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The Last Supper by Max Koo; Courtesy of the artist
The Last Supper by Max Koo; Courtesy of the artist

The Separation of Church and Sex: Conservative Catholics and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

The atmosphere in Most Holy Redeemer Church on 7 October 2007 was as reverent as on any other Sunday—perhaps even more so, since Archbishop of San Francisco George Niederauer had come that day to celebrate Mass at this Roman Catholic institution in the heart of the Castro district. With the choir and congregation singing enthusiastically in the background, worshippers lined up in the center aisle to receive the Eucharist. Among them were two nuns in full habit. One was clad in the traditional black and white, her order’s coronet riding just above her ears, like the medieval Flemish maiden’s headdress it was modeled upon, and her black veil, pinned to the coronet with three small, flower-shaped brooches, trailing across her back and shoulders. The other Sister’s habit was a bit brighter, incorporating large fabric flowers and the loops of a rainbow feather boa over the coronet. Both wore white pancake makeup and subdued eye and lip color; the one with the feather boa sported a long, bristling mustache. This latter Sister approached the archbishop first. The celebrant spoke a few inaudible words and placed the host in the hand of the Sister, who then turned and walked quietly away. The second Sister approached, received the host as well, placed it in her mouth, and crossed herself. They both returned to their pew.

Photo: Melissa Wilcox
Photo: Melissa Wilcox

Aside from a few sartorial surprises and a little unexpected hirsuteness, this scene seemingly presents nothing out of the ordinary and certainly nothing untoward. Yet a video of it, captured on a cell phone by a member of a conservative Catholic men’s movement from the south Bay Area city of San Jose, went viral immediately. The event was featured soon thereafter on The O’Reilly Factor, as well as in San Francisco news media and the Catholic press. On YouTube the video is currently posted with the title “Catholic Church Condones Homosexuality.”[1] One Catholic blogger claimed that the Sisters took communion “with the intention of desecrating the Roman Catholic Mass and to defile the Blessed Sacrament itself” (Hewing 2008).[2] When the Archbishop’s apology for serving communion to these two nuns appeared in the Catholic press a few days later, it included a claim that the Sisters’ presence “was intended as a provocative gesture” because “someone who dresses in a mock religious habit to attend Mass does so to make a point” (Catholic News Agency 2007). And a commentator on the Wikipedia page about the Sisters’ order scoffed: “‘Educating on various human rights issues and against hate crimes’? Give me a break! I suppose they don’t call their invasion of the Most Holy Redeemer church in San Francisco a hate crime!” (“Talk” 2007).

What happened? Why was the Archbishop’s reception of these nuns seen as condoning “homosexuality”? Why did the Archbishop himself later describe their fairly traditional, if colorful, habits as mockery? And why did this apparently respectful participation in the Eucharist represent to some a desecration, a defilement, an invasion, and even a hate crime? The answers to these questions begin with the order to which these Sisters belong: A nearly forty-year-old, religiously unaffiliated, international organization known as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who describe themselves as “twenty-first century queer nuns” and who cheerfully claim to hold a place of honor on “the Papal List of Heretics” (Stein, Catalyst, and Bitch, n.d.). The fact that these nuns are not part of a Roman Catholic order does not adequately explain conservative Catholics’ reactions to them, however, since it is unlikely that any other nuns’ order outside of the Roman Catholic Church—such as a group of Buddhist nuns—would have sparked the same outrage had they chosen to receive communion.

This essay explores the roots of Roman Catholic claims to violation by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, suggesting in keeping with the focus of this special issue that the seemingly minor incident at Most Holy Redeemer reveals a great deal about tensions over sexuality, gender, religion, and the sacred under neoliberalism. At a time when the twin neoliberal mandates of privatization and deregulation, which might be expected to conflict in some ways in the context of religion and an ostensibly secular state, have instead collaborated to empower an increasingly aggressive tyranny of the religious majority in the U.S., I argue that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence as an order commit three cardinal sins against homonormative neoliberalism. First, they refuse to do sex in private; second, they refuse to do religion in private; and third, they refuse to perform the separation of church and sex. It is this trinity of sins, I contend, that has led to the vociferous objections of their detractors, both straight and (homonationalist) queer (Puar 2007).

