Monday, 17 September 2012

Sister Acts

A few weeks ago Jack Fertig died. He had been an early member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a worldwide group of activists and campaigners who dress as drag parodies of nuns with unusual, often sexually suggestive, names.

The lgbt community has produced many varied groups throughout its history, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (SPI) are perhaps the most recognisable. Although Jack Fertig (known as Sister Boom Boom) was not a founder member he is one of the many in the organisation who made an individual contribution to the wider community.

In 1982 Sister Boom Boom ran for public office in San Francisco, hoping to follow in the footsteps of the first gay US public official Harvey Milk. She may have got over 23,000 votes but Sister Boom Boom failed to win the seat. She did, however, influence the passing of a law when she tried to run for the office of mayor. The city decided that anyone running for public office must do so under their own legal name. The law is commonly called the Sister Boom Boom law.

Jack left the SPI in 1985 and became a full-time astrologer. He died of cancer on 5th August at the age of 57.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are not just a group of nun-dressing activists, they are as varied in their own lives as any other group of people with a shared interest.

With all the talk of leaving a sporting legacy after London 2012 it seems unthinkable that the Vancouver Gay Games of 1990 could have left a legacy to both the SPI and to spirituality. Yet it did in the person of Denver NeVaar.

Whilst attending the Vancouver games as a competitor in the bodybuilding contest NeVaar met Sister X who persuaded him to join the sisterhood, and Sister Who was born. Less than a year later Who made her debut at the first international convocation of the SPI. It wasn’t long before Sister Who decided her contribution to the Sisterhood would come through spiritual education rather than activism. To this end she began a long-running series of cable tv broadcasts in Denver, Colorado starting in November 1991, and celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. The aim of Sister Who’s ministry is to provide non-denominational spiritual advice, with guests, discussion and a bit of music. But Sister Who is not just an alternative persona, it is an extension of Denver NeVaar’s own persona. He holds a Masters degree in Theological Studies and is currently studying for a doctorate. He even continues to compete in bodybuilding contests, competing at the first World Outgames in MontrĂ©al in 2006.

Education has always been part of the work of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, whether it is Sister Who’s spiritual education or the wider work of the Sisterhood to highlight human rights issues.

Even in the early days of the Sisters, when more emphasis was put on the parodying of religious practices, the AIDS crisis made them realise how important it was to educate the lgbt community into the dangers. A member of the early Sisterhood became a poster boy of AIDS education when the epidemic first became recognised.

Bobbi Campbell was a registered nurse in San Francisco. He enjoyed the relaxed sexual freedom of the city. In 1981 he noticed what he thought were blisters on his feet, but after a while they got bigger. His doctor told him he had Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS), the term must often used before the name AIDS was created. Seeing that there was little press attention to the disease in California. Bobbi went public in San Francisco’s gay newspaper “The Sentinel”. He began his own campaign of education, earning the title of the KS Poster Boy. Most people had considered the “gay cancer” as just a New York problem, but with Bobbi’s campaign – putting up posters showing his purple lesions – the West Coast began to realise they were just as much at risk.

Shortly after his diagnosis Bobbi joined the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence with the persona of Sister Florence Nightmare. During this time he campaigned alongside Sister Boom Boom. Working with others in the Sisterhood and the medical profession Bobbi produced a safe sex manual called “Play Fair!” It was a mixture of education, instruction and humour (illustrated with cartoon of SPIs in various “situations”!) which became a classic in AIDS education literature. For the SPIs 20th anniversary in 1999 “Play Fair!” was revised and reprinted.

Bobbi Campbell and his partner appeared on the cover of “Newsweek” magazine in 1983, and he died of AIDS complications on 15th August 1984.

The lgbt community can be proud of people like Bobbi Campbell and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Whatever you think about their use of Christian imagery in satire and parody (at times I feel uncomfortable with them), the Sisters have, and continue to have, a great role to play in sexual education, and their fundraising for AIDS charities and other worthy causes secures for them an important part in out future. You go, girls!

Sisters Boom Boom, Florence Nigtmare and Who
enjoy a spiritually upliting singalong!


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