EP 202 MW The Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence: Promulgate Universal Joy And Expiate Stigmatic Guilt

What do you get when you cross a nun with a drag queen? You get the Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence.

Amy Torok
Sep 25, 2023
11 min read
Queer MagicActivist MagicMissing WitchesTranscripts
the Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence

In today's episode, Amy investigates the story of the Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence, a global order of queer Drag Nuns whose bad habits are a world-changing mission of social justice, volunteering, fundraising, consciousness-raising, joy-raising and generally throwing a monkey-wrench into the dangerously normalized status quo.

Listen now. Transcript below.

In dark times, dear coven, conjure in your mind a renegade troupe of queer nuns, sparkling in all their glorious contradictions. Reverence, irreverence, protest and delight.

The Sisters logo, unchanged since its original design.


What do you get when you cross a nun with a drag queen?

It sounds like the beginning of a riddle, a joke, right? But it is no joke. Or maybe it is - one whose punchline has been unfolding for 44 years.

So what do you get when you cross a nun with a drag queen? You get the Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence, a global order of queer Drag Nuns whose bad habits are a world-changing mission of social justice, volunteering, fundraising, consciousness-raising, joy-raising and generally throwing a monkey-wrench into the dangerously normalized status quo.

As Sister Unity of the Los Angeles chapter explains, “We are queer nuns. We’re LGBT nuns serving the LGBT community, and that’s why, yes the headpiece may look like a medieval french nun, but the rest looks absolutely gay, trans, queer, if you will. We manifest in this very flamboyant way, not to poke fun at anyone, but because this is what our community delights in. We delight in theatre, we delight in glitter, and this I love. That’s why I look this way, and I use it to serve our community because it gets people’s attention. Then I can deliver a supportive message about them having room in the world to be who they are, as they are, free from guilt, and with joy for their own life. [...] The one thing that [Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence] have in common is that we feel what we call a calling. You see the Sisters, you see the flamboyant colour, but you also see the service and activism and it inspires you to join in. It lights a candle in your heart.”

And this is perhaps the Sisters’ greatest legacy: not just the millions of dollars they’ve raised, nor the countless lives they’ve saved or improved, but the fact that they exist at all. And knowing they exist lights a candle in all our hearts.

The Sisters, says abbess Sister Tilda NexTime of San Francisco, are a “non-profit organization dedicated to communities that are not taken care of by the government. We are a group of queer nuns who serve our community just like nuns do. We raise money for people who are in need. We are always at bars, and just being present for people on the street. A lot of people just need to have a talk [...] People have been suffering from guilt that they are carrying and we are just here to free the world from all the guilt. To spread universal joy [...] and to show people that we love them.”

What a remarkable mission. Spread love. Show people you love them.

On their official website, thesisters.org, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence describe the founding of their religion thusly:


On Easter Weekend, during the time of the "Castro Clone," being extremely bored with the conformist atmosphere three men went out into the streets to challenge the world: Ken Bunch (Sister Vicious PHB), Fred Brungard (Sister Missionary Position) and Baruch Golden. They went in full, traditional habits through the streets of our city and down to the nude beach. One even carried a machine gun (for protection). They were met with shock and amazement, but captured everyone's interest. Their next appearance was at a softball game where their pompon routine all but stole the show. In the fall of 1979, Sister Hysterectoria (Edmund Garron) and Reverend Mother (Bill Graham) went to the first International Faerie gathering and encountered even more men with the calling. Our 4 Founders, Sister Vicious PHB, Reverend Mother, Missionary Position and Hysterectoria-Agnes convened their friends, chose our name (The Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence) and composed our mission statement: to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt.

Some retellings suggest that the skewed costumes - nun habits and face paint - functioned as somewhat of a disguise. The first sisters were sex workers, so the story goes, so they didn’t want to risk their clients recognizing them on the street as they performed their guerilla theater.

Legend, truth, or somewhere in between, this lineage has informed much of the Sisters’ work.

And what better chosen people to emerge, with the horseman of the AIDS apocalypse galluping just over the horizon, than a merry band of gay sex workers, dressed as drag nuns, feeding the poor and comforting the sick? Protesting for people and for the environment. Pulling from hundreds of years of Catholic tradition, then deconstructing and reconstructing it to their own interpretation.

Their first major protest spectacle came at an anti-nuke demonstration on the heels of the Three Mile Island partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania.

The Sisters performed the "Rosary in Time of Nuclear Peril". It is Catholic custom to pray the rosary, like mala beads in Hinduism, to have a string of beads that one uses to count the repetitions of a prayer or mantra. But ever-skewed, the Sisters’ version of holy prayer included their cheerleader-esque pom pom routine.

