The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (SPI), also called Order of Perpetual Indulgence (OPI) is a charity, protest, and street performance organization that uses drag and religious imagery to call attention to sexual intolerance and satirizes issues of gender and morality. At their inception in 1979, a small group of gay men in San Francisco began wearing the attire of nuns in visible situations using high camp to draw attention to social conflicts and problems in the Castro District.
The Sisters have grown throughout the U.S. and are currently organized as an international network of orders, which are mostly non-profit charity organizations that raise money for AIDS, LGBT-related causes, and mainstream community service organizations, while promoting safer sex and educating others about the harmful effects of drug use and other risky behaviors. In San Francisco alone where they continue to be the most active, between 1979 and 2007 the Sisters are credited with raising over $1 million for various causes, or almost $40,000 on average per year.
Early members of the group, while not hiding their masculine features or facial hair, are characterized by San Francisco gay community historian Susan Stryker as the embodiment of “genderfuck”. Their appearance has changed over the years; the nun motif remains the same, but it has been joined with exaggerated make-up that accentuates the rebellion against gender roles and religion. The Sisters have attracted controversy both within and outside the LGBT communities, but have received the harshest criticism for obvious parodies of Catholic icons and policies.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence made their first appearance on Castro Street in San Francisco in 1979. Their approach and appearance was not new or extraordinary for the place or time. Starting in the 1960s, the Castro District began transitioning from a working class Irish Catholic district going through significant economic decline. A gay bar opened on Market Street and gradually, gay men began to migrate to the neighborhood. By 1977, between 100,000 and 200,000 had moved to San Francisco from all over the United States, changing the political and cultural profile of the city. The migration created a gay community in the city with enough political clout to elect a representative to city government, Harvey Milk.
Two theater troupes, The Cockettes and the Angels of Light, formed in San Francisco in the late 1960s and focused their entertainment on mocking popular culture through drag, embracing drugs, and free sex in the counterculture of the 1960s. The Cockettes performed regularly at the Palace Theater in the city’s North Beach district as part of the late-night “Nocturnal Emissions” series and developed a strong following that would also dress in drag and ascribe to recreational drug use at their shows. One of their more high profile performances was a parodic recreation of the 1971 wedding of Tricia Nixon—President Nixon’s daughter—and Edward F. Cox, both characters of course played by men in women’s clothes. Director John Waters called the Cockettes “hippie acid freak drag queens”, whose first non-San Francisco appearance was at a New York City show with an audience full of celebrities who reacted with complete confusion to the performance. With their rising success came philosophical differences with The Angels of Light who broke off to present free shows, but who similarly employed drag and theater to satirize issues of gender and morality. The Angels of Light first appeared in a mock nativity scene at Grace Cathedral’s Christmas Eve midnight mass in 1970. Both groups employed a sense of high camp: outrageous scenes and sets, fantastic costumes, movie references and bad puns, and intentionally bad acting combined with deliberately bad drag, which diverted from previous female impersonators whose mark of quality was realism.
The Castro was also known for the outrageous characters who were 1970s mainstays, such as Jesus Christ Satan and The Cosmic Lady, who endeared local residents with their unique perspectives, particularly during street events such as the Castro Street Fair and Halloween in the Castro. On Easter weekend 1979, three men dressed as nuns with habits they had procured from a convent in Iowa under the guise that they were going to stage a presentation of The Sound of Music, made their appearance on Castro Street. They followed with appearances at a nude beach, a softball game and the annual Castro Street Fair.
At the same time, religious participation in politics appeared in the late 1970s with the activism of Anita Bryant, and Jerry Falwell’s establishment of the Moral Majority. The Castro District had been publicized nationally as a major gay neighborhood and was targeted by several dozen church members who took weekly trips to preach to the residents about the immorality of homosexuality. In August 1980, a dozen men dressed in 14th century Belgian nun’s robes and habits, and according to one participant using the name Sister Missionary Position, “a teensy bit of make-up so as not to be dowdy on a Friday night”, met the proselytizers where a chase ensued and attracted an audience of gay supporters who heckled the preachers until they left.
