This is the first article in a series which will profile individuals and groups from across the broad LGBT+ spectrum. I hope to learn more about my own community and create a platform from which queer voices can be heard.
After posting on Bristol’s LGBT+ Network Facebook page asking for help with this series, I received the message: ‘I wonder if you’d be interested in chatting to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence? We are an international order of queer nuns dedicated to expiating stigmatic guilt and promulgating universal joy.’ I was very intrigued.
The nun also invited me to their event ‘Indulgence!’ at Bristol’s Dare to Club, a swinger club which the Sisters transformed for their event: ‘a show with a DJ, queer theatre, fortune telling and ritual blessings.’ Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend as it was Mother’s Day weekend and so missed out on the promulgation of universal joy this time.
I was, however, very interested to speak to a couple of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Although I still don’t fully understand the phrase ‘expiating stigmatic guilt’, I think I have come to a good understanding of how and why the Sisters do what they do.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were founded in 1979 on Castro Street, which is the gayest street in the gayest district of San Francisco – the gayest city in the world. What started with three men in nuns’ habits performing The Sound of Music on Easter weekend of 1979 is now ‘a leading-edge Order of queer nuns’ who devote themselves, not to Jesus Christ, but to ‘community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment’.
They created the first safe-sex pamphlet to use plain language, practical advice and humour in light of the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
They have performed public mock-exorcisms of anti-feminist and homophobic public figures, namely of Phyllis Schlafly and Pope John Paul II.
They frequently name as saints anyone who has served and significantly aided the LGBT+ community, like Harvey Milk.
They have raised thousands for various charities over the years – for a massive range of causes – through sponsored events, street performance and protest.
Everything they do is important, worthwhile and a lot of fun.
I spoke to Tiger Strode (a.k.a Sister Ann) who volunteers in Bristol and plans to move here in July:
Firstly, where are you from?
I’m from Somerset – a city called Wells.
What was your upbringing like? Were your parents religious?
My upbringing was interesting but focused on love. I was told I was an alien from the sun which I took to heart and always felt like an outsider as a result. I think I’m on the autistic spectrum, but it doesn’t hold be back – it makes me special. I went to public Church of England schools and went to college and then studied event and festival management at university. But early life with two hetero parents and two older brothers made me the baby of the family. I was bullied through school and came out as gay at 14. Then bi. Then gay again at 16. Then queer at 22, then pan at 23 and have never looked back
Are you a full-time nun or do you have a day job?
We don’t have full-time nuns as Sisters aren’t paid for what we do, but I manifest frequently as I am unemployed and disabled and I feel guilt for both so Sistering allows me to give back to society.
How do you identify?
I am a cis male, though I attack my privilege and use it to free and elevate others. I’m 28 and I’m pansexual; I fall in love with people not genders.
Can you briefly explain who the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are?
Evangelical hedonists. We promote safe sex, self-love and raise money for charity.
Do you remember when you first came across the Sisters?
Yes, in Edinburgh. They told me what they were about, got me drunk and the next day I became one, and have been for seven years now. It seemed like a good idea at the time…
What made you want to be involved?
The opportunity to take queer activism to the next level, and to organize and rally people really incentivizes me.
Had you been involved in drag before joining? What’s the difference between traditional drag and becoming a nun?
I had dabbled in cross-dressing before Nunning. Drag to me is a payed profession. When I do drag for money I am accountable only to myself. I give little a shit about other drag queens and my personality is a character and a construct. As Sister Ann, my personality is stripped so that only the good bits remain and I become the best person I can be. She is bound by certain rules much like doctors and lives for her community. Phillipa Snatch – my drag persona – lives for herself.
Is being a Sister a lifelong commitment?
No, the Sisterhood is not a lifetime commitment. It is a voluntary organisation, but the sense of family and duty are intoxicating and seductive. I will always be a Sister and I will die as one. On paper it isn’t a lifelong commitment but in my heart, it is. But a great one.
