The Sisters in 1980. Photo by Greg Day
Since the 70s, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have worked to “promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt.” In the age of Trump, their mission is taking on renewed urgency.
It's behind the port-a-potties in Golden Gate Park's Hellman Hollow that I find the nun I've been looking for, Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch, smoking an American Spirit and tinkering with the magenta fringe that falls down her carnivalesque wig. Sister Vish, whose birth name is Kenneth Bunch, is a co-founder of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an order of queer nuns established in 1979 in San Francisco's Eureka Valley. Today is their 38th annual Easter Festival, to be commemorated by a spiritual exorcism of President Trump, a performance from a scantily clad Ariana Grande impressionist, a bonnet contest, and yards upon yards of iridescent tulle.
Easter Sunday carries much historical weight in this circle, less for the resurrection of Jesus Christ than the dawn of a new kind of clergy, a 21st-century order of campy nuns whose central aim is to "promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt." In Trump's America, it's an ambitious mission statement indeed.
The Sisters' seven-word mantra, and accompanying mission, originated on Easter Sunday of 1979, when Fred Brungrad (Sister Missionary Position), Reverend Mother, and Sister Vish, the last carrying an AK-47, marched from the Castro to the nude beach at Land's End in whiteface and high heels, a reaction to the stifling Castro Clone uniform that, in their view, had homogenized the neighborhood's gay community. The look, consisting of denim, butch plaid, and often a Freddie Mercury-style stache, outfitted a large constituent of the neighborhood's queer folk, each attempting to assimilate into a painstakingly heteronormative society by way of exposed chest hair and proletarian fashions. It was this kind of orthodoxy—antithetical to the loud, progressive esprit of the Castro—which bugged Sister Vish, whose love affair with San Francisco and its unbridled progressivism began on a visit in the late 1970s.
Before his first visit to the Castro, Ken Bunch had worked on a farm in Iowa; he was also a member of a drag troupe called the Sugar Plum Faeries, which is where he first got the idea to don a nun's habit. "A fellow faerie in Iowa knew the Mother Superior at a local convent," Sister Vish tells me as she stamps out her cigarette on the port-a-potty's backdoor. "And when nuns died in the convent, they kept the habits. Of course, I didn't tell the Mother Superior it was for a drag show, so we borrowed the habits, and they still had the names of the first Sisters sewed into the back."
The Sugar Plum Faeries started RFD, the Radical Faerie Magazine, in the mid-1970s. Ken Bunch first visited the Castro in '77. "That was just when the gay invasion had started," Sister Vish says. "I was very into the leather and denim and butch look back then, but I got bored with it. And I thought, Well, the only thing I have that's different are these habits, so let's put 'em on, go out and terrorize the city, and have some fun." They were, to no one's surprise but their own, a smash hit.
"We thought San Francisco had seen everything: the hippies, the coquettes. We went back and analyzed it. Like, What just happened today? And we decided that this was a stick of dynamite, a powerful instrument. So we formed a group, chose a name, and wrote a mission statement."
With the AIDs crisis looming, the Sisters took it upon themselves to lead a new, radical opposition. Although San Francisco's LGBT community, alongside the anti-war flower children of the 60s, had consolidated in the Castro from its varying enclaves throughout San Francisco, the threat of hate crimes remained. In response, Sister Roma introduced her "Stop the Violence" campaign, which included a system of pink window placards businesses and residents could display to designate their property as a safe space for anyone fleeing violence or harassment. The Sisters also were heavily involved in HIV/AIDs advocacy, calling attention to, among many other things, President Reagan's fatal disregard for the LGBT community. In 1982, joined by Shirley MacLaine, the Sisters held a dog show that doubled as an AIDS fundraiser; that same year, Sisters Florence Nightmare and Roz Erection, both registered nurses, would publish "Play Fair!," which has been called the very first safe-sex pamphlet for gay men.
Thirty-eight years later, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is a multinational organization, with orders in 60 US cities and 14 countries, including Poland, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic. And while San Francisco has been its home base, the Sisters have experienced the vicissitudes of social progress across the globe. Sister Vish warmly recalls their visit to Berlin in 1990, during Germany's re-unification, as one of the greats thrills in their "Sistory," as East Germans formerly imprisoned by an oppressive Communist regime surrounded the Sisters, astounded by their bravery and irreverence.
The Sisters aim isn't to mock nuns ("We are nuns," Sister Agnes Dei'Afta Tamara assures me), although religion itself, and the kind of hypocrisy it engenders in its most dogmatic adherents, is often subject to their satire. Today's schedule, for instance, includes Hunky Jesus and Foxy Mary contests, each of which are decided by the audience and feature a fair share of exposed genitalia.
