Who are the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence? Get to know the nuns of drag

Portland, Oregon, USA - June 16, 2019: Portland Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in Portland's 2019 Pride Parade.
A Sister of Perpetual Indulgence Photo: Shutterstock

Though the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an international order of drag nuns, has existed since 1979, the group has recently regained public notoriety for their decades of community activism and their Catholic critics who accuse them of religious mockery.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have played an interesting and vital role in LGBTQ+ culture, with a dramatic history of direct activism that exemplifies their playful, queer countercultural spirit as well as their devotion to marginalized communities that continues to the present day.

Origins and History

The spirit of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is rooted in San Francisco’s 1960s counterculture movement, which embraced sexual positivity, mind-expanding drug use, and poking fun at mainstream culture. As more gay men migrated to the city throughout the 1970s, this spirit met a queer artistic sensibility that used drag and non-traditional spirituality to affirm queer lives while rejecting the anti-LGBTQ+ gender conformity of the newly emerging Christian “moral majority.”

On Easter weekend 1979, three men — Ken Bunch (known as Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch), Fred Brungard (Sister Missionary Position), and Baruch Golden — wore full, traditional nuns’ habits on Castro Street, and later at a nude beach and local softball game where they performed an attention-grabbing pompom routine. After sharing their vision of sisterhood with others at the first International Radical Faerie gathering in Arizona’s Sonoran desert in 1979, the two aforementioned Sisters and two others formally founded the group, choosing its official name and defining its mission statement: to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt.

The Sister’s earliest activist actions included publicly performing a “Rosary in Time of Nuclear Peril” in response to the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, chasing hate-mongering Christians out of San Francisco’s Castro gay district, holding a bingo and disco benefit for gay Cuban refugees, and fundraising for the first-ever Gay Olympics. They also held sex party fundraisers, an annual dog show in the Castro, and — upon the arrival of AIDS — the first-known AIDS fundraisers. Throughout the HIV epidemic, they also distributed a practical, humorous safer sex pamphlet entitled “Play Fair!” These efforts gained the Sisters greater recognition in the gay press and the local gay community.

The Sisters gradually grew and now have 53 chapters and missionaries in the United States and 24 chapters in Canada, Australia, Europe, and South America.

The Sisters’ Mission and Values

Two Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence party at an outdoor event
William S. Tom / ONE Archives Foundation Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at the Los Angeles Christopher Street West Pride Parade, June 17, 2001.

The Sisters devote themselves to “community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment,” according to their website.

“We are here for our community to foster hope, creativity, and wellness!” their site continues, linking to resources promoting suicide prevention, justice for Black lives, domestic violence shelters, mental health support, trans-affirming healthcare, addiction recovery, medication access, queer cultural resources, as well as links to virtual museum tours, online classes, and local events.

“We use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency, and guilt that chain the human spirit,” the site adds. This irreverent humor has included several public mock exorcisms of anti-LGBTQ+ figures like anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, Catholic Pope John Paul II, and homophobic radio show host Laura Schlessinger.

The group also says, “We believe all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty.” The Sisters regularly encourage people to joyfully display their own creative individuality (both inside and outside of the Sisters’ events). This ethos is also evident in their creative fundraisers, many of which have included eye-popping performances by drag queens, porn stars, and other performing artists.

The Art of Drag and the Sisters’ Unique Style

When real Catholic nuns join a convent, they’re given new names and required to wear habits or drab clothing that symbolize their modesty and commitment to God. Comparatively, the Sisters’ names and appearance are meant to symbolize their individuality and commitment to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’s unique ministry.

After completing the 18-month initiation period, new Sisters will take on a special name, usually an irreverent one with sexual overtones or comedic puns (like Sister Mysteria of the Holy Order of the Broken Hymen, Sister GladAss of the Joyous Reserectum, Sister Selma Soul, or Sister Shalita Corndog). They also wear highly stylized makeup, often a white face with dramatic makeup, and also a unique habit with an oversized wimple (headdress).