In October 1980, the dozen or so erstwhile nuns held their first fundraiser, a bingo game and Salsa dance that was well-attended in large part because of the write-up in The San Francisco Chronicle by Herb Caen the same day, who printed their organization name, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The benefit was for San Francisco’s Metropolitan Community Church Cuban Refugee Program, and it netted $1,500 ($3,906 in 2009). The Sisters began making regular appearances at Castro events that focused on sexual tolerance or provided a showcase for drag. They also developed a mission statement:
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.
Structure and methods
Members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence include people who identify with a variety of sexual orientations and genders, although the majority are gay men. Joining an order mirrors the steps for joining an actual order of nuns. Potential members are encouraged to attend organizational meetings as aspirants, and told that if they are not intending to make a lifelong commitment they should seriously reconsider. After showing intent and being approved by the order, an aspirant is promoted to a postulant and is expected to learn about the history of the organization and continue to work behind the scenes for at least six months. Postulants are not allowed to wear nun’s attire, but may instead dress in “festive garb that fits in with Order”, according to the Sisters’ website. If the members approve of the postulant, a fully indoctrinated member may act as a sponsor and the postulant is promoted to a novice. Novices are allowed to wear white veils and whiteface make-up. This phase lasts another six months during which the novice is expected to work within the organization and plan an event. If three-fourths of the order agrees, the novice is promoted to a full member of the group.
After their inception, the Sisters soon spread to other cities within the U.S. as a loosely connected network of mostly autonomous houses. There are thirteen houses and six missions in various cities across the U.S. Globally, 600 members work for established houses or missions in Australia, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, Scotland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay. The San Francisco Founding House anchors much of the activities and continues to be the largest and most well-funded. The San Francisco House (SPI, Inc.) also holds the registered trademarks for “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence” and the “laughing nun head” logo.
Only in San Francisco could the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence not only make their first appearance, but become interwoven in the cultural and political fabric of the city, according to scholar Cathy Glenn in the journal Theory and Event. Glenn uses the examples of San Francisco as a society of hyperpluralism, where all the groups who have called the city their home have successfully maintained their individual identities, creating a culture defined by counterculture and at times marked by political violence. The Sisters use Catholic imagery as simultaneous inspiration and fodder for parody through camp. They choose names based on the process of renaming women inducted into Catholic orders, but that suggest sexual promiscuity or that are based in absurdity: Sister Anita Blowjob, Sister GladAss of the Joyous Reserectum, Sister Hellena Handbasket, Sister Sensible Shoes, and Sister Homo Celestial, among others. They wear wimples, habits, and robes of nuns, but accessorize them garishly with baubles, beads, and whiteface make-up. Sister Phyllis Stein, the Fragrant Mistress of Sistory, asserts that there is a clear distinction between drag queens and members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence: “We’re not dressed as girls, we’re dressed as nuns… We definitely minister to the spiritual needs of our community, while drag queens sort of focus on camp and fun within our communities. We’re very different communities. A lot of people refer to us as drag queens, but we say we’re in nun drag. We are nuns.”
Sister Irma Geddon of the Portland, Oregon-based Order of Benevolent Bliss offered her view of the efficacy of using nun’s clothing and drag: “The lightness of everything, in addition to the whiteface and the nun’s 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.”
The organization of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence occurred at the same time HIV/AIDS began appearing in the Castro District and New York City. Ironically, safe havens during this crisis came in the form of bars such Maud’s and Amelia’s, which were shut down. Some theories of why they were shut down included a feeling of separation between male gays bars and lesbian bars, so mostly lesbian bars were being shut down. The AIDS crisis sprouted a clean and sober mentality which drove the number of bars down since people believed that bars were places were everyone had AIDS or could get it very easily. Some of the earliest attempts to bring attention to the new disease were staged by the Sisters, both in and out of costume. In 1982, Sister Florence Nightmare, RN (early AIDS activist and registered nurse Bobbi Campbell) and Sister Roz Erection (Baruch Golden a registered nurse) joined with a team of Sisters and medical professionals to create “Play Fair!”, the first safer sex pamphlet to use plain language, practical advice and humor, and considered by one of the founders to be “one of the Order’s greatest achievement in community education and support”. In 1999, for the Sisters’ 20th anniversary the pamphlet was revised. The Sisters worldwide continue to raise awareness of sexual health; many Orders regularly pass out condoms and participate in events to educate people on sexual health issues.
