Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence— San Francisco's LGBTQ institution— celebrates 40 years

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The Hunky Jesus Contest held every Easter Sunday in San Francisco has become a legend in its own right. Hosted by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a "leading-edge order of queer and trans nuns," the reclaiming of an originally pagan holiday goes beyond ogling beefy, Christ-like figures, clad in loincloths. It's also about opportunity for community. 

"It's about giving people the opportunity to express themselves in flamboyant ways," said Sister Abbi Abnormal, explaining what the event means to her. That kind of expression has been going strong for 40 years as the Sisters mark a milestone anniversary this year. %INLINE%

In what reads like a mission statement on their website, the Sisters have been using "humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit."

Angels in Whiteface from Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence on Vimeo.

This year, by popular demand, 'Indulgence in the Park' returns to Dolores Park, its home since 2000 when the contest moved from the Castro. Recent park renovations forced a brief stint in Golden Gate Park. 

"When Hunky Jesus gets on stage, it's like the band everyone's come to see played that one hit that they all love," Sister Abbi said. The event also includes a 'Foxy Mary Contest.' 

Sunday in the park concludes a busy week of events for the Sisters. Their 40 Days of Giving campaign surpassed its goal by fundraising more than $6,500. In the week leading up to Easter, they hosted a international conclave of 200-plus nuns from across the country and around the world. 

Sister Selma Soul, president, board member and 20-year-plus member of the order, who was sainted in 1999, doesn't have much time to wear her habit these days and is busy coordinating behind the scenes. In a recent interview, she said she hadn't donned the garb since Christmas, but expected to be in the habit for about 12 days straight as they marked their anniversary. 

Play Fair PSA from Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence on Vimeo.

This week’s festivities included drag brunches at Hamburger Mary’s, a showcase of some of the original nuns’ portraits by Ramon Pablo Vidali at the Strut, the grand opening of the ‘Wimples of the World’ exhibit at the Harvey Milk Photo Center (wimples are the head structure their veils get pinned on, based on 14th-15th century Flemish women) and the chance to sail underneath the Golden Gate Bridge on a boat with the nuns, complete with dinner, drinks, a DJ and dancing for their ruby anniversary on the Voyage of the Red Veils cruise. 

“We’re not the only ones celebrating 40 years,” said Sister Selma. “Between last year, this year and next year, there’s so many [San Francisco] gay institutions celebrating their 40th anniversary.” She’s referring to The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band. It shouldn’t go unmentioned that the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots coincides with SF Pride in June. %INLINE%

And if you didn’t know, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence itself is rooted in activism.

“A lot of it had to do with Harvey Milk and the AIDS crisis,” Selma said. 

In 1979, San Francisco was still reeling from the assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, which happened the year prior. As tragic as those fresh wounds were, things were about to get darker. The onset of AIDS, an “amazing new disease” as described in a 1985 informational VHS production by San Francisco General Hospital, was still a few years away. 

“I think people have really held on to those [LGBTQ+] organizations, which helped them survive and move forward.  It gave people some community and something to grasp on to while dealing with so much devastation.”

Over the phone, Sr. Selma reflected on having been a part of the group for roughly half the order’s existence. Originally from Greenwich, Conn., she had already been politically active in college and first became aware of the Sisters when she attended the National Lesbian Gay Task Force in Los Angeles in 1992. She became attracted to San Francisco’s politics. 

“There was nowhere I felt a gay man could be more integrated and empowered in a community than in San Francisco,” Selma said. “We were always dealing with straight politicians [in college], whereas San Francisco was already integrated.”

Fast Forward to 1995 and James Bazydola (her pre-Selma name) [She says she generally considers herself gender-fluid, but is okay with they/them pronouns as well] graduated college and moved to San Francisco. 

“When I moved out here, the Sisters were pretty active in the community,” she said. She’d make her debut with the Sisters in 1997 by volunteering at SF Pride’s Pink Saturday when it was still being held in the Castro. It has since been produced at the historic leather bar, SF Eagle, and its adjacent parking lot and Bayview Opera House. 

But those activist roots have since branched out. When the anti-abortion March for Life comes through San Francisco every January, you can still count on the Sisters’ presence, but not necessarily to confront. “[We] express our opposing views and try to have rational conversations if we can,” Selma said. %INLINE%

“I would not say that we are necessarily at the frontlines at protests. Here in San Francisco we live in somewhat of a bubble. It’s like preaching to the choir. But what we’ve been doing is trying to support our members and orders across the country; like in Arkansas and North Carolina. They’re the ones who are at the front and living and confronting the realities of life in the Trump administration. Part of my role as president is to support our sisters outside of this comfort zone,” said Selma.  

She said they have 40 active nuns (to varying degrees) in San Francisco and about 80 to 100 nuns throughout the Bay Area.

Though the order is based in San Francisco, half of them now live in the East Bay, which goes to show even the Sisters aren’t holier than the housing crisis. 

Sr. Selma lives in the heart of the Mission on Valencia Street where she will be hosting some of the nuns coming from far and wide. “My house is becoming the German embassy.” She mentions another 12 sisters are coming from Paris as well as representation from Australia for a truly international affair. 

While their political strategy has evolved, so has their makeup. 

“It’s definitely changed,” Selma said on this lighter, but important topic. “In the beginning, the Sisters didn’t wear makeup. They just wore habits. Our habits have evolved from being formal to festive.”

Speaking to the different mythologies about the makeup, Selma said some nuns still honor the tradition of not wearing makeup, if you can imagine. “But definitely at this point, people really identify the Sisters of the Perpetual Indulgence as wearing the makeup and the wimple on the veil.”%INLINE%

The Salvation Army and thrift-store costume finds of those early days demonstrate scrappy origins, but the commitment to community remains clear. Sr. Selma has faith in the newer leadership within the order. She’d like to step back and be more present in the community rather than be behind the scenes so much. The full grace of the Sisters is on display when they participate with community by manifesting and interacting with folks, Hunky Jesus’ resurrection included.