"I think we look at ourselves as a kind of clergy," says Sister Agnes, chair of this year's festival and a Sister since 2010. "And, if you're a gay person, you may not be comfortable with your church because of what they've told you about yourself over the years. For people who want to connect with church, for whom church has never been pleasant, we provide a sort of queer church, one that's definitely not taking itself as seriously as Catholic Mass and is not using any guilt to make you feel a certain way about yourself. We're hoping to provide you the space to feel good about yourself."
"We've met a lot of ex-Catholics who had cathartic experiences with this," says Sister Vish. "They thank us, they say they had a tough time growing up Catholic and this really helped them process that. But then we've also had Catholic nuns who come and have fun with us! We honor Catholic nuns because we do the same work they do. We're just serving the community." In addition to constant get-togethers, board meetings, and demonstrations, the Sisters give out yearly grants ranging from $250 to $20,000 to encourage the good works of other nonprofits.
Sister Agnes, whose name riffs on the biblical Agnes of Rome, martyred for refusing to give up her virginity, wears a ring that's bestowed upon each Sister once they've graduated from postulant to novice to official member of the Order. Inscribed inside is the Order's namesake, "Perpetual Indulgence." At first I assume the name suggests a sort of hedonism, a nod to the spirit of camp and ribaldry that defines the Sisters' theater, but Agnes offers another, more spiritual interpretation that gets at the crux of their work.
"I keep my ring facing so that I can read it, and every time I look at my hand I see a reminder to allow people to have the space to be whoever they need to be," Agnes tells me. "You can perpetually indulge booze, but you can also perpetually indulge people and their proclivities. You can indulge their petulance and their anger and say, 'I understand,' even if you don't like it."
Over the years, the Sisters have angered and indulged many a Catholic, even landing themselves on the "Papal List of Heretics" after an honorary exorcism of Pope John II during his 1987 visit to San Francisco. In 1984, when the Democratic National Convention made its way to the Golden City, the Sisters burned an effigy of far-right Christian ideologue Jerry Falwell, whose Christian fundamentalist group the "Moral Majority" then wielded much clout in American politics. "Repent!" yelled a man named "Pastor Bob Bible," as the actor playing Falwell was undressed to fishnet stockings by Sister Boom Boom, who a year before had run a spirited mayoral campaign against incumbent Dianne Feinstein. Elsewhere, the Sisters have exorcised the likes of Phyllis Schlafly, Reverend Coal of Sacramento's Capital Christian Center, and Anita Bryant, all vehement anti-LGBT activists.
This year, it's Donald Trump's turn. As I walk towards the festival, I hear the loud and sorcerous echoes of the ritual's leader. "Abundance, we summon you," the voice intones. "Communities that welcome those of every country, color, and creed, we summon you. Consensual pussy-grabbing, we summon you!"
The voice, that of a woman in a velvet midnight-blue tunic, grows louder as the exorcism reaches its Walt Whitman-assisted crescendo. "Oh my beloved and indulgent ones, now cry out every vile sin and fear he's put into your hearts, exorcise him from your souls. We sing the body electric!" A bag of Cheetos falls to the stage, lathering the good sport who's playing Trump as dusty orange chips get crushed beneath the Sisters' stilettos.
With Trump exorcised, the Sisters begin to pass out pink buttons with the tagline for this year's festival: "Sanctuary: Universal Joy." Although the election hasn't changed the Order's principal focus—the promulgation of joy and freedom of expression—this year's theme inevitably became a direct response to the administration.
"The same way a church would provide you sanctuary, San Francisco is a sanctuary city," Sister Agnes explains. "We're kind of playing on our own universal joy, and the sanctuary that is San Francisco, not just for undocumented people but for queers, for weird people, for hippies. It has always provided the fringe their place to be perpetually indulged."
The idea of San Francisco as a sanctuary, and the Sisters as its sentinels, is never more potent than when I pause to take in the whole festival, where there appears to be no racial, sexual, or demographic trend save for the pink buttons pinned to each and every lapel. A gay dance troupe lip-synchs to Shirley Bassey's "Spinning Wheel" before another Sister gives a thrilling rendition of Kate Miller-Heidke's "Are You Fucking Kidding Me?," presumably sung to the president. "Make America Gag Again," adds Sister Roma when one Hunky Jesus contestant's caftan comes loose.
Next up are the Rebel Kings of Oakland, dressed as salacious construction workers. After that comes a medley from Sister Glamour Moore and what appears to be the drag-queen lovechild of Glenn Close and Steven Tyler. To my left, a plump park patrol officer in an orange raincoat genuflects each time a sister walks by. To my right, Sister Vish sits in a lawn chair, watching the spectacle of her making as plumes of weed smoke dance in mid-air to the tune of Belinda Carlisle's "Summer Rain." All afternoon there are no disruptions, no outcry from any self-proclaimed "moral majority." In Hellman Hollow on a rain-soaked Easter Sunday, there's just sanctuary, sacrilege, and sisterhood.
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