Hallelujah, motherfuckers! This year the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are celebrating their 40th birthday. For four decades, these white-faced drag nuns have been raising money for good causes and promoting safer sex at fetish events like Folsom in San Francisco, Berlin and Prides around the globe. We had the pleasure to talk to the most photographed nun in the world and one of the longest serving members of this prestigious order, the iconic Sister There’s No Place Like Rome, better known as Sister Roma!
Happy anniversary dear Sister Roma! For the readers who have never heard of your order: who are the Sisters and what do they do?
“The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is a non-profit human rights activist and fundraising organisation that started in San Francisco in 1979. We basically picket, riot, protest and defend human rights for all people and raise a lot of money for charity. We give away about 100.000 dollars annually. The Sisters found their purpose around 1982 when HIV and AIDS were ravaging the gay community. We realised that people were sick and dying and that they needed help. The Sisters were the first group ever to produce a safer sex pamphlet called Play Fair, which we still print, and we were the first group to hold a fundraiser for an HIV/AIDS organisation that provided practical care to the sick and dying. We have been on the frontline of the war against HIV and AIDS ever since. The Sisters are a beautiful melting pot of our community. From the very beginning we have had women, people of colour and trans members. This diversity has also had an influence on the charities we donate to and the people we help. We support LGBTQ youths, the trans community, the elderly and we donate to breast cancer research.”
What achievements are you most proud of in the last 40 years?
“I am very proud of the work we have done around HIV and AIDS. Together with the LGBTQ community we have taught the world how to deal with a plague in an intelligent, pragmatic and compassionate way. The Sisters are very political. When we go out it is a statement about religion, about gender and about drag. We are men in dresses, dressed as nuns. That is something a lot of people can’t deal with. I am proud of the bravery of every Sister around the world. I am proud of the Sisters in Las Vegas for their drug assistance program and I am proud of the Sisters in Atlanta for what they do around homeless people. Every Sister finds a way to serve her community best. Personally I am proud of the anti-violence campaign that I started in 1989. We partnered with the San Francisco police department and local businesses that function as safe havens and we handed out hundreds of thousands of whistles for people to put on their key chains to blow when they are in danger.”
And you do all this important work with a spoonful of sugar right? There is a lot of fun involved…
“Always! The vows that we take are to promulgate (promote) universal joy and to expiate (make up for) stigmatic guilt. We also take vows to serve our community and our fellow Sisters, but to never take ourselves so seriously that we forget to have fun.”
Photography by: Benjamin Benoit
Photography by: José A. Guzman Colón
What is the craziest thing you have ever done as a Sister? “In the nineties we performed gay marriages, way before they were a reality, on the campus of the Capitol Christian Center in California. We went there on an Easter Sunday and the people we met there were very homophobic. That was an exciting, crazy, colourful and fun way to do activism.”
It is also a pretty direct way to confront a group that is clearly anti-gay. Wasn’t that scary for you? “Oh yeah, that is always scary (she laughs). Those people are crazy! I remember going to the first Gay Pride in Fresno, California where we came face to face with the KKK. They don’t wear white sheets anymore. They are completely out in the open with their faces clearly visible and they had their signs of hate with them. We passed a family with little kids flipping us off. People were screaming horrible things. I realised that moment that the police wasn’t there to keep us in line, but to protect us from them. They were super violent. The same thing happened during the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Rights in 1993. The whole weekend was a beautiful, amazing celebration until we passed the place where they had the Christian counter-protest. You could feel their hate. The awful signs and comments. The looks they gave us. They were supposed to be Christians; people who preach and talk about love; but they were the worst, most evil people there. It was so weird.”
How does it affect you when you are confronted with so much hatred? “It makes me feel more convinced that I am doing the right thing. It is interesting to meet people who are as convinced that they are right as I am. I have to respect their rights and beliefs, but the dialogue that we have really helps me reaffirm my beliefs and also helps me to explain better where I am coming from.”
What keeps you going as a Sister? “Well it has been 32 years and I keep going because I love it! I love my community. I love interacting with people. There is always something to fight for and someone who needs help. There is always a reason to stand up for people who don’t have a voice or to contribute our collective voices to important causes like the environment or the Marches for Gun Control. When I speak to college classes I never know who I reach or in what way. Last Friday the Sisters had a party in San Francisco and two beautiful young women came up to me. They were graduates from Saint Mary’s College, a Catholic school, and they were in a class that I had spoken to the year before. I had talked about the Sisters, the LGBTQ community, HIV and AIDS and all those sort of things. It was their first real contact with our world. My story opened their hearts and minds and they shared it with their friends. This gave one of their best friends the courage to come out to them. It was this whole domino effect of love and positive energy. Sometimes you just don’t know how you affect people and that is simply amazing.”
Is it difficult to be a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence in the Trump era? “The current administration in the United States is waging a war against everything that we hold dear. So I can’t stop with what I am doing. We will never stop! I have been around for a long time and I have seen the different social and political climates. We have fought for so many things. There are battles that we have won and battles that we have lost. The pendulum swings back and forth. In the seventies it was swinging left and in the eighties society became more liberal and it started swinging back to the right. We started pushing back with Obama and now they are shoving the pendulum back hard to the right. But I know we will swing back; that we will accomplish more. It is two steps forward, one step back.”
What would you say to young queer people based on that? “I don’t want them to be discouraged. They have to realise that we fought hard for the rights they enjoy today and that they will have to continue to fight for them. They need to look outside themselves. Just because you are not a trans person doesn’t mean their issues are not your issues. Just because you are not a gay black man, doesn’t mean his issues are not your issues. Our community is made up of people from all cultures, all races, all walks of life, all social economical backgrounds, all over the world. Anywhere you go you will find one of us. We are together and we have to stick together as a family and as a community. We have to recognise that anyone’s problem, is all of our problems and all of our fights.”
Want to know more about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence? Would you like to start a new order in your city? Then visit www.thesisters.org for more blessed information. Show Sister Roma some divine love and follow her on Instagram @sister_roma and find out why she is #TheMostPhotographedNunInTheWorld.