Friday 15 November 2019

Indulging in the Sisters' Anniversary

Among the high-profile anniversaries of 2019 is another which has had little attention outside the USA. That is the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Its members have a highly visible and recognisable presence in the lgbt community and it is only proper that I “indulge” in their celebrating their 40 year service and devotion to lgbt causes.

What I find particularly interesting about the origin of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is how much the anti-clerical parody and satire of its original purpose echoes the anti-clerical parody and satire of medieval French performing troupes. These French performers went on to inspire the Mattachine Society, the America gay rights organisation of the 1950s which I wrote about earlier this year.

Perhaps unknowingly the founders of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence became part of this long tradition of masked or disguised satirist groups. The use of white-face make-up by the Sisters is a direct parallel of the masks worn by those medieval French performers.

On 17th September 2012 I wrote briefly about three members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Today we’ll have a look at the origins of the Sisterhood.

The main centre of activism by the first Sisters may have been in San Francisco but their roots go halfway across the USA to Iowa.

In the mid-1970s at the University of Iowa Kenneth Bunch was a gay activist and publisher of “Radical Faery magazine” (the Radical Faeries were another early lgbt group). Kenneth also founded a small performance group called the Sugar Plum Fairies. At one of their planning meetings one of the Sugar Plums happened to mention that she knew the Mother Superior of a convent in Cedar Rapids and that she was sure she could persuade her to loan the group some nuns’ habits for some of their drag performances. Of course, the subject of drag wasn’t mentioned to the Mother Superior. Instead she was told they were for an amateur production of “The Sound of Music”.

Having acquired the nuns habits the Sugar Plum Fairies began performing around Iowa. This was an unusual sight in drag, as you might expect, as most drag performances at the time were dominated by classic diva tribute acts – Judy Garland, Edith Piaf and 1960s stars like Diana Ross. The sight of drag nuns in a pompom routine really stirred things up.

The white-face make-up characteristic of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence came through a different route.

In Iowa City Kenneth Bunch had a room-mate who was a photographer. Now and again they would indulge in the fashionable habit of taking drugs and Kenneth would then dress up and put on white make-up. His room-mate would then photograph him. For Kenneth these photos proved to be vitally influential because they appeared more dramatic and expressive than photos of him without make-up. Again, perhaps unknowingly, Kenneth had latched on to the original reason why clowns have such distinctive white make-up.

Fast forward to 1977 and San Francisco. Kenneth had now moved from Iowa and was turning into what known as the San Francisco “clone”, a denim and leather-clad macho stereotype that was becoming fashionable.

Kenneth persuaded an old activist friend from Iowa, Fred Brungard, to move to San Francisco and share a house with him. Kenneth was realising the clone look was becoming conformist so he persuaded Fred and another friend, Baruch Golden, to liven up the Easter weekend of 1979.

Just about the only drag-related items Kenneth brought to San Francisco with him from Iowa were the nuns’ habits. He was moving away from drag and towards the clone look and for some reason decided only to keep the nuns habits.

And so, on Easter Saturday, 14th April, 1979 Kenneth, Fred and Baruch decided to go into the gay quarter of San Francisco dressed a nuns. Kenneth was the only one with white-face. The sight of these “nuns” created quite a stir and so the soon-to-be-named Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence made their first appearance in public and went on to inspire thousands of others in the years that have followed.

Of course, the Sisterhood didn’t form directly out of that Easter Saturday appearance. There was another appearance by Kenneth Bunch and another friend, Edmund Garron, which created some disruption to the annual softball match between the Gay Softball League and the San Francisco Fire Department the following June.

It was only when Kenneth, Fred, Baruch and Edmund decided to move in together that the idea of a Sisterhood was discussed. The flat they shared on Ashbury Street became known as “The Convent” and was the venue for the first meetings of the newly-named Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

And they’ve been perpetually indulging in their activism, fund-raising, charity work and performances ever since. Many Orders, both in the USA and around the world have created a unique and highly recognisable element to the lgbt community. Happy 40th Anniversary Sisters.

I shall be back in December with four articles on each Advent Sunday looking at four types of Christmas decoration and their lgbt links, and ideas on how to make your own last minute decorations based on them.