“The lightness of everything, in addition to the whiteface and the nun’s habits, are a mechanism to reach out to people. When we’re dressed up like that, kind of like sacred clowns, it allows people to interact with us.”
There are three things in which San Francisco does not lack: drag shows, activism, and people partying in Dolores Park. Most neighborhoods, any imaginable cause, all year long. But only once a year do we combine all three, when the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence hold their Easter weekend birthday bash in Dolores Park. The event features an egg hunt, live music, and an Easter bonnet competition, but its crown jewel is the Hunky Jesus contest. This year, I ventured out on a chilly, windy Holy Sunday, the grass sodden from torrential rains, to check out the Sisters’ 33rd birthday, which was themed “Pumps and Circumstance.” Although I ended up unable to hop-scotch to a good vantage point through the scrum at the park, I saw enough to know that I’ll be going early next year for a prime seat.
The Sisters call themselves “a leading-edge Order of queer nuns” whose mission is “to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt” (1). They are a non-profit activist group that addresses conformity and shame, LGBT issues, HIV/AIDS, safe sex, and other local causes, employing a combination of drag, camp, fundraising, and street theater to serve their communities. The Sisters are best known for their work around anti-homophobia, gay rights, and HIV/AIDS activism.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have been around since 1979, when three future nuns rebelled against the conformity of the “Castro Clone” (2). Donning authentic, retired habits used for a production of The Sound of Music, the trio marched through the Castro and over to “the” nude beach (I’m not sure which one). The Sisters’ “Sistory” claims: “One even carried a machine gun (for protection). They were met with shock and amazement, but captured everyone’s interest.” Appearances in the coming months cemented the Sisters’ place in San Francisco culture (3).
The Sisters were founded by Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch (PHB), Reverend Mother, Sister Missionary Position, and Sister Hysterectoria-Agnes. Early activism and events included an anti-nuclear protest following the Three Mile Island accident, the world’s first AIDS benefit, anti-homophobia in San Francisco, and STI/HIV education through sex-positive pamphlets. Sister Boom Boom ran for City Supervisor in 1983 on the “Nun of the Above” ticket. The Pope visited in 1987 and (allegedly) placed the Sisters on a Papal Heretics List when they performed an exorcism on (or near) His Holiness (3). Many more activities and actions have followed, with orders of Sisters springing up around the globe, from Arizona and Florida to Colombia and France (4).Mostly (though not entirely) gay men, the Sisters dress in elaborate, habit-like costumes and wear white face paint and bright makeup. Sister Hysterectoria-Agnes designed new habits in 1980, based on the clothing of 14th-century Flemish ladies-in-waiting and a French-style wimple, or “ear brassieres” (3). For a present-day and equally unique take on this look, see here. The Sisters are garish and striking, unmistakable when you find them for the first time.
Dolores Park was as full as I’ve ever seen it, with everyone from children and dogs to preppy girls and thick-rimmed, bearded, skinny boys. A large percentage of the population, as you may expect, was from the gay community or from niche groups: I saw more than one leather daddy, for example. And clearly a lot of people who go to Burning Man. Strollers were almost as ubiquitous as the day drinking and pot smoking. Everyone was having a lovely, San Franciscan kind of time. The Hunky Jesus competition was almost an afterthought, a diversion in a relaxed afternoon where it seemed as if everyone in the Bay Area who wasn’t in church decided to hang out together.
It was positive, pleasant, and joyful and completely accepting of difference: the kind of event that makes you want to raise your kids, if you have any, in San Francisco. Although you’d have a lot of explaining to do. It illustrated how much influence the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have had in their fight against conformity and guilt: they have not changed who they are or how they express themselves but rather have successfully encouraged straight-laced, vanilla San Franciscans to join in on the fun.
There are tons more (and better) photos here, here, and here. The last link has a video of the Hunky Jesus of 2012 playing his cross guitar pre-contest. I also rode the bus with the second Jesus on the last link (in the red sarong). He caused quite a (welcoming) stir on Muni.
(1) The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Homepage. Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence website. http://thesisters.org/. Web. 9 April 2012. Note for photo of Novice and Black Veil sisters: over a one-year process, a person who wishes to take vows can move from an Aspirant to a Postulant to a Novice Sister before she can be voted in as a fully-professed Black Veil Sister. More here.
(2) Castro Clones, who originated in the 1970s, dress(ed) in a particular uniform: Levi’s, a plaid snap-front, and a tight t-shirt. An article on the costumes for Milk discusses the Castro Clone’s meticulous attention to detail, including the immaculately sanded-down knees and crotch on a pair of button-fly 501s. The article points out that the look hasn’t changed much–I can attest to this and will postulate one further that it’s become ubiquitous to every one: male, female, gay, straight, hipster, yuppie.
(3) The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. “Sistory.” Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence website. http://thesisters.org/index.php/sistory. Web. 9 April 2012. By the way, Sister Boom Boom’s unsuccessful bid in city politics inspired the “Boom Boom law,” which required Californians seeking public office to run under their birth names. During the Pope’s visit, Sister Vicious PHB posted demands on the front of St. Mary’s Cathedral with Lee Press-On Nails. The Sisters also performed an exorcism on Dr. Laura, among other homophobic bigots. They are participants at Burning Man and have provided a Communion of tequila and “medicinal brownies” to Burners in the desert.
(4) The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. “World Orders.” Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence website. http://thesisters.org/index.php/world-orders. Web. 9 April 2012.