|A Sistory Blow By Blow
with chunks from Sister Phyllis Stein the Fragrant (original Mistress of Archives) & Sister Kitty Catalyst, O.C.P (former Mistress of Archives)
A long, long time ago, let's say 1976, in a place very far away (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), a convent of Roman Catholic nuns lent some retired habits to a group of men performing their version of The Sound of Music. Three years later, those habits resurfaced in the streets of San Francisco's Castro district...
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 new year brought the new Order, and the name Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Sister Hysterectoria designed the first habits after a Flemish 14th century ladies-in-waiting and French cloister's wimple, and through a city grant, commissioned the first set of habits and "Ear Brassieres." Sister Secuba, a calligrapher, created the logo and the original banner under which the Sisters made their first public appearance.
During the Three Mile Island Protest of March 1980, The Sisters performed their "Rosary in Time of Nuclear Peril," including the ever-popular pompon routine. This small group hit big, making every paper and gossip channel immediately. By August they were front page news, chasing hate-mongering Christians out of the Castro and the Polk neighborhoods.
In October the city saw its first fundraiser with Sisterly flair: a bingo/disco benefit for gay Cuban refugees. So many people turned out for the event that a second seating had to be thrown together to accommodate all of the bingo players. After four cards had been played, everything was moved to one side and the disco ball began to spin. This marked one of the largest fundraisers by a small community organization: over $1,500 raised in one evening.
The Sisters continued to raise tempers, eyebrows, and funds throughout the next year, stacking up multiple letters to the editor in protest of them. But their popularity increased. They could be found at many events, fairs and fundraisers spreading joy and cheer, postcards and t-shirts. On Christmas Eve, 1981, the Sisters were cited for "peddling without a license" on the corner of 18th and Castro. "Sisters don't peddle," insisted Sister Missionary Position, "we receive donations and give tokens of joy. It's just coincidental that it happens at the same time." The Sydney, Australia Order is founded.
The city's health scene had hit crisis levels during this year. STD's were spreading at a pandemic rate and the "gay cancer" was contaminating everyone with fear and prejudice. Registered nurses Sister Florence Nightmare and Sister Roz Erection joined with a team of Sisters and medical professionals to create Play Fair!, the first safer sex pamphlet to use plain sex-positive language, practical advice, and humor. It was so well received that it went through a second printing within just a few months. It was paid for, in part by sex party benefits and the sale of ashes from the burned down Barracks Bath House.
June, 1982 brought the Second Annual Dog Show in the Castro. The Sisters were joined this same year by Jeanne Dornacker and Shirley MacLaine for the first AIDS fundraiser. Pushing the political envelope, Sister Boom Boom ran under the 'Nun of the Above' ticket in the race for Supervisor of San Francisco. Amidst all of the brouhaha about whether or not she should be allowed to run, she campaigned hard, spoke eloquently, and won over 23,000 votes. Frightfully close to winning.
The first AIDS Candlelight vigil in 1983 was orchestrated by the Sisters, led by the banner "Fighting for our Lives," created by the Sisters. One of the many speakers to the weeping and angry crowd was Sister Florence Nightmare. She was not only a health care professional, but advocate for PWAs and was herself HIV positive. Her article "Well and Good," in the Sentinel, combined observations of a man living with AIDS and practical insights of a medical professional. She and her "friend" (don't we mean lover?) appeared on the August 8 cover of Newsweek. The article, about gays and AIDS, was the first time that the topics were handled in a fairly unbiased manner and that the entire nation was able to come face to face with AIDS.
For their efforts the previous year, Sisters were honored with five Cable Car awards including outstanding theme event, outstanding athletic event, and outrageous parade float. Not bad for such a young group.
The Sisters went all out to greet the Pope during his visit in 1987. While many in the city were not pleased to see him, we were beside ourselves. We rolled out the red carpet in his honor and held a full-on exorcism in Union Square. That, and a few other actions and antics, landed us the prestigious honor of being placed on the Papal List of Heretics. (Way to go gals!) The Seattle Sisters start their ministry.
The fifth exposition basketball event thrown by the Sisters, "Rally 'Round the Quilt," a fundraiser for the NAMES Quilt Project distributed over $5,400. The event was played in 1988 between the gay community's women's team and men's team at Kezar Pavilion. Many interesting things happened which are not fit to print.