In offering this analysis, I rely on the work of scholars such as Lisa Duggan (2002), Lauren Berlant, and Michael Warner (Berlant and Warner 1998) regarding the neoliberal privatization of queer sex, as well as the connections drawn by Jasbir Puar between such privatization and its implications for religion, especially for those whose religion marks them, in the mainstream U.S. imaginary, as “monster-terrorist-fag” (Puar 2007: 46, 173). Underlying my analysis of the events at Most Holy Redeemer but not fully elaborated for lack of space is my suggestion, building from Puar’s work, that the neoliberal privatization of queer sex has a religious corollary. That is, the restriction of non-dominant religious practice to the private sphere, paired with the abjection of radically othered religions and the backdoor establishment of the dominant religion (here, Christianity in general and especially conservative Protestantism) is part and parcel of the neoliberalization of the U.S. state and is therefore also worthy of the attention of queer studies scholars. In order to reference the parallels I see between the neoliberal approaches to sexual politics and to religious politics, I gloss the latter as the “privatization of religion” and the former as the “privatization of sex.” While my usage of this term departs somewhat from the meanings of “privatization” as an economic concept, as I indicate below it also draws on those understandings.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and Neoliberalism

Photo: Nicole Pitsavas
Photo: Nicole Pitsavas

A bit of background on the Sisters may be in order before I expand upon my claims.[3] The story of their beginning could be told facetiously as the opening to a tasteless joke: “A Catholic, a Mennonite, and a Jew walk into a gayborhood….” While none of the three was practicing the religion of his upbringing at the time, on Easter Saturday of 1979, on a lark, these three gay men donned the retired nuns’ habits that one had previously used in a drag show and went for a stroll through the Castro district of San Francisco. Though they were struck by the startled and delighted reactions they received, it would be several more months before they decided to constitute an order of nuns. Within little over a year from this first manifestation, the rapidly growing group had named themselves the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and had ratified a constitution that described them as “an order of gay male nuns dedicated to the promulgation of universal joy and the expiation of stigmatic guilt” (Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence 1980). Today the order is active in eleven countries on four continents: Australia, Europe, North America, and South America (Humperpickle n.d.). Their habits range from the traditional black and white garments commonly associated with pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic nuns to cocktail dresses; nearly all fully professed Sisters wear a veil of some sort with a coronet whose shape varies by house. Over the course of the order’s first few years of existence, the use of whiteface makeup spread from a single member—one of the founders, who wore whiteface during the first manifestation—to the entire San Francisco house. Although most Australian Sisters and some in the U.K. still abjure the whiteface, preferring either no makeup or a small amount of eye, cheek, and lip color, the whiteface is part of their signature look in most places where the Sisters are active today.[4] The order opened its membership to women several years after its founding, and today it includes people of all genders and sexualities; however, its membership remains predominantly male and gay, with a strong representation of genderqueer and cisgender members, but fewer trans-identified members.

The Sisters came into existence on the eve of the Reagan presidency, and thus also of the expansion of neoliberal economic policies in the United States and across other parts of what was increasingly becoming (and being shaped into) a globalized marketplace. With its emphases on deregulation and privatization—principles that cohere closely in economic policy-making—neoliberalism quickly moved beyond the economic sphere to bring these same principles into legal decisions and political strategies. As Lisa Duggan (2002) notes in her classic article on homonormativity, by the 1990s neoliberalism had formed a new branch of gay and lesbian assimilative politics that expected government deregulation of certain approved forms of same-sex eroticism in exchange for a promise to keep that eroticism safely stashed away in the private realm—the privacy, that is, of the economically privileged, white, homonormative household. A few years after Duggan’s writing, Jasbir Puar (2007) pointed out that in the first decade of the 2000s a part of this bargain that traded privatization for deregulation was patriotism, creating the new norm that Puar termed “homonationalism.” Following Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s critique of the damaging effects of privatizing queer sex (Berlant and Warner 1998), Puar adds that these effects are explicitly racialized and also carry implicit assumptions about religion. This biopolitical offer to be “folded into life” through homonationalism is limited or foreclosed both for queer people of color and for those people – Muslims and those mistaken for Muslims – who, by virtue of belonging to this racialized religious category, are cast as what Puar and Rai (2002) call “monster-terrorist-fags” regardless of sexual identity and thus are too queer to be assimilated.

