On an unusually hot autumn day in San Francisco, an order of nuns in long wimples, black gowns and drag makeup handed out more than 1,000 face masks in Mission Dolores park. Among them, Sister Roma – brushing seven feet in heels and a wimple garnished with a mane of blue feathers – laughed from behind her bejeweled face mask. “One bright side about wearing a mask is that you don’t need to paint your entire face,” says Roma, who claims, quite plausibly, to be the most photographed nun in the world. “You can skip doing your lips.”
For more than 40 years, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an order of queer and transgender nuns, have pursued their mission to “to promulgate universal joy and to expiate stigmatic guilt”. Although the San Francisco-based charity organization – in no way affiliated with the Catholic church – is best known for their effervescent street drag shows, their ministry is anything but a performance. The Sisters fundraise hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for under-served grassroots organizations; in 2020 they made grants to legal aid clinics serving LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, an alliance empowering deaf queer people, and a community safe house for Black and Indigenous trans people, just to name a few.
These deep roots of community service go back to the Sisters’ first few years in existence. In the early 80s, the Sisters were one of the first organizations in the world to organize and fundraise around the Aids crisis, creating one of the first safe-sex pamphlets for queer people, and taking to the streets to protest the Reagan administration’s inaction.
Roma has been a nun nearly since the beginning, when the Sisters were a group of fewer than 10. (As of 2020, there are hundreds of Sisters in different orders across four continents). Today, as they hand out masks, the most important prophylactic of 2020, Roma is reminded of the Sisters’ early days of “condom ministry”, when she and the others carried bags of contraceptives to hand out to bar patrons across the city.
“A lot of us can’t help but think back to when we were huge advocates for condom use,” Roma says. She says that the lesson central to both face mask and condom ministry is a playful, positive encouragement, rather than scolding. “You can’t guilt people, that never works. And it goes against our vows to ‘expiate stigmatic guilt’.”
In many ways, the Sisters are more prepared for the increasing crises of 2020 than most – for decades, they’ve built a sorority in the face of adversity and marginalization. But social distancing has been hard for an organization as tight-knit and extroverted as the Sisters. For many, the order is a chosen family, and a virus forcing them apart has brought on the same loneliness as any family separated. Even some small outdoor meet-ups had to be cancelled when noxious smoke from California’s unprecedented wildfires blew into the city.
For 25 years, Roma has emceed the Sister’s popular Easter Sunday celebration in Dolores Park, which draws 10,000 people and hundreds of thousands of dollars. From the mainstage, she would provide fiercely hilarious commentary for the annual Hunky Jesus competition, watching long-haired men with bulging biceps and lord-and-savior abs parade around in a bid for the most desirable Christ imitator. This year, the event went fully online for the first time. Roma was a force to behold emceeing in front of a green screen, but without the roaring laughter of the crowd, it was not the same.
Besides the missed opportunity for revelry, thousands of charity dollars have been lost. To continue their support for city members, the Sisters have scrambled to take their fundraising virtual, and each sister seems to have at least a dozen of her own ideas to raise money and continue her ministry.
“Our community has risen to the occasion,” Roma says. “You just can’t keep a bunch of queer people down. You just can’t.”
In smaller towns, the loss of fundraising events has been felt particularly hard. About two hours north of San Francisco, Guerneville, population 4,500, sits on a curve of the Russian River. On a Saturday evening in October, Sister Sorenda da Booty pulls in to the town’s post office parking lot; her car license plate reads PIR8NUN. She’s got on a polka-dot black and red dress, black fishnet stockings, and a wimple complete with a skull and crossbones.
Normally on the second Saturday of the month, Sorenda would be hosting the Russian River Sisters’ Bingo night, a riotous event that brings in more than 200 people, “packed like sardines” into the city’s Veterans Memorial Hall. It raises thousands of dollars; fundraising goes toward a different cause each month, such as local animal shelters and LGBTQ+ youth organizations.
But Bingo was an early victim of the pandemic. “We knew there was no way we could keep people safe,” Sorenda says. Without the April event, the Russian River Senior Center and Sebastopol Senior Center lost funding they’d come to rely on.
“It was heartbreaking,” Sorenda says. “But immediately we began talking about different things that we could possibly do to keep our community engaged – and to just continue to share the joy and love of what it is to be a Sister.”
That’s part of what brought Sorenda to the post office, on the southern edge of town, on Saturday night. In June, Sorenda, horrified by George Floyd’s murder, organized a “socially distanced peace rally” for Black Lives Matter. She has kept up the march monthly, on the day Bingo would otherwise have happened. “I’ve told everyone I’m going to be out there every month, rain or shine.”
As it turns out, Sorenda has had to contend with more than rain. The wildfires in northern California hit Guerneville hard. In September, choking smoke and unnerving orange-hued skies forced Sorenda to end the peace rally earlier than usual. But even more serious has been the evacuations: as the Wallenberg fire grew out of control in August, she was forced to leave her home in town. Multiple other Sisters also left under the same mandatory evacuation order.
“It was scary times,” Sorenda says. “We all checked in by email daily to see where everybody was. Facebook was a lifesaver for a lot of us: a few community members that put out good information to where people could sleep if they needed a place to stay.” (The Sisters in this area have had practice helping people in need of shelter: besides fires, the river floods frequently.)
Sorenda’s house survived the fires, and by mid-October the skies were clear, even as blazes burned elsewhere in the state. For this month’s peace rally, a group of ten community members gathered, including Sister Eliza Mensch, a “novice” sister still moving up in the order. We marched through the entire downtown – a short walk, considering that Guerneville’s commercial zone goes just a few blocks before the main road dives back into the forest. At the eastern edge of town, as cars drove by, the group sang out cheers and held signs Sorenda had made: “Black Lives Matter”; “Vote like your life depends on it”; “Thank you fire dozer crew!”; “Free Air Hugs”.
Later in October, in San Francisco, Sister Roma attended a get-out-the-vote letter writing event with other drag queens outside Manny’s, a bar that markets itself as a social justice hotspot in the city’s Mission district. As dance music played and queens sashayed up and down a red carpet laid on the sidewalk, Roma, in her full sisterly attire, wrote letters to her home state of Michigan, encouraging people to get out and vote – “To save our democracy!” she told me.
For many of the letter writers – most of them Black, Latinx, and Asian queens from around the city – the stakes of this moment feel intensely high. But the atmosphere outside Manny’s was joyous, irreverent, and tender.
“In some ways I feel like I’ve rehearsed my whole life for this moment,” Roma says of 2020. “This is not my first rodeo. I’ve lived long enough now where I’ve had to survive a lot, and I’ve seen other people – entire races, entire communities – survive even worse.”
As we talk, she reminisces about moving to San Francisco 40 years ago, falling in love with the hillsides and the light, her first Pride parade, the first time she went out in drag, the hardship of the early Aids epidemic and the friends she lost, the condom ministry, the safe-sex pamphlet. And through it all, the Sisters she had found, on their shared mission to spread “universal joy”.
“It’s something that you have to have inside you, you have to have the ability to find joy,” she says. “Being here with so many of my drag queen friends – some of whom I haven’t seen since March – there’s just no way you can’t feel the community and love here. That’s just something the queer community, especially in San Francisco, is all about. Even in the saddest of times, you find the joy.”