For their 10th anniversary, the Sisters threw a huge gala event, Sistericus, invited all of the Sisters from around the States to join in the celebration, helping to raise much-needed funds for Project Open Hand and AIDS Emergency Fund. Later that year, during the insanity that this city calls Halloween, the Sisters took to the streets with donation buckets. All of the money collected was donated to The Mayor's Earthquake Disaster Relief Fund. They also realized that this was an untapped market with lots of energy and potential, and began working on planning an event for the following year.
Artist Thomasina DeMaio approached the Sisters soon after stating that she wanted to create portraits of the nuns in paint and clay. Months and months of hard work culminated in a large art exhibit / performance art piece, "Angels In Whiteface," that is still being talked about today. The event treated the hundreds present to performances by Doris Fish, Ambisextrous, Sister Vice N Virtue's trapeze act, Sister Psychedelia's rise from the dead, and Pope Dementia's Altered boys, flexing their muscles wearing only thongs and smiles.
That October was the first of the Sister's four-year charge of Halloween in the Castro. The Sisters brought safety and focus to the spontaneous party that happened in the tiny neighborhood. They single-handedly produced a show that featured the city's most fabulous performance artists, a dance stage, and a forum to show off outrageous and elaborate costumery. The small, voluntary donation requested allowed the Sisters to raise thousands of dollars each year to give out as community grants the following spring.
The London Order is established from Australian Sisters/missionaries.
This year saw a large outreach to the international communities. Sister X, Sister Vicious, and Sister Psychedelia went forth into Europe to spread the Word and form Missions. By June, the Sisters brought the large show/performance art piece, "Dimanche D'Indulge," to Paris to celebrate the investiture of the Paris order. This was also where "The Condom Saviour Consecration and Vow" were first premiered, and have been performed many times since.
Back home in San Francisco, Sister Roma! introduced her STOP the Violence Campaign in reaction to the rise of violence in the streets, especially hate crimes. A window placard system was devised to mark safe homes to run to in the instance of an attack or the threat of an attack. The Order distributed window signs and whistles in the various neighborhoods and districts of the city as well as on college campuses.
From the missionary efforts of last year both the French and German orders are formed. Sister Sam came out in 92 and wanted YOU! The Queer Army enlisted the energy of angry people for the Holy Wars against homophobia in the church and the government. Draft cards were distributed and there was no excuse not to enlist. One of the first actions of our pink-camouflaged army was to distribute condoms on USF campus on February 14. The campus had already denied permission for the distribution on the Catholic College campus. Police escorted Sisters off of the campus and held the student collaborators on charges.
The next mobilization was against Rev. Coal and his gospel of hate at the Capitol Christian Center in Sacramento. Demonstrators chanted outside of the Easter Morning services, finally drawing security and parishioners from the inner sanctum. While most of the congregation hid behind Bibles and spewed hate, one choir member, a teenager, came and joined the demonstration, outing himself in the process. Sister Lost and Found, as he was later named, came to the Sisters for help once he was rejected by both his church and his family. Tragically the State of Nebraska forced him back to a foster home despite his wishes to stay with his current gay fathers. He took his own life rather than live in foster care.
The Sisters start one of the sexiest alliances by working at the Folsom Street Fair and Up Your Alley Fair helping the organizers by acting as door divas for one California's largest events and probably the worlds largest fetish event. Folsom Street Fair attracts thousands of participants and raises thousands for charity in the process.
While demonstrating in Washington, DC, orchestrating huge events in our own city, celebrating life and spreading joy, the Sisters also struggled against the pandemic. In rapid succession, the Sisters lost five of their own, which left them in anger and despair. It empowered the order and refocused their fight, so that their 15th anniversary brought new energy and drive to the group. The Children's Halloween was started as a safe space for the kids and continues to this day as a treat for hundreds of kids for gay and not gay parents and their children.
Their Halloween celebration was the largest yet, and pushed the limits of control and safety. Out of their dedication to their community, the Sisters joined a coalition of neighborhood groups and Community United Against Violence to come up with a plan to move the celebration out of the Castro. While the coalition itself moved the Halloween fete to the Civic Center area the Sisters insisted on having a proper celebration, HallowQueen, a wonderful costume-mandatory dance/cabaret which raised over $6000 for a handful of charities.
