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Naughty Habits

[whitespace] Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
Matt Ipcar

Karma vs Dogma: 'I think nuns have a calling. They have dedicated themselves as teachers and healers, and their uniform is a symbol of that sacredness.'

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence combine camp and compassion

By Dara Colwell

Easter sunday marked the 20th anniversary of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the 30-strong group of theatrical fundraising nuns. Amid well-publicized calls by the San Francisco Archdiocese to ban the celebration (decrying it as "anti-Catholic"), the Sisters held their ground peacefully, like real ladies.

Self-proclaimed "do-gooders" who camp up and hit the streets in nuns' habits, the Sisters are devoted to raising money and awareness for causes such as AIDS and breast cancer. Their fundraising, done with humor, compassion and, typically, gobs of blue eye shadow, has attracted headlines as often as their getups. They got their start in 1979 when a group of three gay men, tired of the Castro-clone phenomenon, decided to shake things up one evening and got dolled up as Sisters. The reaction was greater than they anticipated, and sister-rama took off. They now have chapters in 26 countries.

I talked to Sister Mary Mae Him and Sister Phyllis Stine and asked what it was like to walk a mile in their pumps.

Metropolitan: In the press you've been called everything from gay satirists to a troupe of cross-dressers. How would you characterize yourselves?

Sister Mary Mae Him: We're a little bit of everything; we're too hard to really pigeonhole. People think we're drag queens. We're not drag nuns, and we're not a theater troupe--we're nuns. The makeup allows us anonymity. It's like a mask that allows our eccentricities to flow. I put the face on and Sister Mary Mae comes out.

Sister Phyllis Stine: We're not just frivolous queens, we're really dedicated to a life of social work. I think drag queens have another purpose--some go for gender illusion, others for the camp aspect, maybe they just want to be pretty. But I'm not trying to be a woman--I'm a nun. Whenever I wear a habit, it's to do with work. I don't do this to be a freak. If a woman can be a CEO, why can't a man be a nun?

Metropolitan: Before the Easter Celebration kicked off, several Catholic groups called for a boycott of San Francisco, claiming the Sisters mocked the Catholic Church. What's your take on the controversy?

Sister Phyllis: It was in the papers nonstop. The Sisters are bashing the Catholic Church! I got so many hateful telephone calls, they made my answering machine melt. I don't care about the church, that's not my function. My function is to meet the needs of my community. I felt like the press wanted us to lower ourselves to anti-Catholic rhetoric, but we never did. Whenever they quoted us, it was always a good-natured reaction. I mean, we're 30 people--the Catholic Church is 1.4 million. We're not going to rock the church! I think all the hullabaloo was based on a misunderstanding of what we're about.

Sister Mary Mae: The Sisters are always a lightning rod. We're more visible than drag queens, and that's partially why we do it. We look forward to the attention. But because of our visibility, we're an easy target. When bigots abuse us, we just smile back. Humor is a powerful weapon, it's disarming. We're a collection of Buddhists, Jews, Catholics, Pagans, Fairies--everything. We're not about organized religious dogma.

Metropolitan: What drew you to become a sister?

Sister Phyllis: The first time I met the Sisters was when I was visiting San Francisco one Easter. I remember wearing a skirt covered in marshmallow peeps, a foot-tall hat and chocolate eggs on my knees. A woman in the crowd came up to me and said, "Thank God you're normal--not like the people in Marin." And I thought, "I'm an East Coast boy wearing this 2,000-calorie dress, and that's normal? I like this town!" So I decided to stay. I think nuns have a calling. They have dedicated themselves as teachers and healers, and their uniform is a symbol of that sacredness. For gays and lesbians, or those not connected to the church, we add a gentle, campy humor. We take the message and translate it so it can be understood by people who typically aren't allowed to speak that language.

Sister Mary Mae: For me, we've all been put here to help each other and uplift each other, and this is a way to do it that's really pure. When we do condom outreach to young gay prostitutes who have this image that being gay is wrong, that they're going to hell, we acknowledge the positive. This is what you do, so take care of yourself. That's the divine--taking time to lessen someone's burden is divine. We take on homophobia, misogyny, racism and sexism whether it's in the government, the church or within our own community. We're taking what has oppressed us and owning it as a source of power. If what we were doing was not truly God-driven, I don't know how we would have survived 20 years and spread to 26 countries. I think what divinity likes, it lets thrive.

Metropolitan: You gals have an infectious energy when you're together. How do you seek to serve?

Sister Phyllis: I'm a queer man, but I'm not limited to a community. The greater community we serve has shown a need and desire for us. Their love and support have been overwhelming. When the Sisters come to a function, people know it's a valid fundraiser. AIDS is not over by a long shot.

Sister Mary Mae: There's a public-service thread that runs through this organization. Our work is the promulgation of universal joy, and joy is lacking not just in the gay community. I would hope that in 20 more years, we could put ourselves out of existence because joy and tolerance will be pervasive. We're focused on making a difference.

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From the April 26, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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