Campbell appeared on the cover of Newsweek declaring himself to be the “AIDS poster boy” in 1983. He was active in AIDS education and prevention and split his appearances as himself and Sister Florence Nightmare until his death in 1984. He and three other Castro residents started the AIDS Candlelight Memorial. Losing several members to AIDS in the early 1980s, the Sisters’ presence at the 1986 Castro Street Fair was accomplished with less than a dozen members who sponsored a fund-raising and safer sex education booth that featured pie throwing with the slogan “Cream yer Sister, not yer lover!”
Sister Sistah, Sister Dana Van Iquity and Sister Kitty Catalyst O.C.P. at San Francisco’s NAMES Project Quilt office on Market St. working on the Sister’s Nuns of The Above memorial quilt.
Members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who have died are referred by the Sisters as “Nuns of the Above”. Specific losses due to AIDS are immortalized in the folk art NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Created in the early 1990s the quilt has made history several times. It was featured at the 1996 NAMES quilt display in Washington, D.C. in front of the U.S. House of Representatives and was among the first quilts viewed by then Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper Gore and later featured in the Names Projects’ calendar worldwide. The Nuns of The Above quilt itself has been flown around the United States and is in high demand for local displays. While in town for the AIDS Memorial Quilt display the Sisters led an exorcism of homophobia, classism, and racism on the steps of the United States House of Representatives, and assisted with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) death march and protest, to the gates of the White House where ashes of people who had died from AIDS were illegally spread on the lawn.
Political activism and protest
In 1982, Jack Fertig, known as Sister Boom Boom, ran for San Francisco Board of Supervisors earning over 23,000 votes with her occupation listed as “Nun of the Above”. San Francisco passed a law soon after, commonly called the “Sister Boom Boom Law”, that all people running for office had to do so with their legal name.
Outlined as one of the Sisters’ missions “to promulgate universal joy and to expiate stigmatic guilt”, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have a history of bringing attention to conservative movements that attempt to shame members of the LGBT community or people with HIV/AIDS. Sisters performed a public exorcism of anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly that was deliberately timed to take place at Union Square during the 1984 Democratic National Convention, taking place in San Francisco. A Sister dressed as Schlafly was held down as another spoke to the crowd, and other Sisters pulled out rubber snakes from the mock-Schlafly’s clothing. Also taking place was Jerry Falwell’s Family Forum, hosted by the Moral Majority whose major planks focused on condemning homosexuality, pornography, and abortion. A Sister dressed as Falwell was undressed during the performance to reveal fishnet stockings and a corset in front of an audience of 2,000.
In 1987, their Castro Street Fair presence was a protest of the rhetoric of Lyndon LaRouche, a California politician who advocated for quarantines for people living with AIDS. The Sisters covered their costumes with “Stop LaRouche” buttons, selling them as they mingled in the crowd to raise money for San Francisco General Hospital’s AIDS ward. The same year the Sisters held another mock exorcism, this time of Pope John Paul II, coinciding with his visit to San Francisco, calling it the “Official San Francisco Papal Welcoming Committee”. The Pope’s visit stressed relations between Catholics and gays when Cardinal Ratzinger released an open letter from the Vatican clarifying the Church’s position on homosexuality and recent events in San Francisco. The Bay Area Reporter, a local gay weekly newspaper, summarized the intent with their headline, “Pope to Gays: ‘Drop Dead’ “, and took greatest offense with the Vatican’s points that gays cause the violence against them, and that they were primarily responsible for the AIDS crisis. The Sisters claim the action, also taking place in Union Square, earned the organization a spot on the Papal List of Heretics.
Continuing the tradition, members of the San Diego Order have made a presence at a Christian fundamentalist youth revival meeting called Teen Mania Ministries from 2006 to 2008. Sisters Iona Dubble-Wyde and Freeda Sole stood outside the Cox Arena in full regalia to intercept pastors and attendees. The responses from the children and adolescents were varied. While some told the Sisters they were going to hell, others asked questions and offered thanks and hugs; the event was generally reported as positive.