Christian identity and practice are among the possible routes to claiming homonational citizenship in the U.S., but something interesting seems to be happening here with the relationship between religion and the neoliberal state. On the surface, neoliberalism might appear to offer contradictory mandates to religion. On the one hand, through an individualized form of privatization it encourages the ongoing movement of non-dominant religious practices, like non-dominant sexual practices, into the “private sphere” of mind, heart, and home; on the other hand, through the increasing deregulation of religious organizations and the outsourcing of state functions to those organizations it opens up the possibility of an increasing public role for “privately” held religious corporations such as congregations and parachurch organizations, and by extension for individual religious actors affiliated with these increasingly powerful corporations. This is one way of reading the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby: if Citizens United v. FEC legally established that corporations are people too, then the Hobby Lobby case extended this corporate personhood in order to argue that corporations are thus entitled to religious freedom. It is perhaps no accident that the decade of the 1980s saw both the rise of neoliberal economic policies in the U.S. and the growing prominence of parachurch organizations in national politics. In the 2010s this dynamic seems to be partly responsible for the increasing demands for further deregulation and, consequently, indirect establishment of the dominant religion under the guise of First Amendment rights. The state, these mostly conservative Protestant claimants argue, should not be allowed to burden their religious practice by forcing them to obey anti-discrimination laws and the like. Neoliberalism is in the process here of (re)creating a religious tyranny of the majority even as it also pushes certain non-dominant religions—and homonational queers—further and further into the realm of silent, docile privacy.[5]

By these principles then, sex—particularly queer sex—is to remain in private. Religion is to be practiced in private in the case of non-dominant yet “tolerated” religions, but deregulated and increasingly established in the case of Christianity, especially conservative Protestantism. And although deregulation continues to protect certain people’s right to practice certain forms of non-normative sex or religion in private, or theoretically even to combine the two, their public combination is an even greater violation of these principles through which “tolerance” is purchased. The public separation of church and sex is to be strictly observed by all those outside of conservative Christian heteronormativity. These are the key commandments of the biopolitical management of sexuality and religion enacted by neoliberalism, and their violation constitutes three of that system’s cardinal sins. The two Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who took communion at Most Holy Redeemer flagrantly, if unintentionally, violated all three at once, and thereby earned themselves the ire of heteronormative conservative Catholics—and even some Protestants—everywhere. Perhaps more to the point, however, is that the Sisters as an order violate these principles in nearly every manifestation, and closer attention to such violations can therefore contribute to a deeper understanding of the intersections between neoliberalism, religion, and sex.

The Privatization of Religion

Photo: Melissa Wilcox
Photo: Melissa Wilcox

Since the Sisters are a religiously unaffiliated order whose members range from committed atheists to neopagans to ordained religious leaders, and since their work in the community rarely has religion or even the far more popular concept of spirituality as its focus, how is it that they violate the neoliberal commandment of the privatization of religion? Some Sisters have even told me that they avoid the topic of religion entirely when working with their communities, because it can be divisive and can therefore work against their mission of promulgating joy and expiating guilt. Personal perspectives on religion, then, do not figure overtly into the work of the order, even as they may underlie an individual Sister’s engagement with the community. Religious practices may come into that work through ritual acts, such as when the Sisters offer a blessing or re-sacralize a space that has been defiled through homophobic violence. These rituals, while often fairly neopagan in flavor, are also structured loosely enough to fall under the rubric of an unspecified “spirituality”; thus, although they bring religion into the public sphere, they usually do so in a way that is considered by many in the U.S. to be relatively inoffensive and harmless. Indeed, conservative Catholics might well be expected to find such rituals as the resacralization of the corner of 18th and Castro Streets to be unworthy of their attention were it not for another aspect of the Sisters’ work with religion: that which I call their serious parody.

