HomePoliticsGay politics1980s. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (SPI) were first unleashed on the world at the end of 1979 in San Francisco (where else?).

The four founding members were known as Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch (or, more commonly, Vicious PHB), Reverend Mother, Sister Missionary Position and Sister Hysterectoria-Agnes.

Their stated mission was “to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt”.

Within a year, an Australian branch of the Order had been established in Sydney then a third in Toronto, Canada the following year. Today there are SPI Orders in 10 countries, with 15 branches in the US alone.

As Sydney SPI’s website declares:

“Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures, and so The Sisters’ actions are quite overt and confronting.”

And these overt actions have included:

  • A public exorcism of the Pope on his arrival in San Francisco in 1987
  • Carrying a giant model of Australian bigot ‘Reverend’ Fred Nile’s head on a tray during the Sydney Mardi Gras Parade
  • Standing a candidate as “Nun of the Above” in the elections for San Francisco Supervisor (and getting 23,000 votes!)

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is impressed by their actions. The Vatican officially added them to the ‘Papal List of Heretics’ as a result of their 1987 protests. Following the “Nun of the Above” campaign, San Francisco changed its electoral laws to prevent candidates standing under anything other than their real names.

And, sadly, the Toronto Order was closed in 1986 following criticism from the local gay community that they were rocking the boat a little too much.

It’s particularly sad when our own communities chose to criticise the Sisters, given that we have benefited enormously from their activities. As well as being stalwarts in the ongoing fight for gay rights and against homophobia, SPI Orders across the globe have done much to raise funds for and awareness of community issues and organisations. See, for example, the clip below that the San Francisco Order produced for the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign.

As the video also shows, they epitomise the endless creativity and humour (as well as the sheer fighting spirit) that our community continues to manifest in our struggles throughout the years.

I first encountered the Sisters – both in and out of religious drag – at AIDS Awareness events in San Francisco in 1983. I briefly met Bobbi Campbell – a.k.a Sister Florence Nightmare – at a community education session in the Castro. Bobbi/Florence was a health care worker and one of the first people to come out publicly as a Person Living With AIDS – an action that earned him the moniker of ‘AIDS Poster Boy’.

But my most regular contact with SPI was with the Sydney Order, whom I did consider joining at one point (as Sister Suspicious Bedde-Staines). That particular plan came to nothing as I was working in a Catholic-run hospital at the time and already in conflict with the Top Nun over the distribution of safe sex resources to my AIDS Unit clients. ‘Embracing the habit’, therefore, seemed wrong on so many levels!

So I restricted myself to being an observer, rather than a participant, attending events such as the history walks organised as part of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Being led through Sydney’s main tourist areas by an order of gay male nuns is certainly a memorable experience!

Of course, it wasn’t all just about walks in the park. The Sisters were at the forefront of protests when the Pope inflicted a visit on Sydney in 1995. Needless to say, he didn’t get quite the reception he had anticipated.

As he sped down Oxford Street (Sydney’s Castro Street) in his Popemobile, he waved and smiled his ‘butter wouldn’t melt’ smile at what he thought were the adoring crowds. And his face became positively radiant as he spotted within those adoring crowds a group of nuns.

Then he got closer…

And closer…

It was probably the presence of the bearded nun that finally confirmed the awful truth: either way, the Pope rapidly got the message that the crowd wasn’t there to welcome him after all.




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