Celebrated even when the Castro was predominantly an Irish Catholic family neighborhood, as the demographics transformed, Halloween in the Castro became a major city event, described by author David Skal as “gay high holy day”, attracting thousands of outsiders. On October 31, 1989, two weeks after San Francisco was devastated by the 6.9 MW Loma Prieta earthquake, the Sisters used donation buckets to collect thousands of dollars for the mayor’s Earthquake Relief Fund from the Halloween crowds that poured into the Castro neighborhood for the massive street party.
A photo shoot for the San Francisco Sisters’ 1995 HallowQueen event. Pictured – Sister Embellisha Helluvalotta, Sister Mystie Grey, Pope Dementia The Last, Sister Phatima La Dyke Van Dyk, Sister Penny Costal, Sister Zsa Zsa Glamour, Sister Mae B. Hostel and Sister Dana Van Iquity.
The next year, the Sisters, with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and a group named Community United against Violence, took over the organization of the event for the next five years, drawing larger crowds and collecting for AIDS charities. By 1994 between 300,000 and 400,000 people attended the event. Controlling excesses became too difficult. Violence escalated, claimed by Dahn Van Laarz (Sister Dana van Iquity) to be the result of inebriated gawkers motivated by homophobia. When the police confiscated an AK-47 from a reveler trying to gain access to Castro Street, and they reported that 50 to 60 people had been arrested, the Sisters decided to move the celebration and Halloween in the Castro ended. The next year, the Sisters hosted a costume-mandatory dance named HallowQueen in a South of Market gay nightclub, which raised over $6,000 for charity.
A decade later the city was still struggling to manage the Halloween event. In 2006 nine people were wounded when a gunman opened fire at the celebration; it was canceled in 2007. The Sisters continued to organize private and safe events, raising money every year for charity. Without city funds they managed to keep the chaos under control by providing entertainment and structure. Their abilities for staging and running large events has kept them in demand as event organizers and advisers.
The Sisters have been involved in various causes, including the promotion of safer sex, raising money for HIV/AIDS and breast cancer research, the Gay Games, Haight Ashbury Free Clinics, and raising the “first legal $1000” for a city proposition to legalize medical marijuana. Sister Roma—There’s No Place Like Rome! organized a “Stop the Violence” campaign in the Castro where the Sisters distributed placards in homes and businesses to signify which were safe places to go, and whistles to be used to alert those nearby in case of attack. They have sponsored dances for LGBT youth, and given to or worked for a variety of similar objectives.
Over the years the Sisters have named as saints hundreds of people who have helped on various projects behind the scenes organizing, coordinating actions or projects, performing at events as an artist or emcee or even serving the greater LGBT community. Rarely but sometimes they canonize community heroes who have recently died. It is customary for the Sisters to award sainthood with the addition of an elaborate “saint name”. Notable saints include:
- Assassinated San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk
- California State Senator Carole Migden
- Gavin Newsom, Mayor of San Francisco
- Jason West, Mayor of New Paltz, New York
- San Francisco Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Bevan Dufty
- Susan Leal, General Manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission
- Harry Hay, founder of the radical faeries
- Authors Armistead Maupin and Tonne Serah
- Actresses Margaret Cho, Ethel Merman and Rosie O’Donnell
- Dr. Elizabeth Stuart, Professor of Christian Theology at King Alfred’s College, Winchester
- Medical marijuana activists Brownie Mary and Ed Rosenthal
- Film maker and artist Derek Jarman
- French photographer Jean-Baptiste Carhaix
- Mabel Teng, former City Assessor-Recorder of San Francisco
Community activists and organizers:
- Michael Brandon
- Molly McKay and Davina Kotulski
- Tony Buff, Mr. Leather Washington 2002
- Jackie Forster
- Peter Tatchell
- Greg Day, San Francisco photographer who documented the early Sisters
- Tony Whitehead, the first Chair of the Terrence Higgins Trust, the largest AIDS charity in Europe
- Ian Campbell Dunn
- Lisa Power
Community drag icons and activists:
- Juanita More
- Trauma Flintstone
- Connie Champagne
- Donna Sachet
- Peaches Christ