Sisters attend Stonewall 25th Anniversary in New York City and help lead the Drag March from Alphabet City to the Stonewall Inn. Favorite chants: "2-5-6-7 we're tough dykes and we don't have to rhyme" and "the Pope wears a dress and so will I ".
For the first time, the Sisters bless the San Francisco Mime Troupe opening-day free performance in Dolores Park on the July 4th (US Independence Day) weekend. Showing a broader range of community service, the Sisters put on W.H.O.O.T.Y. (We'll Hold Our Own Thank-You) benefiting the Women and Cancer Walk. In support of alternatives to western-medicine the Sisters assisted in putting together La KLUBSTiTUTA alá Oasis that raised the first legal $1000 for SF Proposition 215 legalizing medical marijuana. The event featured the Virgin Queen contest and marked the first of many collaborations with Diet Popstitute and KLUBSTiTUTE.
On a darker note, the Sister Sock Show makes its debut as an alternative Sister presence at events that aren't community benefits yet still have performance value and possibilities. The Sister Sock Show quickly gains a reputation for projectiles, forced audience participation and poorly executed narrative. Sister Phyllis Stein the Fragrant braves the bicyclist world and starts the tradition of Sisters in the California AIDS Ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles raising thousands of dollars in the process. The Sisters of Perpetual indulgence, Los Angeles mission is successfully launched under Sister GladAss of the Joyous Reserectum's guidance.
Now, in a time where there are more than twenty convents worldwide, the Sisters create and have brought to Washington, DC four quilt panels, 24' by 24', commemorating over thirty "Nuns of the Above" as part of the Names Project Quilt. We know that there are more Sisters whose names have escaped us as much as their lives escaped them, but their energy and love live on through us.
Sisters attended, for the first time, the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert and served Oh! Communion with medicinal brownies and tequila to parched and needy pagans. They also performed and passed out safer sex materials and set up a prayer shrine. The Sisters become a founding sponsor and outreach assisters for the CCP, Community Center Project in a multi-year project.
Renewing a commitment to queer youth The Sisters start several supportive activities: for LYRIC's Young Loud and Proud conferences they put on aprons and act as lunch ladies bring smiles (and VERY LOUD DISCO MUSIC) to help start their day of activist organizing. They also helped put on PROMSTiTUTE an alternative queer youth prom where the youth were encouraged to wear very short skirts and drink to excess. The Sisters also help at several AIDS art auctions as dotters, runners, wrappers and display models (please note: no artwork was dropped).
August brought the tragic death of Princess Diana and the Sisters were called by the community to add focus to the grief that not only paralyzed London but was felt around the world. The Queen of Hearts Memorial went from the Castro to the British Embassy and, again, several thousand for the Princess' charities was raised. Several Sisters (most notably Sister Dana Van Iquity with the program) had served on the SF Pride Parade Committee, but this year the Sisters actually won "Most Outrageous Float" when Sister Kitty Catalyst was inspired to use the excess left-over trimmings from all the other floats to decorate the Sisters vehicle.
In other tragi-comic news Sister Hellen Wheels, Sister Dana and Sister Kitty performed for one of the many Imperial Court functions "The Out of Town Court Show" and won, but didn't even remember they had attended and performed at the event (ahem) until reminded several weeks later. The House Of The Sheila Na Gigged (Cardiff, Wales) formed.
The annual Pink Saturday event in the Castro, which is the Saturday night hotspot before the San Francisco Pride Parade, is officially organized by the Sisters for the first time ensuring monies raised stay in the community. Each year has seen more money going to local beneficiaries. Also that year Sisters organize Wig Out, a wig drive collecting from San Francisco drag queens hundreds of new and reconditioned wigs for women under-going chemotherapy.
"We are not amusing" becomes internal code language for the James Hormel scandal as President Clinton moves to make history and appoint him as the first openly gay United States Ambassador (to a very Catholic Luxembourg). The Sisters pass by in the annual SF Pride Parade when he apparently chuckled at our antics. Spam on James! Make-a-Wish Make-a-Dish, a queer youth holidaze dance was held at the Eureka Valley Recreation center and featured Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo much to the delight of all the queer youth present.
