Over the last few decades, the LGBT community has made great strides in securing human rights. We’ve also seen advances in AIDS care – no longer an almost-certain killer, the virus can be treated with medicine.
One group that helped shake people up to support both of these causes was the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence – men dressed in outrageous makeup and outfits modeled after the traditional habits of Catholic nuns, but with more sparkle. The group’s website says they made their first appearance on Easter Sunday 1979 in San Francisco.
Now Kansas City has its own version of the pioneering sisters, named “City of Fountains Sisters.” The group is new and cannot use the name “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence” yet, but they said that, like those sisters, they want “to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt.”
I recently met with a group of the City of Fountains Sisters that included Adam, also known as Novice Sister Ethyl Lynn Torch, the Flaming; Eman, a.k.a. Novice Sister Limona Cello; Tim, a.k.a. Novice Sister Tara Kard; Alan Dunham, a.k.a. Novice Guard Phil La Joque-Strapp; Andy Chambers, a.k.a. Novice Sister Glamarama Ding Dong; Monique, a.k.a. Postulant Sister Satire Icon; Willie, a.k.a. Postulant Sister Goldie Grrr; and Scout, a.k.a. Sister Sin Esther.
Here’s how they describe their mission: “The Sisters have devoted ourselves to community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment. We believe all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty, and we use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit.”
Members of the group explained that the sisters use a structure similar to the original Catholic nun tier system, with aspirants, postulants, novices and fully professed sisters.
The group in Kansas City is called a mission house of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Kaufmann said, “Once they deem us full professed, we will be allowed to use that trademark, but not for the time being.”
Before becoming a mission house, Chambers said, “We were an aspirant house – we aspired to be a house – then we became a mission house.”
He said there were more than 30 houses that voted on them to become a mission house, and the change was made in October 2015. “It’s an honor to move that far ahead.”
In describing how new groups are different from the original one in San Francisco, Chambers said, “Well, I think today it hasn’t changed and it has changed in a lot of ways. Nowadays, we talk more about gender than we talk about sexuality, I think. … As much as we have moved forward, there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Chambers said the group’s co-Mom, Sister Unity in Los Angeles, advises them. “She always stresses that it’s about the work. It’s about the community and meeting people and the work.”
Chambers was the one who first heard from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. “They contacted me and said, ‘Would you be interested in starting a house? These people would like to get together and start a house. You have experience and you’ve talked to sisters and you know sisters.
Wouldn’t you like to start this? You can say yes or no.’ And so we met, and that’s how it started.”
This group of novice sisters are the ones who created the bi-laws and laid the groundwork for the City of Fountains Sisters house. “We’re the first in this house at the moment. It’s not saying we’re better than others. It just says we’re the ones who started it.”
“We have formal habits and we have festive attire. … We have white veils, not black veils, because we are novices and not fully professed yet.
“We do community service. That’s one of the things the sisters do. We have to have a coronet, which is our headpiece. We have collars, we have nametags, we wear a habit. I mean, they are festive habits, but they are a habit.”
As a sister, Chambers said, he enjoys the chance to dress up. “I want to be the prettiest bird in the garden,” he said.
Chambers said they have met some of the original Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, such as like Sister Mish and met and socialized with Sister Freida Peoples, who is the first African American sister.
The group credits the longevity of the Sisters to their community work. There is always a need, they said, for people in the community to fundraise, to stand up and shine a light on things that are either being swept under the rug or just forgotten about.
Guards are also part of their house.
Kaufmann said: “In most houses, guards do things like work with security, do labor, things like that. When we were being questioned for our elevation to a mission house, that was one of the things they stopped and wanted to focus on. Because in most houses, guards have a supportive role. When sisters are out in costume, they make sure no one harasses them. In our house, we think guards appeal to a different crowd and we don’t have a problem with them doing ministry.”
There are no membership dues. The group said they just ask that people show interest.
The group has several jobs for members, Chambers said: “There is a president, secretary, mistress of the coffer [treasurer”>, mistress of propaganda [the person in charge of media relations”>, mistress of novices.”
The group said there are female sisters, guards and others that are gender-fluid.
The group has one female member, named Monique. “I am biologically a woman, but if I have to label myself, I would be two-spirit because I’m Native. So honestly, I’m a big old gay man trapped in … a little lady’s body. I found my tribe,” she said with a laugh.
Monique said she found out about the Sisters by working with Chambers at his store, Wonderland.
Women wear the same habits as the men, she said. “We talked about it, and I always wanted to do drag, but as a woman, I thought I wouldn’t be welcome because I’ve always heard stories about queens getting offended that a woman is in drag.”
She said that Chambers convinced her to go for it.
Chambers chimed in: “In the immortal words of RuPaul, ‘We are born naked and the rest is drag. DRAG: Dressed as a girl.”
When the group is out and about, Chambers said, “It’s really easy to have a lovefest with a crowd who adores you. It’s when the crowd hates you is when the real work begins.
“That’s just the harsh reality of it. Sisters have gone to the March on Washington. That’s what they do. That’s what we do.”
They do stunts, as well. Kaufmann said: “We’re very good at statement-making stunts.”
Chambers talked about something they do called the Veil of Shame, where someone wears a veil around to bars and people write whatever they’ve been called, or an emotion they feel ashamed about, and then they burn the veil.
“Some places like that concept, and some places do not like that concept, because it’s a little too extreme for them,” he said. “For me, it’s symbolism and it’s rebirth and fire. I’m not offended by it.
“I don’t know if that’s a stunt as much as symbolic, but it’s outreach to let people free themselves of these horrible names they’ve been called.”
Adam Austin said, “I think abstractly, with our mission, it’s a way for us to be that catalyst of change and communication within our community.”
The City of Fountains Sisters recently served Jell-O shots at a Hamburger Mary’s Bear Bust as a fundraiser for their group. They were also at the Kansas City PrideFest, on the weekend of June 3-5. Members of the Sisters attended the Kansas City Vigil on June 12 at Barney Allis Plaza in Kansas City for the victims of The Pulse Bar shooting in Orlando, Fla. They suggest that people check out their Facebook page (City of Fountains Sisters) to see where they will be out and about or hosting events.