By Arianna Puopolo
Campus News Co-Editor
With unwavering smiles and a whole lot of glitter, the Sisters take a high-heeled step out onto 18th Street in the Castro District of San Francisco. Their immaculate airbrushing and talent for fake eyelash application is something any debutante would dream of. However, there’s more to these Sisters than meets the eye.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is a group of queer nuns who dedicate their lives to community enrichment. The group, comprised of primarily biological males, has developed significantly since its inception three decades ago.
“In those 30 years we’ve flowed and ebbed on the types of services we’ve provided for the community,” Sister Constance Craving of the Holey Desire said. “Half of us are very spiritual and half of us wanted to do public theater.”
Sister Constance Craving said a significant portion of the Sisters’ outreach work involves prevention efforts, like supporting queer awareness and producing theater to educate and raise money about issues including rape prevention and the transmission of sexually transmitted infections and diseases.
“The best prevention method for anything — whether it be harm to self or contracting an STD — is to love yourself, and often times in the queer community we are taught not only not to love ourselves but actually to hate ourselves,” she said.
The Sisters confront resistance to their order with patience and understanding. Many of the misconceptions about the Sisters are the result of their festive garb. Each Sister wears a wimple, a head garment from medieval Europe, that supports her veil. Wimples are worn in place of a habit. Sisters are also adorned with jewelry, and they wear dresses of varying lengths.
Sister Constance Craving of the Holey Desire was ordained in 2002. She said that passersby have jeered or questioned the purpose of the Sisters’ attire.
“A lot of times people see us as just a clown, which is OK, but we aren’t just a clown,” she said. “We incorporate levity and joy.”
Every Sister names herself. The decision is a very personal one that takes time. Once a name is decided upon, the Sisters adopt it as a separate identity. Many Sisters prefer to disassociate their secular lives from the lives they lead “in-face.”
Sister Gina Tonic the Sparkling adopted her identity after spending time with the Sisters in a bar one night. After struggling to find divine inspiration, Sister Gina Tonic found it in her favorite drink.
“I heard it and it just felt so right, that was just kind of it,” she said.
Sister Eunice X (pronounced unisex) was attracted to the irony of her name. The draw, she said, comes from the double entendre — it captures gender neutrality while incorporating the defining character X, an echo of Malcolm X. Sister Eunice X uses her name to demonstrate her admiration for a fellow civil rights activist.
Sister Sara Femme was inspired to adopt her identity because of the religious connotations of the Seraphim. This figure is rooted in both pagan and Christian history.
By getting into face, each person takes on her new identity as a Sister.
“It is an actual ritual for me,” Sister Constance Craving said.
Many of the nuns take over an hour to prepare. Getting in face often involves a cocktail in addition to prayer, music, candles or incense.
By the time a Sister has transformed into her in-face identity, she no longer recognizes herself outside of that persona. For this reason, the Sisters prefer not to have their secular names associated with their in-face identities.
“It kind of limits my nun,” Sister Constance Craving said.
Sister Eunice X shares these sentiments.
“This isn’t a charade or a cover,” she said. “It’s very much a part of my identity.”
Sister Gina Tonic said her transformation is anything but superficial.
“The hour-and-a-half transition time is not so much about the makeup but about becoming Gina,” she said. “It’s about turning that full Gina on.”
The order was founded 30 years ago on Easter Sunday in San Francisco. Now the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have chapters all over the globe. While the majority of the Sisters are biological males who take on female personae when they are performing service work and ministry, there are a handful of bio-females (with female personas, as well) and a few bio-males who maintain their bio-gender while participating.
Many of the Sisters are accomplished in both their secular and in-face lives. One Sister has a Ph.D. in chemistry from MIT. Another is earning a master’s in nursing from UC San Francisco.
Each Sister’s story is different, but their motivations for joining the order are a common thread.
Sister Constance Craving said that monastery life has been her dream since childhood.
“When I was a kid I used to walk around with my robe on backwards and a towel on my head and I would pretend to be a nun,” she said.
Although he was approached by the Catholic Church and invited to be a priest, he decided that path was not for him.
He started doing community work in San Francisco and, consequently, met the Sisters of a Perpetual Indulgence. After meeting the first Sister, he was hooked.
“She was just the most fantastic creature that God had ever gifted the planet with,” Sister Constance Craving said. “I was infatuated.”
Sister Sara Femme, a bio-female member of the order, joined the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence after interacting with them in several community events.
She said joining the order for her was inevitable, because she was so enchanted by the Sisters.
“I was very, very attracted to them,” she said. “I just wanted to climb all up on them. It was almost narcotic.”
Sister Sara Femme said the mission of the Sisters is to serve the community in every capacity.
“We stand for them. We stand for you,” she said. “We’re here to fight off the bull.”
Sister Sara Femme is producing a play in November to support San Francisco Women Against Rape. The kinky cabaret show, called “Puss In Boots,” will take the stage Nov. 7 through 10 in San Francisco. Other projects include supporting the San Francisco Women’s Community Clinic, which the Sisters issued grants to.
“The Sisters have been amazing spokespeople for the clinic,” said Carlina Hansen, executive director of the clinic. “They are advocates for having responsible and essential information about health and sexuality disseminated in the community. They, in all of their fantastic energy and dedication, bring attention to causes like ours, provoking people to ask questions.”
Hansen appreciates the Sisters’ role as pious figureheads as well as activists.
“They are a religious order of the most amazing kind — carrying a message that is filled with fun and a little bit of debauchery,” she said. “They are keystones in the queer community and for the Women’s Community Clinic and we love them.”
Reactions to the Sisters vary.
Sister Constance Craving said that misunderstanding is the most common reason for rejection.
“[People] just see people not fitting into the role of normal and had a strong reaction to that,” Sister Constance Craving said. “Around this time of the year, it gets much easier [because of Halloween].”
“We get a little bit of everything — we’re not Joe Blow on the street,” Sister Sara Femme said.
She said that because each Sister has a secular identity, it makes people’s wariness easier to absorb.
As one of the few biological females in the sisterhood, Sara Femme encounters gender prejudices, she said. People are often confused and inquire about her gender.
“Unless we’re having sex it doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’m a nun, period.”
A common reaction to the Sisters is criticism that they are mocking the Catholic Church. This isn’t true, they said, explaining that each Sister is dedicated to bettering her community and fulfilling three primary goals: education, ministry and entertainment.
“The most important thing for people to understand about the organizations is that we are nuns, we do take vows, and those vows are for life,” Sister Eunice X said.
In addition to raising funds, the Sisters do a great deal of community outreach. Bond ministry and street ministry involve the Sisters going to bars or walking down the street, respectively, and lending an open ear or a hug to anyone in need.
“It’s kind of like outreach with a Sister twist on it,” Sister Constance Craving said.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are civil rights activists working to protect and educate their communities.
“All individuals should be able to live their lives in whatever way brings them the most joy … as long as they’re not bringing any harm to anyone,” Sister Eunice X said. “There is no room for guilt or shame.”