Photo: Melissa Wilcox
Photo: Melissa Wilcox

Upon first spotting a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence in formal habit, someone unfamiliar with the order but familiar with both Roman Catholicism and the art of drag would likely pick up on two key visual references: the figure of the drag queen and the figure of the nun. The latter trope is most important to the Sisters’ violation of the rule of religious privatization, not only because they are embodying the figure of the nun, but also because they consider themselves quite seriously to be nuns. Noting rightly that Catholicism is not the only religion in which women called “nuns” dedicate their lives to their religious practice, the Sisters have never claimed to be Catholic nuns; rather, they describe themselves as queer nuns. They refer to their work as “ministry” and quite a few speak of having a “calling.” Having taken vows of full profession, one is a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence for life; only excommunication or apostasy can remove that commitment. From one angle, then, the Sisters are performing religion in public because they are nuns and they enact the roles of nuns by the definitions of their order whenever they manifest. This is the “serious” facet of serious parody.

From another angle, though, the Sisters are engaged in parody through—as one early member of the order pointed out to me—a camping of Roman Catholicism (Sister Mary Media, in Frost, Media, and Σplace. 2014). In a way, the order’s use of Roman Catholic habits and even their consideration of themselves as nuns is the result of an accident; had one future founding Sister not kept a set of retired nuns’ habits from a drag show in Iowa, that first manifestation would never have taken place, and the small group of friends would never have decided to form an order. But in another way there is no accident here at all: other forms of religious dress would likely not have been as popular with drag show audiences in mid-1970s Iowa. Nor would it have caused the same stir if those three friends had walked through the streets of San Francisco in 1979 in the saffron robes of Buddhist renunciants; in fact, rather than delighted grins the three would likely have faced people crossing the street so as not to encounter what they thought were Hare Krishnas.

The Sisters have at times used their simultaneous camping of and claim on the role of nun to critique the Roman Catholic Church through parody. Early in their history, for instance, they enacted an exorcism of Pope John Paul II when he visited San Francisco; Pope Benedict XVI received similar treatment in 2009 when Sisters who had gathered for an international conclave in San Francisco declared “Words Kill!” and staged a die-in in front of an effigy of the pontiff (Lation 2009; Standing 2010). Not only do the Sisters bring non-dominant religion into the public sphere, then; they bring a parodic, campy critique of a dominant religious institution into that sphere when non-dominant religious perspectives and practices are supposed to remain safely behind closed doors.

But what seems to irk conservative commentators the most about the Sisters’ public performance of religion is their common blessing, “Go forth and sin some more!” Another camping of a Roman Catholic formula, this blessing carries more than a critique. Aimed at “the expiation of stigmatic guilt,” that is, of the guilt produced in LGBTQ people by religious pronouncements on the sinfulness of same-sex eroticism and gender nonconformity, this Sisterly benediction challenges such condemnation and casts queer lives not only as not sinful but even as blessed. Identifying as nuns and dressing in ways that evoke Roman Catholic nuns’ orders, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence symbolically bring their critique of the dominant religion not only into the public sphere but right to the doorsteps of that religion’s institutions. In this way, they violate the neoliberal religious order and garner the wrath of the economically and religiously (self)righteous.

The Privatization of Sex

As Puar notes in her insightful analysis of the Lawrence v. Texas case that declared sodomy bans to be unconstitutional, the apparent legalization of “gay sex” by the Supreme Court simultaneously enacts a further privatization of that sex (Puar 2007). Yet it is eminently clear from the video at Most Holy Redeemer Church that the Sisters were not engaged in any remotely sexual acts. Although different houses and different individual Sisters respond in varying ways to the peccadillos of their comrades, most houses frown upon their members engaging in sexual activities of any sort while in habit, beyond a certain suggestiveness or flirtatiousness. They even have a specific term for people who are sexually aroused by Sisters in habit (“clownfuckers”), and while they joke about such figures, they also generally try to avoid them. So, how is it that the Sisters are perceived as enacting sex in public?

