Pride, Controversy, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

After a contentious May, Pride Month has finally begun. Typically, June is marked by rainbow-tinted advertisements, but brands have been slow to celebrate Pride this year. As debates around trans rights rage across the country, supporting the LGBTQ community may not be not as profitable as it once was. Last month, many conservatives boycotted Bud Light because of their partnership with a trans influencer, while customer harassment led Target to move some Pride displays to the back of the store. Target’s diminished displays only led to more backlash, this time from LGBTQ people who criticized the brand’s fair weather friendship.

Source: AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File

In Los Angeles, The LA Dodgers struggled to organize a Pride Night that could please everyone. Their pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, disapproved of the team’s decision to honor a group called The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Sisters are an Order of queer and trans nuns whose satirizing of religious imagery offended the pitcher. In response to the controversy, The Dodgers uninvited the Sisters from their June 16th event. More controversy erupted. When local LGBTQ organizations threatened to pull out of Pride Night, The Dodgers re-invited the beleaguered sisters. They issued an apology, insisting that the nuns would be welcome after all.

These corporate conflicts have dominated coverage of Pride Month this year. As rights for LGBTQ people are rolled back across the country, the community has been shoved to the back of the store. Whether it’s the shunning of a celebrated organization or the destruction of Bud Light cans, certain conservatives are making their voices heard. Fortunately, so are their opponents.

LGBTQ activists are used to working without mainstream approval. After all, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have laughed their way through 44 years of controversy, and they’re not about to stop now. This Pride, From the Square will be taking a closer look at the communities who make June the best month of the year. We’ll highlight people whose lives are the battlegrounds on which culture wars are being fought. The titles we feature will honor their humanity, celebrating the strength of a community that is so much more than a rainbow display.

In Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody, author Melissa M. Wilcox offers a fascinating look at the role the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have played in developing both queer culture and the religious landscape. In this excerpt from the book, you’ll learn about the Sisters’ work outside of their current spotlight.

Excerpt from Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody by Melissa Wilcox

“May I give you chlamydia and syphilis?” politely inquired Sister Dire-Reahh, of the London House of Common Sluts, as we strolled through Soho with Sister Cuminja Wrasse in search of a good kebab shop. The two Sisters had sat down for interviews with me after taking part in a protest against cuts in National Health Service funding for HIV prevention. We must have been quite a sight, myself in street clothes accompanied by two clearly male nuns in formal habits, although relatively few people stared openly— this being not only England but Soho. Sister Dire, following the tradition that the U.K. houses of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence inherited from their Australian forebears, wore only dark sunglasses with an otherwise stern, black- and- white traditional habit reminiscent of the habits of many Roman Catholic nuns’ orders. Sister Cuminja, as a “dual tradition” Sister with roots within the order from both the United Kingdom and France, added to that look the white makeup base and colorful facial designs that are the hallmark of the houses in North America, South America, and mainland Europe. Both sported the muted, lowprofile coronet used by U.K. and Australian houses beneath their veils.

Having already worked intensively with the Sisters for over a year and a half at the time this conversation took place, I had learned to respond with aplomb to nearly any situation. I grinned at Sister Dire’s request and replied, “From a Sister, anything!” And I waited expectantly for the punch line. Smiling, the Sister reached into the capacious purse that is another hallmark of the order. She pulled out two plush toys: one a pink, snakelike spiral with two beady eyes at the top, and the other a round green blob with rather innocent eyes, a puckered mouth, and green bits sticking up from the top like mussed- up hair. They are part of a line of plush toys produced by the company Giant Microbes, which creates educational toys in the shape of microscopic organisms— including those that cause sexually transmitted infections. The pink spiral represents the microorganism that causes syphilis; the green, that which causes chlamydia. Sister Dire explained to me that she finds the toys useful in one of the central activities of Sisters around the world: the promotion of sexual health. She then handed me the London house’s version of the Play Fair! pamphlet, an irreverent and sex- positive guide to sexual health that was first written by the San Francisco Sisters in 1982, when an as- yet unnamed immune disorder was beginning to spread with frightening speed in their community.

Although this encounter took place in London, it could have happened in any of the eleven or so countries, across four continents, where the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence currently have a “house,” or chapter. The Sisters might look a bit different; outside the United Kingdom and Australia, for example, some Sisters have a signature makeup design or “face,” and party dresses are more common than black- and- white traditionals. But the playful, sexual humor and the commitment to activism, education, and various other forms of community service are consistent across the order, as are these Sisters’ simultaneous camping and claiming of the role of the nun.       

Queer Nuns focuses on this unusual approach to activism. As an activist strategy, what I call “serious parody” simultaneously critiques and reclaims cultural traditions in the interest of supporting the lives and

political objectives of marginalized groups. Considering themselves quite seriously to be nuns while at the same time parodying the Roman Catholic Church, which has been such a vocal opponent of LGBTQ communities in recent decades, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence enact serious parody by combining the familiar tropes of drag queen and female religious renunciant to produce an image and a role that have opened space for both vocal political protest and day- to- day community service and activism, yet have also positioned the order to reinscribe relations of power of which its predominantly white, gay male adherents are less aware. Over the course of this volume I demonstrate both the promise and the pitfalls of serious parody, arguing ultimately for its effectiveness in certain parts of the Sisters’ constituencies and for its importance as a strategy of ludic, performative politics that can be enacted by other activist movements facing situations of open and unwavering opposition from culturally powerful institutions. Like any performance, serious parody as a broader activist strategy can either challenge or reinscribe existing relationships of power, and it often does both at once. Thus, in this book I argue not for serious parody as a panacea that can answer every problem encountered by ludic, performative activism, but rather for its possible uses and potential challenges in the efforts of activist groups to work within communities that are opposed and oppressed by culturally significant traditions and organizations— as is the case with queer communities and the Roman Catholic Church.

Read more about The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody by Melissa M. Wilcox

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