In 1979, a group of three gay men took to the streets of San Francisco in nun’s habits to challenge the conformity they saw within their LGBT community. This group would gel and grow into the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Sisters quickly broadened their mission from challenging LGBT conformism to adopting a radical, positive mission “to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt,” as well as to do good in the wider world. But the Sisters have never abandoned that original impulse to challenge people to be who they are, to question social norms. “I’m a 49-year-old gay male, and a hot mess,” says current Music City Sisters Abbess, Sister Ann Wenita Morelove, “and I’m here to let people know that if I can do this, they can be them!” Just as those first Sisters wanted to challenge the plastic image of beauty that dominated the “Castro mentality” of their time, Sister Ann wants people to know that “not every queer is comfortable with not being gorgeous, with not have abs, or even being queer. But if they see me doing this, maybe it will help them free themselves of those concerns and just be.”

 

As one of Nashville’s founding Sisters, Sister Right Sarong, reflects, “While the early group was more about shock value than about fundraising, when they did raise money it was often very political, but also very community oriented.” The Sisters, for example, held some of the earliest fundraising for an AIDS organization. The early Sisters were also quite political, participating in social action, such as a famous protest against nuclear power. This example, in particular, establishes a very important reality about the Sisters: their attire and their actions may “mock” those of traditional religious orders, but they take seriously their version of the mission. One of the Founders of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Sister Soami, writes about the nuclear protest, “we alternated cheerful pompon routines with a Rosary in Time of Nuclear Peril.... On that first outing we established the range of our ministry, from silly satire to thoughtful spirituality.”

As the Sisters have grown and established themselves, they have shifted their focus to emphasize community engagement over political action, and “fundraising is a big part of supporting our community,” Sister Right Sarong explained, discussion the evolution of the Sisters. And fundraising is a special gift of many Sisters. “If a six-and-a-half foot tall nun in clown face and sboa asks you for a dollar, you’re usually gonna say yes.” But the fundamentals of the Sisters’ public ministry have remained true to their essential mission, which Sister Soami describes so eloquently: “We combine social activism with glamour drag for public edification and personal enlightenment. We produce public parties. We lampoon political and clerical party lines. We celebrate queer diversity and community. We visit the sick. We shelter the homeless.We scatter the ashes of our dead.” (http://www.sdsisters.org/genesis/)

In their very early days the Sisters spread worldwide, but penetrating the heartland of the US would prove to be a slower task. Nevertheless the Sisters’ presence in Middle Tennessee dates much earlier than the founding of the Music City Sisters and their elevation to full House in 2010. One of the Sisters’ Founders, Sister Missionary Position, or Mish, spends part of each year at Tennessee’s Short Mountain Sanctuary. In 2003, one of Nashville’s founding Sisters, Right Sarong, became active in the Order after attending a retreat at Short Mountain. With no House in Nashville, Sister Right Sarong became part of the Missionary Order and met Sisters all over the country.

Sister Mish and Sister Right Sarong also visited Nashville on occasion and represented the Sisters. Sister Right Sarong, lacking sisters to manifest with, brought ‘altar boys’ - men dressed in graduation gowns and halos - to events in Nashville. They’d support events, run the door, or even work behind the scenes, enacting the Sisters’ commitment to supporting the community through action. Sister Enya arrived in Nashville around 2007, though she was here part time, and while they discussed starting a house, interest wasn’t yet high enough and the time wasn’t right. That would change in 2009.

Like another famous revolution, the Music City Sisters’ time came on Bastille Day: this time it was a Bastille Day Party in 2009! As these things so often happen, the topic of the Sisters came up, and people were intrigued. Someone expressed interest. Someone else knew someone that would want to be involved. Suddenly there were seven interested Sisters and prospective Sisters. In August, they held their first formal meeting and manifested for the first time as a group. While Sisters Mish, Right Sarong, Enya and others had appeared individually, this marked the first time a substantial group of Sisters descended on Nashville. And as Sister Right Sarong quotes a Sisters’ saying, “One sister is a freak, three sisters are a force!”