The Sisters celebrate 20 years of good-spirited activism with an Easter Birthday party fundraiser in the Castro, while looking forward to another twenty years of community service. The local Archdiocese condemns the order thus granting us an estimated $1 million in free publicity. Play Fair! is re-issued and updated after 20 years to be all gender inclusive, encourage folks to use safer sex techniques, get tested for sexually transmitted diseases and lose the guilt.
Later that summer the Sisters visit Reno, Nevada for the first Reno Pride Parade and, again, are condemned. The Governor of Nevada refuses to issue a proclamation in support of Transgenders, Bisexuals, Lesbians and Gays so the Sisters write their own. The celebration receives front-page press as well as coverage from every television news channel in the city. Together with Survive AIDS, the Sisters take the lead in organizing the annual AIDS Candlelight Vigil making a big splash on SF City Hall steps. People with AIDS are honored with remembrances, AIDS Hero Awards and performances from the cast from RENT, Dear Diva, Dirty Little Showtunes as well as drummers and U.S. Representative Nanci Pelosi.
The Sisters hostess several benefits at the Power Exchange sex club and Castlebar S&M space raising sex positive spirits and lots of needed money for local charities. Our 20th Anniversary was heralded with an International Conclave and related archival exhibit "A Consistory Conspiracy: Changing the Face of Activism (1979-1999)" which featured mementos and ephemera from the past twenty years complete with several fundraising receptions including, of course, Butt Plug Bingo!
Reportedly the first fashion show in a sex club, Hot Cross Buns is held on Good Friday at the Power Exchange with local fetish designers including Dr. Carol Queen (from Good Vibrations) with a Dildo Fashion show which raises over $3000 for local charities. Another fine San Francisco tradition The Great Tricycle Race is reborn with much support from the good folks at Harvey Milk Institute. Contestants race through the Castro on regulation tricycles and ended with the annual Hunky Jesus and Easter Bonnet contests.
Sister Betty Does, LNM, weaves through a maze of red tape to present Resurrection Bingo to the Castro at Metropolitan Community Church. The monthly event raises over $7000 for local charities. The Sisters find themselves in the middle of an AIDS denialist mythology drama when members are targeted around barebacking issues. The Sisters rise to the occasion by granting money to AIDS Activist Against Violence and Lies (AAAVL) who battle the denialists on many fronts. AAAVL helps to prevent violence against PWA's from occurring and works to protect public meetings from being threatened by the denialists.
The Sisters burst with Pride and take to the streets at San Francisco Pride as the Brides of Christ (of course) in support of Californians for Same-Sex Marriage. Later, at the SF Pride Festival, the Sisters perform an exorcism of radio-show hostess "Dr." Laura to free her of her hate-filled speech against gays and lesbians. The Sisters close the year with their annual Solstice benefit which raised funds for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society and the Sisters Archives. At the event $10,000 from their Community Grants Fund is presented to local non-profits and several more worthy individuals including Saint Harry Faerie Godfather (Harry Hay) and Saint N'John (his partner) are Sainted.
Sisters launch World Domination Tour and are surprised that staunch conservatives like being punished for naughty behavior. The Sisters are elected Grand Marshals for the San Francisco Pride Celebration. The Russian River Missionary Order is founded by the San Francisco Order and Sister Mary Margaret of the House of Explosion.
Distraught over the overwhelming loss of life during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, on all Saints Day the Sisters lead several hundred community members on a candle light vigil tour of the Castro, recalling the queer lives and contributions lost.
Celebrating the 2003 PRIDE theme, the Sisters paraded the slogan "We gotta give 'em Pope" by displaying our own Pope Dementia in a cage where he could just barely reach out to fondle our young acolyte. Demonstrating a true knowledge of current events, the Sisters' float also included a masked figure looking a lot like a Texas political cowboy who was straddling a cock-rocket, showing the public that we had, indeed, finally found those nasty "Weapons of Ass Destruction". Some of the Sisters thought the giant cock rocket was kind of crude, but felt better about displaying it when pictures of the float appeared on many conservative websites and newspapers throughout the country.
Under the rallying cry of "25 Years to Life - Ruining it for Everyone, " the Sisters kick off 25 Weeks of Indulgence from Easter Sunday to Folsom Fair Sunday with their annual anniversary celebration in Dolores Park followed by fun evening activities in the Castro.