By Barbara Zaragoza
They’re witty. They’re irreverent. They have names such as Sister Hungry Bitch and Sister Hysterectoria. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, San Diego Chapter seek “to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt.”
They’ve been called drag queens. They’ve been called a sorority of gay men. As a matter of fact, to be a Sister is a calling and their focus is on helping community members who have been marginalized or ignored.
The Sisters have a rich history that dates back to the days when AIDS ravaged the gay male population and few people—if any—wanted to serve their needs. Since then, the Sisters have grown into many chapters nationally and internationally. Their work encompasses improv street theater, charitable activities and a general call to serve others.
I spent some time with the Sisters in San Diego getting to know their work and their calling. Most of all, I found that the Sisters are a group who aim to help build healthy levels of self-esteem within themselves and within the San Diego community.
The Creation Myth
The history of the Sisters is shrouded in myth. As one of the founders, Sister Kali Vagilistic X.P. Aladocious (or just Sister Kali) explains, the history depends on who you ask. There are probably four or five creation stories, but everyone agrees that the Sisters began in San Francisco during the year 1979. The organization started for one reason: boredom.
One of the creation myths, told by Sister Kali, goes like this: A man named Kenneth Bunch was living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She later became known as Sister Viscious Power Hungry Bitch, or just Sister Vish. (Now she is a fourth generation Sister and goes by Grandma Vish.)
An actor for the local community theater on a low budget, Sister Vish needed costumes for a performance of The Sound of Music. This was the seventies when Catholic nuns were everywhere and Sister Vish asked if she could use the habits of nuns who had passed away. She kept those habits in a box of her closet.
Sister Vish also had a friend Sister Missionary Position, or Sister Mish. Together they moved to San Francisco. On Easter Weekend, thanks to boredom, they decided to put on the nun’s habits in Sister Vish’ closet and go out in public. They also came up with the name “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.”
Later that year, they went to a “radical fairy event” and recruited men to live with them in San Francisco. The event came about after Iowans founded a magazine called RFD, Rural Farm Delivery. It was a gay publication sent out to gay men who lived relatively isolated in rural areas. The aim was to connect gay men to a larger community than just their area and their farm.
In 1979 they used the magazine to gather together at the first ever radical fairy event held in Arizona. There were perhaps fifty gay men who came together, calling themselves radical fairies as a way to take back a derogatory term that was pinned on them. The gathering was radical because at that time it was radical for gay men to get together and be open about their sexuality.
That group together created the first Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence house. They all lived together for a time in San Francisco and they were all required to practice transcendental meditation. It wasn’t long before a visitor came from Australia who became a Sister. She went back to Australia and started a house in Sydney. Another chapter then started in Seattle in 1987. (Updated 4/6/16 2:25pm)
From Nun’s Habits To Safe Sex Pamphlets
Going out in nun habits was a way to break the norm, but they went out into the streets without a plan, which is why the Sisters’ work, at first, transformed into a type of street theater where the Sister’s also dressed up in clown make-up.
Although the Sisters had no intention of growing their membership, they became so popular that one Sister was on the cover of Newsweek as the “poster boy” for AIDS. When they roamed the streets of San Francisco, people would throw them money. Their street improv became a catalyst for stepping up during the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s when no one else was stepping up. The money they received went to LGBT+ charities, but they wanted a way to account for the money they received, so they created a 501c3.
They then became one of the first to create a safer sex pamphlet in the U.S.. While the medical community did publish a safe sex pamphlet, it was very dry and nobody ever read it. To bring more awareness to the AIDS crisis, the Sisters created a pamphlet called “Play Fair,” which was more entertaining and still is published today.
Sister Amanda Reckinwith (or just Sister Amanda), the co-founder of the Sister’s San Diego Chapter 11-years ago, explains, “The sisters were born out of a certain part of the Catholic Church. We didn’t intentionally go about mocking or pretending to be anything remotely close to the Catholic sisters. What was true was that the Catholic sisters happened to have a habit that we deemed appropriate for our work…. If you take away the visual, the costume, the makeup, there’s nothing that the Sisters do that Catholic sisters do any different. We live in a community. We serve the community. We recognize a calling.”
The Growth Of SPI Chapters
The Sisters come from all different walks of life. In the San Diego Chapter, one is a business consultant, another a former CPA. Sister Amanda spent six and a half years as an Air Force Captain. She was a navigator who left the military right before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. She also happens to be the Board President of the non-profit corporation.
She says, “There is one mission and that’s to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt. So the idea of the non-profit, the idea of raising funds is actually not inherent in the mission.”
Some chapters of the Sisters remain without non-profit status, such as in New York. Today, there are numerous chapters throughout the U.S., including in the Russian River, New Orleans, Madison, Des Moines and Omaha. Recently, Sacramento’s SPI house became official. There are also Sisters in Germany, France, Scotland, England, Australia, Colombia, Uruguay and Switzerland. Last year, some of the founding Sisters took a trip to China to advocate for LGBT+ rights.
The San Diego Sisters hold a general meeting once a month on the fourth Tuesday above Pleasures and Treasures at 7pm. Everyone is welcome to the meetings, and although the path to sisterhood is rigorous, everyone is welcome to take an interest in that path.
Stay tune for the second part if this series next week when I’ll be writing about the SD Chapter’s history, how to become a Sister, improv street theater and the philosophy behind SPI.