Photo: Melissa Wilcox
Photo: Melissa Wilcox

Here, my argument turns on the other half of the Sisters’ dual trope: the figure of the drag queen. In part because the Sisters embody a visual reference to the long history of drag queen performance in gay communities, the Sisters are often perceived to be made up entirely of gay men who were assigned male at birth.[6] As Berlant and Warner (1998) point out, gay identities by definition center on sex in ways that heterosexual identities, being the dominant and therefore unmarked identities, do not. Thus, gay men—and by association the Sisters—are always already sexualized, especially in the mainstream imaginary. While following the mandates of homonormativity and homonationalism may reduce that association, it cannot erase it entirely. Some bodies’ sex can never be fully privatized because those bodies are themselves symbolic of sexuality. This is true of gendered bodies, racialized bodies, and sexed bodies, among others, and is particularly true of bodies that combine these aspects. Sisters in habit are generally presumed to be gender-nonconforming gay men; as a result, despite also being presumed to be white, their bodies are always already sexualized regardless of dress or comportment.

Many Sisters, moreover, enthusiastically claim this sexualization and exploit it for the purposes of their educational work around safer sex. Their early pamphlet, Play Fair! (Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence 1982), the first publication in the U.S. to offer sex-positive safer sex information for gay men, is hardly sexually reticent: its bright pink cover features a line of figures in nuns’ habits, sex toys in hand, bent over suggestively with their skirts hitched up around their waists. Following the time-honored example of the drag queen, the Sisters play with sexual suggestiveness, and they connect with their communities through a sexual playfulness that serves in part to counteract popular associations of nuns with sexual austerity and homophobia. Some Sisters even have clever names that play on both religion and sex, like founding member Sister Missionary Position (now known as Sister Soami). Thus, by both intent and ascription the Sisters violate the neoliberal commandment to keep queer sex in the bedroom, and they thereby commit the second cardinal sin of public sex. As presumptive gay men engaging in public sex, they might be overlooked by conservatives and homonationals alike as just another example of queer moral failure were it not for their third sin: violating the separation of church and sex.

The Separation of Church and Sex

As a Catholic church located in the heart of the Castro district, Most Holy Redeemer might reasonably be expected to include gay men among its congregation. Presumably, some are in good standing with the Church and are eligible to partake in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and although conservative Catholics have long been suspicious of the parish’s gay-friendly stance, that suspicion has simmered rather than exploded. So the presumption that the Sisters are all gay men does not in itself explain the outrage directed at the two who took communion. Likewise, none of those outraged ask whether the two Sisters were Catholics, although someone taking communion as a non-Catholic might be cause for concern. One of the two, the Sister who crossed herself after receiving the host, is in fact Roman Catholic; the other is not, but mistakenly believed that participating in communion would be a gesture of respect (Frost, Media, and Σplace. 2014). Nevertheless, in conservative commentary on the incident the Sisters’ standing as Catholics either is presumed to be nonexistent or is irrelevant. Is the cause of offense, then, their public critique of Roman Catholicism? While this might be a logical conclusion, in fact the claims of harm from conservative Catholics do not reference the Sisters’ occasional protests against the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, they insist that the Sisters are “fake nuns,” and they point to the Sisters’ sexual names and their involvement in sexually oriented public events, such as the Folsom Street Fair’s celebration of leather culture, as the heart of the offense. At no point in their history have the Sisters claimed to be Roman Catholic nuns. On the contrary, they have made repeated and very serious claims to be nuns of a different sort. Nonetheless, conservatives continue to accuse the Sisters of enacting an outrageous mockery of Roman Catholic nuns. I would argue that this outrage is ultimately due to the Sisters’ blending of an always already sexualized body—that of the gay man—with an always already desexualized image—that of the nun.

