposing clerics who put rules and regulations ahead of spiritual well-being.

During his last years Mr. Fertig reached a rapprochement with the Sisters, appearing occasionally in full hijab as Sister Boom Boom XXX.

"We're trying to bring levity and joy where it's been squashed, and what we do comes out of the ancient tradition of the shamanic, transgendered, wise person in old tribal cultures," he said at a 2012 queer spirituality panel organized by the San Francisco Gay Buddhist Fellowship. "[W]e live up to our mission: promulgating universal joy, expiating stigmatic guilt, helping people get over the hang-ups and fears that have been shoved down their throats about spirituality, ritual, the church, mosque, synagogue, whatever, so that they can find their own spirituality and greet God not in fear, but with a laugh."

"Jack was an incredibly intelligent man with deeply held convictions and a strong personal ethic," said Cleve Jones, who recalled that he was friends with both Mr. Fertig and Sister Boom Boom for nearly two years before he realized they were the same person. "His life was a series of remarkable and seemingly contradictory evolutions, but the values of his heart remained constant and consistent through all the changes and decades."

Mr. Fertig is survived by Trevino, his partner since 1994; their two rescue dogs Chloe and Perry; a brother, David Fertig; sisters Louise Fertig and Katie Fertig; and many loving friends.

"He was very much loved by many people around the world, had many friends, and they are all showing their love for him," Tervino said.

[Updated: The Sisters announced Thursday afternoon that a memorial for Mr. Fertig will be held at Collingwood Park, 19th Street and Collingwood, on Saturday, August 11 at 7 p.m. Family and community colleagues representing various aspects of Mr. Fertig's life will offer eulogies. People are asked to bring rose petals, glitter, banners, photographs, and flags to honor Mr. Fertig. As of Thursday afternoon, the Sisters' website had not been updated, but people can check www.thesisters.org.]

Donations in his memory may be made to Grateful Dogs Rescue or the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center.