The Sisters and Brothers of the Order of Perpetual Indulgence are part of a worldwide order of queer people of all sexualities. The Order formed in 1979 in response to attacks on the queer community by fundamentalist religious organisations. Forty years later, they are now famous worldwide for their fundraising and activism.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence originated in San Francisco on Easter Day of 1979 when four friends found themselves fed up with the “Castro clone look.”
“Gay men in San Francisco in the 70s all presented very masculine, leather jackets, moustaches, sort of like the Marlboro Man, you know?” Sister Roma told NBC News. “So they were very fed up with that, and they thought, ‘Let’s put on these nun’s habits and sort of go out and screw with people and see what happens.’”
“Everywhere they went the reaction was just insane — people had never seen anything like men, most of them with facial hair, in nun’s habits.”
They realized they were onto something and that’s when The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were born.
They were clearly ahead of their time, and many of their “dragtivism” tactics have inspired others, Roma said. “Little did they know it, but these four queers who went out in these nuns habits actually changed the world,” she said.
One of the original sisters was a nurse called Bobbi Campbell. He became well known across America as an AIDS poster boy, a role he took on himself as a way to destigmatize the disease.
“The sisters took a very pragmatic, responsible attitude towards the virus, and said, ‘We need to protect the community,’” Roma said. “So the sisters produced a safer sex pamphlet called Play Fair that we still produce today, that was the world’s first-ever safer sex pamphlet.”
The Sisters went on to host some of the world’s first fundraisers for AIDS victims. At the time, this unknown disease was ravaging people’s bodies leaving them in financial ruin.
Each 10 year anniversary has been marked with a different campaign.
At 10 years, they launched their ‘Stop the Violence’ campaign, which was a response to the noticeable increase in homophobic hate crimes in San Francisco.
Their 20th anniversary was spent hosting a street fair on Castro Street over the Easter weekend, something which a lot of people saw as sacrilegious. They marked this by beginning their ‘Hunky Jesus Contest’, a contest that continues to this day!
At 30, they focussed on political issues which affected the LGBTQ community at the time. “We started to talk about gays in the military, and same-sex marriage, and adopting children,” Roma said. “So the sisters again picked up the bullhorns and buckets and collected money and raised awareness for all of these important issues.”
This weekend, the Sisters are celebrating 40 years by turning their focus to issues such as transgender and migrant rights, as well as anti-gay laws like the one recently passed in Brunei. “But we are also thinking about the jeopardy of our own civil rights and our own safety in this country as the pendulum swings back to the right,” Roma said.
“Let’s face it, religion is campy. It’s pomp. it’s circumstance, it’s burning purses that smell like incense, it’s candles and stained glass windows and robes and brocade,” she said. “Is there anything gayer than religion, really?”