There is a genius to this appropriation, I think. Because these queer nuns are wholly consistent and wholly contradictory. Their appearance is familiar and shocking all at once. We’re lured into the well-known melody of Amazing Grace, only to realize the nuns have changed the lyrics to Amazing Pride. But it’s not just an aesthetic. This is form and content at its peak, dear coven. Because the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are nuns. Queer nuns, queering nunhood, where activism is at the core of a benevolent mission to spread love and hope. The Sisters take a religion that largely excludes them and rehomes it inside of a praxis for the pre-utopia.

In dark times, dear coven, conjure in your mind a renegade troupe of queer nuns, sparkling in all their glorious contradictions. Reverence, irreverence, protest and delight.

Know that they exist outside of imagination. Invite them into your heart and let them light a candle of possibility, hope and inspiration.

The Sisters continue to celebrate their Easter anniversary in blasphemous pageantry - with Hunky Jesus contests and of course, fundraising for their community. This year, more than 50 hunks in Jesus drag showed up to compete at the San Francisco event.

Sister Kail Vagilisticexpialidocious said: “Drag removes oneself from their every day self. Drag can be an expression of an inner self. It allows us an opportunity to reach deep inside, and find something and pull that forward. For me it allows me to integrate myself more fully and more authentically. But drag is something that has been used throughout humanity through the history of mankind. Healers and shamans throughout tribal cultures and indigenous cultures, there have been many many names that referred to an individual that dresses contrary to the gender that they were born, and they often served in very specific functions within their communities be they healer or counselor, or the bridge between men and women to counsel folks in marriage, and other situations that that may be in need of the special insight of this Person that essentially walks between two worlds. Drag moves us into a place for where we’re neither in this world, or that world, we’re neither in the world of man we’re neither in the world of women or somewhere in between, and it's always been my understanding that it’s in the in between space where magic can happen, and what the sisters offered to the community is an opportunity for that magic - we don't define what it might be just try to be present for whatever it could be.

Kali explains that this drag, this visceral presence of the extreme, raises the bar for other people in a sense, pushes the boundary of what is acceptable or possible so far that it creates extra space for people who are just thinking about testing their own limits, manifesting their own authentic selves.

The Sisters exist as emblematic of one of the best pieces of advice I ever got: take the work seriously, but never take yourself too seriously.

Melissa M. Wilcox, author of Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody, wrote:

Melissa M. Wilcox, author of Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody

This is witchcraft to me. To find a way to reclaim and critique and re-enchant our tools and the world around us. To find actions that delight, that help our communities and throw a spanner in the works of individualism all at the same time. Take back possession of the traditions of our ancestors, wisdom bent and weaponized against us, then bend it back again and use it for our own protection. Our own glory. In service to love.

When Sister Roma, you’ll hear our interview with Sister Roma later this week, first joined the order in the 80s, there were only five members. Now, there are hundreds, in dozens of chapters across four continents. Run entirely by volunteers, each chapter is unique, has their own signature headpiece - some coifs, wimples and veils are based very closely on traditional historical nuns, while others are made of pizza boxes - and each chapter raises money and volunteers for their own unique causes like housing, food, education, research and liberation - with events ranging from Bingo nights to lavish galas, all in support of their local communities.

In 1981, The Sisters produced the world's first fundraiser benefit for an AIDS organization. It was a dog show on Castro Street. The artist responsible for one of my all time favourite disco songs, Mighty Real’s Sylvester served as a judge. It's like I dreamt it!

But they also produced safer sex and AIDS informational pamphlets which San Francisco nurses passed out in hospitals, since the american healthcare system, woefully behind and frustratingly silent on the issue, had itself created no such literature.

In 1982, Sister Boom Boom ran for San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Soon after, San Francisco passed a law, commonly called the "Sister Boom Boom Law", that all people running for office had to do so with their legal name. Interestingly, decades later, Sister Roma would campaign against Facebook when they tried to impose similar, legal names only, rules.

Mother Mandragora Salacious In Purple was 14 years old, living in Leicester in the midlands of England when she saw an interview with Sister Boom Boom on television. Almost a decade later, Mandragora found herself in London at a protest for gay rights themed as a Kiss In, and spotted a drag nun. Mandragora asked, “Are you a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence?” “Yes.” “Can I join?” “Yes.”

And so Mandragora joined the young offshoot chapter of the Sisters. The London House. Together they battled Section 28, a series of laws across Britain that prohibited the "promotion of homosexuality". Introduced by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, section 28 was a precursor to what Americans call Don’t Say Gay.