 

Since those early months, the Music City Sisters have become a force within the Nashville LGBT community. In a little over a year, the house earned the right to use the name, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence: requirements for elevation include registering as a non-profit, supporting community events, and appearing as Sisters, or “manifesting,” regularly. Through events such as Alphabet Art and H8’s a Drag, the Music City Sisters elevated not only their house, but also LGBT life and community in Middle Tennessee.

The Sisters haven’t always been met with open arms, however. Ironically, as Sister Right Sarong recalls, “It was the gay community that overlapped with ‘straight’ communities that was worried about the image of the gay community we were projecting.” Concern was often palpable about how the “straight” community and allies in business and churches would react, and it took a while for the LGBT community to understand that “we weren’t provoking or poking fun at anyone.... [Event organizers] were worried, while people from the churches and the community were excited!” But with persistence and through sustained and unwavering support for LGBT Nashville, the Sisters have gradually broken down walls of resistance. “In the last four years, we’ve worked with virtually every LGBT organization in town,” Sister Right Sarong reflects. “It took time and giving back - besides the costs of business, all the money we raise goes back into the community.”

In their first four years, the Music City Sisters have met with a great deal of success. At present, there are around 20 Sisters at various levels, from aspirants to fully professed sisters. Among the newer Sisters is Sister Ann Wenita Morelove, current Abbess. Sister Ann and many of the sisters I spoke to epitomize the duality of the Sisters: they are “holy clowns,” men dressed as nuns and painted who often speak freely and sincerely of their ministry. Indeed Sister Ann was, in a previous life, an ordained United Methodist Minister.

“There came a point,” Sister Ann explains, “where my frustration with the United Methodists became overwhelming. The Book of Discipline says that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings.” This is a hard message for a man with a long term partner, with whom he had raised children. Finding the Sisters was a revelation. “I had been told that God is love, but that wasn’t for me. The Sisters allow me to have a ministry where that is not the expression - my total focus is to be love. It’s not just a sister thing any more - as a Sister I’m just being love, and I’m being a better Christian than I was before.”

Ministry is a word that many Sisters use to describe their individual missions, but that shouldn’t be a turn-off. The Sisters simply offers an outlet for the expression of love that is essential to each member, and some find the word ministry accurate. Sister Pursefonee Ophelia Bitz explains, “Our house is made up of a whole spectrum of beliefs, from atheist, to pagan, Wiccan, Christian, Jewish, and faerie: we just take all of that energy, whatever it is, and bring it together to ‘minister’ together to the whole community.” Sister Pursefonee recalls a friend from church asking if he didn’t miss the worship experiences, when his attendance dropped off. She explained, “As sisters, we are there solely to spread joy and make sure people know they’re loved. When we connect, I experience all the love I may or may not get in worship.” And the levity and revelry with which the Sisters surround themselves allow them to touch those who have no interest in, or negative experiences of, traditional religions or spirituality. Sister Ann recalled January’s Confessions on the Dancefloor event as a distinctly meaningful event: “People could write their secrets down, or converse with a sister - and you can talk about things with a 7 foot tall nun in white face in a bar that you might not talk to other people about! We put those papers through the shredder used a fan to blow them away.” This non-threatening and lighthearted environment allowed people to really connect. Sister Pursefonee describes listening to someone who was in a bad place, giving her free and non-judgmental ear: “For me was a sacred experience. I was able to touch someone, who will look at sisters and see us as places of comfort and sanctuary.”

For other Sisters, their gifts lend themselves to big events like H8’s a Drag, which funds important causes and brings attention to an issue facing not only LGBT people, but also anyone different or outside the norm. Sister Faegela, one of Nashville’s biologically female sisters, describes the genesis of the event, her novice project: “I wanted to do something about anti-bullying, and my big sister thought a big family thing in an outdoor park would be good, but I’m not a flying kites in the park kinda gal!”