Photo: Melissa Wilcox
Photo: Melissa Wilcox

Like the Virgin Mary, Roman Catholic nuns are radically desexualized figures. Any sexual status they may have held before taking vows of profession is effectively erased by those vows, rendering nuns (at least in the public imaginary) perpetual virgins and perpetual sexual innocents. That this association between nuns and sexual purity holds sway much more easily in the public imaginary than a similar association for Roman Catholic priests is due largely to gendered and raced assumptions about sexual proclivities and sexual drives; even in a culture where secular women’s bodies of all colors are highly and persistently sexualized, those women—and particularly white women—who separate themselves from that secular culture are still perceived as credible when they claim an unbridgeable distance from all things sexual. The sexually pure white woman is a culturally coherent image; the sexually pure man is not, regardless of race; and the sexually pure gay man is incomprehensible in this imaginary. Ultimately, then, the “hate crime” of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, in the eyes of conservative Catholics, is that they bring together a body that cannot ever be sexually pure with a figure that cannot ever be anything but. In so doing, the Sisters are perceived as defiling the figure of the nun; taking communion in this defiled state therefore is seen as desecrating the host. Sex and religion, in this vision of the world, do not and cannot belong together; highly sexualized bodies cannot fulfill highly sacralized roles. To breach this convention in public rather than in private is an even greater violation, creating as it does a simultaneous contravention of all three of these neoliberal commandments: the privatization of religion, the privatization of sex, and the separation of church and sex. That the Archbishop of San Francisco participated in this breach only heightened the outrage further.

Concluding Thoughts

The situation at Most Holy Redeemer Church may have been exacerbated by ongoing tensions around the identity of the parish. Founded when the Castro was a working-class neighborhood housing a mixture of Irish, Italian, and Scandinavian residents, this church has found itself caught awkwardly between the development of a gay neighborhood at its doorstep, the growing demands for inclusion from its LGBTQ parishioners, the ongoing claims to its doctrinal rectitude from straight and cisgender Catholics in the Bay Area, and the unequivocally homophobic prescriptions of the Vatican, particularly under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. The San Jose men’s group members attended Mass that day far from their own parishes in order to monitor the Archbishop’s actions at a church that they perceived to be part of their own community even as its congregants were potentially not; the Sisters attended in order to monitor the Archbishop’s actions at a church that they perceived to be a part of their community even as its larger denomination was not. Each encountered in the other exactly what they feared: the Sisters found uncompromising religious homophobia and the conservative men found outrageously queer anti-Catholicism. Ironically, the Archbishop in the end had little to do with either, although he was incontrovertibly caught in the middle.

Photo: Nicole Pitsavas
Photo: Nicole Pitsavas

Yet this is clearly not simply a story about communal misunderstandings. Were that the case, the issue might have played out in local Roman Catholic circles or in San Francisco’s City Hall, as past clashes between the Sisters and the Church have done. The rise of social media certainly played an important role in garnering both national and even international coverage of the event; the video not only went viral but it received prominent and repeated coverage in both conservative and mainstream media. But the widespread circulation of the video itself testifies to the way the Sisters’ “outrageous” behavior at Most Holy Redeemer in 2007 touched a nerve at the heart of the neoliberal management of sexuality and religion. Fans and foes of that regime alike were drawn to the image of the two colorful Sisters taking communion that day. Although they disagreed on whether the Sisters were heroes or haters, they all saw the act as one of willful sacrilege – all, that is, except the two Sisters themselves, who thought they were there to represent their community and to show regard for an archbishop who had in turn shown regard for the parishioners in the Castro. In setting off a firestorm, their well-intentioned act unintentionally also provided a clear window into some of the complex workings of politics and power that, while apparently peripheral, are in fact at the heart of the neoliberal order.


Melissa M. Wilcox is Associate Professor of Religion and Gender Studies at Whitman College. She is the author or editor of several books and journal issues, and numerous articles, on gender, sexuality, and religion. Her books include Coming Out in Christianity: Religion, Identity, and Community; Sexuality and the World’s Religions (with David W. Machacek); Queer Women and Religious Individualism; and Religion in Today’s World: Global Issues, Sociological Perspectives. She is currently in the process of writing a book on the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.


Notes

[1] Much of the reaction to this Mass took place online, with the result that conservative Catholic websites and blog archives are often the only extant source for the ensuing events. The initial video has been removed from YouTube; the current version (KnowTrth 2007) contains a great deal of written commentary interspersed with the footage.

[2] Although the blogger does not make this link directly, he may have had in mind the 1989 ACT UP protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City (see Petro 2015, reviewed in this issue). Interestingly, and most likely unbeknownst to the blogger, the “Stop the Church” action at St. Patrick’s was also the site of the first manifestation of The NYC (dis)Order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who gathered with the crowd of protestors outside of the church (Hysterectoria 2012).