The LONDON HOUSE chose Derek Jarman, an English artist, filmmaker and activist who campaigned for gay rights and was outspoken about his own personal battie with HIV and AIDS, to be sainted in a ceremony both political and holy. Jarman had called The Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence “the shock troops of gay liberation.”

They scripted and improvised what a ritual of bestowing sainthood might look like through their lens, singing bawdy songs to the tunes of familiar hymns, All Nuns Brights And Beautiful, and so on. Jarman wore a sparkling gold lamé robe. Sister Celeb announced a laying on of hands, to join together at Jarman’s temple, his body. And all those in attendance at once placed a hand on Derek’s shoulders, arms, knees, touching and venerating him. And he was given a necklace and was declared Saint Derek of Dungeness of the Order Of Celluloid Knights.

Here’s a message to all Witches: WE NEED NOT BE DEITIES or demigods FOR OUR TOUCH TO BE HEALING.

In 1987, Princess Diana of Wales shocked the world when she visited AIDS patients at a hospital in London and was photographed shaking a patient's hand without gloves.

Today you can watch videos on YouTube and see The Sisters in the street, hugging the unhoused.

These touches are healing. The laying of hands.

I came of age in the early 90s, having sex for the first time under the looming shadow of the AIDS crisis. The first time I had PinV sex, I used a condom I had picked up for free from the AIDS committee office where I’d been volunteering. This was back in the pre-internet 90s when consciousness raising was more than a click away. It often meant setting up a table in the mall to pass out condoms and educational paper pamphlets on protected sex. It meant looking people in the eye as they asked if wearing a red ribbon would make them gay? Afraid they could get AIDS from a handshake. Smiling…”Noooo, it doesn’t mean you’re gay. Just that you support people who are sick and struggling, and you want to protect yourself and others from transmission.” Smiling warmly you shake their hand, hoping this is healing too.

Part of my training was to consider the following question: Say you run into someone from the committee on the street, and the person you’re with asks how you know them. How do you respond? I stammered, “maybe they’re a friend of my mom?” The necessary secrecy was heart-breaking.

But in keeping with what would become Act Up’s slogan, Silence Equals Death, the modern Sisters keep no such secrecy. They are loud and in your face. And while they’re in your face, they’ll educate you, heal you, make you believe in magic.

The Sisters made national headlines again this year, with an absolutely chaotic debacle with the baseball franchise The LA Dodgers. Sister Roma and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were invited to be honored at the Dodgers’ Stadium as part of Pride Night. Then there were protests and the Sisters were uninvited. Then counter protests and they were RE-invited. It’s all so ridiculous. But luckily, there is no one more at home inside the ridiculous than a Drag Nun.

At this point you might be thinking about becoming a Sister yourself and asking, what does it take to be a sister of perpetual indulgence? Well, luckily again, thesisters.org has an article entitled:

What It Takes To Be A Sister of Perpetual Indulgence. So I’ll let the sisters answer that in their own words:

Being a Sister requires a lot of different skills and an investment in time, and energy.In evaluating a potential new member, we look at a number of things. We look for drive, passion and commitment; a desire to perform community service; the ability to handle many tasks with grace; honesty and a genuine character; good people skills and the ability to interact with others in a meaningful way. However, having the drive and skills is not enough. The Order is made up of over 30 people who all must be able to work together smoothly and efficiently. We are far from perfect and, like any family, often have our misunderstandings. Despite that, we all work towards our common goals and often can make miracles happen. A new member must be able to mesh with the Order and should add to the group dynamic, not detract from it.

We are more than just another community service organization: we are Sisters. As with our more traditional counterparts, nearly all of us felt a genuine calling to do this work. There is room for a lot of fun in the Order, but we take our callings and our vows very seriously. The majority of Sisters consider this a lifelong vocation; the path may twist and turn, the outer manifestation may change, but the commitment to service never waivers.

Recently, the Portland chapter bestowed Sainthood upon our beloved witch, Jinkx Monsoon.

As we Witches search for inspiration, for ways to be of service, justice, grace; honesty and a genuine character, to deliver a supportive message about having room in the world to be who we are, as we are, free from guilt, and with joy for our own lives, let us pray to these holy heretics, these divinely dissident disrupters. These Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

Check and see if there’s an Order of Sisters near you.

Be present for magic. Make miracles.

May we all find ways to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt. Let us teach and touch and delight, and show the world that it is loved. Take some advice from the Tampa Bay Sisters: “Be the reason why someone feels included, welcomed, valued, listened to, supported and loved.”

Our closing benediction:

Melissa M. Wilcox, author of Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody

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