“The wimple and habit add the political aspect,” Sister Power Hungry Bitch has written. “The reason the church to this day is so OUTRAGED about us is that this iconic symbol has been expropriated by SPI for our own purposes. Without the wimple and habit we would just be clowns.”

When the Sisters “manifest” in their instantly recognizable full dress and makeup, they command attention. Some Sisters say their unique, “sacred clown”-like appearance allows people to open up to them. Others say the costuming allows them to act more boldly and joyfully than they might otherwise. Regardless, their trademark appearance helps establish their “ministry of presence” and embodies the playful, irreverent, and dramatic flair that characterizes their protests and public actions.

Community Involvement and Outreach

JULY 20 2016: Thousands of delegates, activists, spectators & law enforcement from all over the US descended onto Cleveland for the RNC. Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
Shutterstock A Sister of Perpetual Indulgence in 2016

The Sisters say they have raised and distributed over $1 million to non-profit organizations serving needy communities. This includes grants to LGBTQ+ groups that advocate for disabled accessibility, QTBIPOC social liberation, spiritual exploration, gender-affirming resources, sexual education, queer cultural spaces, and creative programs for LGBTQ+ youth.

The Sisters regularly manifest at Pride celebrations and other LGBTQ+ gatherings like fundraisers, community fairs, anti-violence vigils, educational panels, and other events. At these, they often serve as volunteers, goodwill ambassadors, money collectors, emcees, or distributors of safer sex materials.

The Sister’s past educational initiatives have included awareness campaigns for fighting anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, helping those affected by public health emergencies and natural disasters, as well as fundraisers for the NAMES Quilt Project — the world’s largest, nationally touring, community art project whose individual panels commemorate people who died of HIV. The Sisters have also provided resources and efforts to reduce religious-based queerphobia, queer youth homelessness, anti-LGBTQ+ violence, and sexually transmitted infections.

The group has also protested for non-LGBTQ+ causes, including the rights of striking miners and civilians harmed by America’s Middle Eastern wars. Perhaps their most popular and famous fundraiser is their annual “Hunky Jesus” contest held in San Francisco’s Delores Park each Easter, which raises money for the Sisters’ activities.

Legacy and Impact on LGBTQ+ Culture

The Sisters and other drag performers regularly serve as community ambassadors and entertainers who unite and energize the queer community. Their unique brand of empowering devotion demonstrates a loving queer spirituality that exists outside of (or even in opposition to) the Christian church. While some LGBTQ+ activists seek to assimilate within mainstream politics, changing them from within, the Sisters wish to defiantly stand out as a socio-political force that refuses to compromise its voice or appearance.

The group has bestowed sainthood and angel status on such notable community heroes as assassinated San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, British LGBTQ+ activist Peter Tatchell, bisexual comedian Margaret Cho, medical marijuana activist Brownie Mary, and influential community drag icon Heklina. The sisters have also won awards from local Pride organizations and recognition from numerous LGBTQ+ charities.

Recently, the Los Angeles Dodgers, a Major League Baseball team, decided to honor their local Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence chapter with a “Community Hero Award” for their decades of community service. The team, however, temporarily rescinded the honor when some Catholic activists accused the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence of mocking their religion. While the Dodgers eventually re-invited the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to receive the award, the incident illustrates just how provocative and influential the Sisters remain to this day.

Celebrating the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

Far from being a quirky LGBTQ+ fringe activist group, the Sisters have remained a vital community force, assisting marginalized groups and protesting queerphobia for nearly 40 decades. Their international presence and advocacy for transgender issues all but ensure that they’ll remain a vibrant political force in the queer community for years to come.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are also a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable organization and they always welcome donations, volunteers, and new members. One can learn more at their main website,, which also contains more about their history and activism as well as links to their many local and international sisterhoods.

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