[3] The history recounted here is drawn from my forthcoming book on the Sisters and is based on archival documents and oral history interviews with early members of the order.

[4] Some Sisters of color are concerned with the potential “whitewashing” that the use of whiteface imposes on them. In my forthcoming book on the order, I discuss in depth the varied ways in which these Sisters navigate wearing whiteface and being a part of a largely white organization that serves largely white communities.

[5] And, one might add – again following Puar – as it simultaneously insists that some religions such as Islam are too dangerous to be allowed privacy and too “monstrous” to even have the ability to remain “respectably” private.

[6] I use this somewhat lengthy description of assumptions about the Sisters’ gender identities and gender histories because “cisgender” is not quite accurate here. While the Sisters’ bodies are generally presumed to be unambiguously male, and male from birth—to such an extent that female-bodied Sisters tell stories of having their breasts grabbed by community members who are under the impression that they are really good fakes—their gender identities are always in question. Many gay male Sisters told me that their work with the order makes it difficult to find sexual partners and dates because of cisgender gay men’s aversion to the gender nonconformity implied by their regular manifestation in habit.


Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren and Michael Warner. 1998. “Sex in Public.” Critical Inquiry 24(2): 547-66.

Catholic News Agency. 2007. “Archbishop Niederauer apologizes for giving Communion to ‘Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’ at San Francisco Parish.” 12 October. Accessed 6 November 2015. http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/archbishop_niederauer_apologizes_for_giving_communion_to_sisters_of_perpetual_indulgence_at_san_francisco_parish/.

Duggan, Lisa. 2002. “The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism.” In Russ Castronovo and Dana D. Nelson, eds., Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics, 175-94. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Frost, Sister Loganberry, Sister Mary Media, and Sister place. 2014. Interview by author. San Francisco, Calif., 19 April.

Hewing, Bryan V. 2008. “The Desecration of the Blessed Sacrament in San Francisco and

Archbishop George Niederauer.” Big B Files, 27 March. Accessed 6 November 2015. https://bigbfiles.wordpress.com/2008/03/27/the-desecration-of-the-blessed-sacrament-in-sanfrancisco-and-archbishop-george-niederauer/.

Humperpickle, Sister Titania. N.d. “SisTree.” Accessed 12 November 2015. http://www.perpetualindulgence.org/tree/.

Hysterectoria, Sister, The NYC (dis)Order. 2012. Interview by author. New York, N.Y. 22 December.

KnowTrth. 2007. “Catholic Church Condones Homosexuality.” YouTube, uploaded 31 October. Accessed 6 November 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybwukuNA0w0.

Lation, Sister Reva, Order of Benevolent Bliss. 2009. Interview by author. Portland, Ore., 1 November.

Peters, Thomas. 2007a. “Breaking: Blasphemous ‘Sisters’ Given Space in Church Bulletin Today!” American Papist (blog), 14 October 2007. Accessed 12 November 2015. http://www.americanpapist.com/2007/10/breaking-blasphemous-sisters-given.html.

———. 2007b. “Update: MHR Parish Removes Thank-You of Transvestite from Online Bulletin.” American Papist (blog), 16 October 2007. Accessed 12 November 2015. http://americanpapist.com/2007/10/update-mrh-removes-thank-you-from.html.

Petro, Anthony M. 2015. After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Puar, Jasbir K. 2007. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

Puar, Jasbir K. and Amit Rai. 2002. “Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots.” Social Text 20(3): 117-48.

Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. 1980. “Constitution and Rules of Order.” Ratified 27 July. Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, ONE Subject Files Collection, 2012.001. ONE Archives, Los Angeles.

———. 1982. Play Fair! Printed pamphlet in author’s collection. Courtesy of Sister Soami.

Standing, Sister Stella, The Abbey of St. Joan. 2010. Interview with the author. Seattle, Wash., 18 July.

Stein, Sister Phyllis the Fragrant, Sister Kitty Catalyst, O.C.P., and Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch. N.d. “A Sistory, Blow by Blow.” Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Accessed 12 November 2015. http://thesisters.org/sistory. “Talk: Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.” 2007. Unsigned comment, 13 October. Accessed 6 November 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Sisters_of_Perpetual_Indulgence.

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