Queering Easter: The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Redefine Sainthood
An order of queer nuns, founded in San Francisco thirty-one years ago, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is now a full-fledged pastoral and charitable organization, having given away more than a million dollars. They've also raised pioneers in LGBT and AIDS/HIV rights to sainthood, creating their own holy calendar.One of my favorite memories of gay and lesbian life was the one time I went to a Gay Pride march in San Francisco, now multiple decades ago. Among the memorable wonders was a small group who called themselves the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. On and off over the decades, I have thought of those drag nuns, roller skating along the Castro, throwing flowers into the crowd (and kisses) and hooting and hollering with the best of them.
Years later, when I co-edited Que(e)rying Religion with Gary David Comstock, I really wanted to have a picture of those nuns on the cover. To me, they were a vision of the complications of religion and sexuality. Turns out they are still out there, pushing us all to rethink what religion, nuns, charity, sexuality and fun might be — in fact, they are now an international phenomenon. They have, for some, redefined sainthood—and in the process redefined Easter.Months after Pope Benedict raised the Blessed Damien to sainthood, another figure linked to AIDS and HIV was "canonized" in San Francisco. As the Bay Area Reporter put it: “Where else but San Francisco could Irene Smith, a true pioneer in care for the ill and dying, be sainted by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence?” Who is Smith? Here’s what the Bay Area Reporter said:Smith, who conducts Everflowing educational programs that teach touch skills as an integral component of end of life care, is revered as one of the first people to regularly massage those living with AIDS. She began her outreach in 1983, when she started going room to room offering her touch to patients on San Francisco General Hospital’s Ward 5A (then the major AIDS ward in the city). Even before that, in April 1982, she approached the Hospice of San Francisco to propose what was then a novel service, massage for terminally ill hospice clients.
For those who recall the early years of the AIDS/HIV pandemic, and the fear of touching accompanying the devastation, Smith’s focus on massage (and thus touch) was—and is—truly beneficent. In this season of Easter, even those of us who are secular (and I count myself among them) we might still ask: what is sainthood anyway? Who exactly raised Irene Smith to sainthood? Who are the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence? We might ask, as well, is a secular Easter really all that oxymoronic?Not only do the Sisters redefine sainthood, but they redefine Easter as well. This Easter, April 4, 2010, they will celebrate their 31st anniversary in Dolores Park in San Francisco—with the traditional Hunky Jesus and Easter bonnet competitions.Founded in 1979, the order’s official history (aka “sistory”—see this site) begins with their resistance to conformity within gay culture:
On Easter Weekend, during the time of the “Castro Clone,” three men went out into the streets to challenge the world. They went in full, traditional habits through the streets of our city and down to the nude beach. One even carried a machine gun and smoked a cigar. 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 and by the time the Castro Street Fair had rolled around, they were ready to recruit more. In the fall of 1979, Sister Hysterectoria and Reverend Mother went to the first International Faerie gathering and encountered even more men with the calling.
the post concludes:
It is sometimes difficult (especially now, in the Catholic Church), to remember that "Gospel" is a corruption of "God spell", or "Good news". The Gospel message should be joyous, a celebration. The glory of God, says St Irenaeus, is humans fully alive. Joy, I was regularly told by a spiritual director, is the "infallible sign of the Holy Spirit."And, of course, they do name saints. In addition to their December 2009 celebration of Irene Smith, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have canonized such figures as Harry Hay, Armistead Maupin, Harvey Milk, and New Palz Mayor Jason West. (For a longer list, see here.) For many, their claims to do so are simply unacceptable—making fun of “The Church.” For others, they are wonderful in their rejection of the "The Church.” Perhaps more accurately, their wonder lies in their refusal of this either/or in favor of a new queer sensibility, a new queer spirituality, a new canon of hope and transformation, and a renewed notion of sainthood. Not to mention, a resurrection of fun across the decades of AIDs and HIV, across communities of color and poverty, of trans and gay, of men and (though a tiny minority) women, an Easter bonnet contest redefining us all. For those in San Francisco, or all the other places around the globe where this movement has sprung up, Happy Easter.
Where is the joy in the modern Catholic Church? In what way does the isntitutional church help us to be fully alive? Far too often, the effect is quite the opposite: the church imbues us with guilt, not joy, and closes off opportunities to experience the fullness and richness of life, especially sexual life. Jesus Christ was fiercely critical of legalistic compliance with religious formulae and authority, where this got in the way of genuine loving service. It seems to me that by using irreverence, parody and humour, these "sisters" may have more in common with the real Gospel message than the canon lawyers and bureaucrats of the Vatican.