Is it just a bit of fun? Or are you making a political statement?
I would say you can have fun making political statements. We exist to hold space for anyone who wants to live however they want to. If there is room for a 6’2, fat, hairy drag queen there is room for you! We often protest against fascism and the status-quo which shames and binds us. Sisters teach people that they don’t have to conform but do so in a way that both shocks and amuses. We are the bubble-gum soldiers. The sacred absurd. Fun and fighting for the rights to have more fun for all. The sacred fool who often says a true word in jest.
Are you targeting the Catholic church/satirizing religious institutions? Why?
No nun speaks on behalf of all nuns. We take the image of nuns due to our founders in 1979 having acquired nuns’ habits. One assumes if they had chicken costumes we’d be having a different conversation. But to answer the question, we honour the Women of the Cloth, the unsung heroes of history and we satirise faith to question tradition: ‘why is it this way?’, ‘why is this a sin?’, ‘why is love and identity a sin?’. By asking these questions, we can free some people from stigmatic guilt, which is the pressure put on them by faith and society to conform rather than exist the way God intended (with joy). We hold a mirror to anything we find that creates stigma or attacks joy, so that the source of such things may learn and change for the better.
Do religions still oppress gay people?
That depends doesn’t it? Do books oppress or do the readers of them oppress? Lots of people in history have used the name of one God or another to exterminate their brothers, Sisters and kin. The fact that some ‘sacred’ texts advocate hurting other people for one reason or another is a paradox in my opinion, as I do not view hurting anyone part of compassionate faith. Look at gay conversion therapy and the public beheading of gay people, let alone what happens to Trans* folk, who more often than gay people are tortured for simply existing and expressing themselves. Nasty people need very little excuse to hurt you, and the ‘magic book’ is one of the many things they use to wipe up the blood caused by it and by them.
Do all of your members identify as gay men? Are there any women involved?
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence welcome anyone of any gender (or no gender), sexuality or race. Provided that you can work in a group, you are over 18 and observe our rules of conduct, you are welcome. Obviously safe-guarding is always applied to make sure no one is hurt by entering the order, though. The individual is more important than the cause.
You told me about your event ‘Indulgence’ this past weekend. How did it go?
Thanks for asking! Indulgence was just that. We saw all our friends from local groups and societies mixed with national and international Sisters come together to recognise us a permanent fixture in Bristol. It was paradise and wonder.
Have you ever met any real nuns?
I am a real nun, as are my Sisters. We make our vows, we bless folk, we make our habits by hand. But I have met ‘real’ nuns. They have been unsocial and not very happy to engage. I find better conversation in priests and vicars of all genders; we see eye to eye in terms of ministry and purpose. It’s spooky that we share a lot of common goals for the respective communities we serve.
Do you attract any criticism, either from within or outside the LGBT community?
Fuck yes. We are the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence: spoiling it for everyone since 1979! Google that – it’s a good story. But we welcome criticism as we can grow from it and adapt to the needs of the community we serve. Also, being told ‘you’re too gay’ by venues highlights internalised homophobia, so we can instead tailor approaches to venues that express similar views. From conflict and interaction, we can grow and we can teach.
If I wanted to join, how would I go about it?
Well darling, we would invite you to come to our ‘nuncheon’ which is the second Sunday of each month, often at Za Za Bazaar, from 1pm until 3pm, sometimes longer. It’s an informal meeting and sharing of ideas and goals, a time to plan the months ahead. We welcome new members and eat cookies. It would be a place to declare intent, and also a chance to make an informed choice about joining. We can fully explain who we are, what we do, what you can do with our organisation and we will see if how you feel matches how we feel and whether the journey is one you wish to start.
What I like about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is their unapologetic absurdity. I was immediately drawn to them for their apparent satirising of religion; their ridiculous, to me, said ‘Think about how crazy REAL nuns are!’
I have since learnt about the important work they do, as well as how much skill, time and commitment is involved. It’s doing seriously serious things without taking yourself seriously.