<

The Nuns’ Story

October 26, 2017 5:00 am0 commentsViews: 14
Sister KrisTall Mighty, Sister Lida Christ, the late Edie Windsor, Sister Sandra Musique, Sister Shiny Brite, Sister Eunice X, and Guard Ian Knight at the GLAD Summer Party in Provincetown, 2015. Photo: Meg Birnbaum

Sister KrisTall Mighty, Sister Lida Christ, the late Edie Windsor, Sister Sandra Musique, Sister Shiny Brite, Sister Eunice X, and Guard Ian Knight at the GLAD Summer Party in Provincetown, 2015. Photo: Meg Birnbaum

by Steve Desroches

Founded almost 40 years ago, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have become icons of style and service. Incorporating the elements of garments worn by Catholic nuns with that of drag, they are particularly recognizable, especially here in Provincetown, since the founding of the Boston House in 2009. As participants in the annual Summer GLAD Party at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum working for LGBTQ equality and the rights of those with HIV and the subsequent Commercial Street bucket drive for the Soup Kitchen in Provincetown (SKIP) or raising funds for Provincetown’s LGBTQ youth summer program Camp Lightbulb, the Boston Sisters are always a stand-out spectacle in their nun’s habits, white-powdered faces, and glittery beards. And now they are becoming a traditional part of Halloween weekend in Provincetown by hosting an annual movie musical screening and sing-along fundraiser at the Crown and Anchor, with this year’s selection being the 2007 musical adaptation of Hairspray.

In spite of all their very public actions and charity work, as well as longevity, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence can remain a bit of a mystery, even within the LGBTQ community. For decades aspects of LGBTQ culture went largely ignored or were driven underground by society at-large. As a result, there is a portion of the gay and lesbian community unaware of its past or a context to put the present in. But all of that continues to change, and the Sisters are part of a significant force for greater understanding. First and foremost, what’s important to understand about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, say Boston House members Sister Hellen Damnation and Sister Eunice X, is that the dedication to their order is sincere and serious, even as the presentation is playful.

Sisters-OPI-Eunice-X

Sister Eunice X, Founding Member, The Boston Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
Photo: Silke Hase

“The Sisters are true nuns,” says Sister Eunice X, who along with Sister KrisTall Mighty moved from the original order and founded the Boston House. “And just like nuns, we take our vows seriously and we take them for life.”

It all began in 1979 on Easter weekend in San Francisco. It was the era of the “Castro clone” where a certain conformity was imposing itself on gay men at the time. To combat that, three gay men dressed in nun’s habits one of them had received from a convent in Iowa for a production of The Sound of Music. The first three sisters – Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch (Ken Bunch), Sister Missionary Position (Fred Brungard), and Baruch Golden paraded through the streets down to the nude gay beach. Soon joined by Sister Hysterectoria (Edmund Garron) and Reverend Mother (Bill Graham), the Sisters grew after they attended the first international gathering of the Radical Faeries, a counter-culture movement based in Paganism to fight gay assimilation and promote a queer consciousness, in the fall of 1979.

What began as a marriage of street theater and activism shifted focus early on when just a year later their first fundraiser was held to assist gay refugees from Cuba. That was soon followed in 1981 by what is believed to be the first-ever fundraiser to fight what would come to be known as AIDS, the year it was first clinically observed in the United States. But it was when they raised money during the Halloween Parade on Castro Street to benefit victims of an earthquake in El Salvador in 1982 that the San Francisco Sisters saw the ability they had to really make a difference. With the ferocity of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the corresponding ignorance and bigotry, the Sisters found their calling to be a charitable order. Now the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have 35 houses in 23 states and 19 houses in nine countries, everywhere from Colombia, Australia, Switzerland, and Uruguay to the newest opening this year in Japan. Identifying as a modern order of queer nuns, open to people of all gender identities, sexual orientations, and spiritual affiliations, they’re dedicated to a philosophical tradition of pure non-judgmentalism and a pledge “to promote universal joy, to expiate stigmatic guilt, and to serve” their community, their fellow sisters, and the ministry of perpetual indulgence.

Sister Lida Christ is Mistress of Novices for The Boston Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Photo: Silke Hase

Sister Lida Christ is Mistress of Novices for The Boston Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Photo: Silke Hase

“I think part of the reason why we’ve been so successful and relevant is that at any given time we adapt to serve the needs of the community,” says Sister Hellen Damnation. “We respond to the community where it needs us and when it needs us.”

While a worldwide organization, there is no overall hierarchy, with each house following the guiding mission to serve their local communities in the way they see as being most effective. The Sisters relish in the role of “sacred clown,” akin to a court jester who can stand on the edge of what society considers normal to speak truth to power. But becoming a sister does require devotion and commitment following a path beginning as a volunteer, then a postulant, a novice sister, and finally a full-professed sister, upon which time they receive their black veil.

As the Boston house is the only one in the region, the Sisters do good works all over New England. This Halloween weekend the Sisters will be hosing a spooky-themed bingo game for the Prime Timers, a social organization for older gay and bisexual men. And the Hairspray sing-along is to benefit the Sister Santa program, in which they raise money to help children statewide under the care of the Department of Children and Families and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts by buying toys, clothes, and other items for them for Christmas. They do all of this with open minds and hearts, a bit of camp, and a whole lot of glitter. But what do other, more traditional nuns think of all this? Or the general public?

“Reactions are often strong, but negative reactions are rare,” says Sister Eunice X. “When we manifest – that’s what we call it when we get dressed – we get a lot of questions like, ‘What are you doing?’ It creates an opening for a discussion. People get it.”

“I’ve had stories passed on to me that when manifested other Sisters have received a nod and smiles from Catholic nuns,” says Sister Hellen Damnation. “There’s a nod of recognition.”

The Boston Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence host a sing- along to Hairspray on Friday, October 27 at 8 p.m. at the Crown and Anchor. 247 Commercial St., Provincetown. Tickets ($20) are available at the box office and online at onlyatthecrown.com. For more information call 508.487.1430. The Sisters host Sister Spooky Bingo for the Prime Timers on Saturday, October 28 at 2:30 p.m. at the Provincetown Inn, 1 Commercial St. Bingo cards are $5 each and five for $20. For more information or to donate to any of the Sisters causes visit thebostonsisters.org.