Inspired by the NOH8 campaign and her long exposure to the world of drag, Sister Faegela set about organizing a celebrity drag fundraiser in Nashville. Raja, from RuPaul’s Drag Race, and The Princess, as well as numerous other well-known queens insured that the event would take on a life of its own.

Now in its third year, H8’s a Drag 2014, “Love TRANSforms Fear,” places focus on transphobia, bullying, suicide and related hate crimes in the transgender community.

The weekend long event will kick off on Friday, April 11 at PLAY Dance Bar at 8 p.m.. The event will feature RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 5 Puerto Rican knockout Lineysha Sparx along with the return of The Princess, a season 3 alumna.

VIP admission, which includes a special pre-reception and meet & greet, can be purchased for $25. General admission tickets are $10.

Again coinciding with GLSEN’s Day of Silence, last year’s Stomp H8 Prom, well attended by youth from the GLSEN Jump Start program, will return. The prom’s location highlights the inroads the Sisters have made in the community. “Belmont United Methodist’s Reconciling Ministries,” Sister Faegela proudly explained, “a connection of Sister Ann’s, provided space and completely sponsored the event last year and will continue to do so.”

As the Music City Sisters move forward, we can no doubt look for exciting new opportunities. Sister Ann explains, “Our recent growth has brought a lot of potential for change, and new ideas popping up all over the place. Focusing this new energy is a major work.” The Music City Sisters’ arsenal of successful, recurring major events like Alphabet Art and H8’s a Drag, as well as lighter fare like the Pink Panty Pulldown and Freak and Fetish, will not only continue but grow. Experience, however, teaches Nashville to expect the unexpected from these creative drag nuns!

One focus, Sister Ann promises, will be expanding on their central mission, “spreading joy, ending guilt, promoting safer sex, and engaging in community service, offering financial and spiritual support wherever it’s needed.” The Sisters want to carry this beyond Church Street, and are trying to make sure they venture beyond the bars. “We’re trying to do something different,” Sister Ann explained. “We want to reach out and get exposure with people who might not have encountered us.” The time may also have come to “have a bar crawl that takes us out of the safety of Church street, maybe visit some of the honkytonks on Broadway!” The Sisters aren’t just pushing others’ boundaries either - they push their own. The Sisters are even kicking around the idea of hosting a family event. While this may seem far outside the wheelhouse of the Sisters, bringing their message of tolerance and rejection of guilt to families is a logical extension of their current activities. “My partner and I raised kids and weren’t really out to the community until after the kids were grown” Sister Ann explains. “For us this would be a way to minister to people who might never encounter us otherwise.”

The Music City Sisters are also reaching out beyond Nashville. A group is currently working to form a House in Louisville, and local Sisters, including Sister Faegela, have been supporting this effort. Indeed, it was Sister Faegala and a companion who, by manifesting on a Drag Stars at Sea cruise, introduced a core group from Louisville to the Sisters and their mission. The Derby City Sisters, and Abess Velveeta von Tease, are enthusiastic and energetic. “I expect they’ll be mission status by summer,” Sister Faegala reports. “The core membership is quite well connected in the city.” The Music City Sisters’ relationship with Play Nashville has simplified establishing a relationship between the Derby City Sisters and Play Louisville. “Four of our Sisters went up to support their inaugural event, it was covered in the paper. And Play reached out to the Louisville Sisters right away.”

The impact of the Music City Sisters in Nashville and the mid-south is hard to quantify, as so much of their work supporting other organizations’ efforts. As Sister Pursefonee explains, “There are going to be times you manifest and get ready, only to get down on your knees and clean, set up and tear down, and put an event together.” So look around at an LGBT event. Chances are, even if you don’t see the clown white makeup, there’s a force of Sisters at work.

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

Red Bull Unlocked Nashville


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Photo courtesy of Rumble Boxing Gulch Nashville

Rumble Boxing Gulch, Nashville


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