Twenty One years of debauchery
Twenty one years ago, a group of Manchester men gathered outside of the Gay Village and proceeded to put on full nuns habits. Nothing particularly unusual there, you might say, but this was the beginning of a new chapter in the world story of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
Originally starting in San Francisco in 1979, when a similar group of friends decided that fighting for human rights and raising money for local charities would have much more of an impact if they had a gimmick. And so, mainly due to the wardrobe of a local am-dram theatrical group, the costumes from their previous production of The Sound of Music were dragged out for another purpose. Back in 1979, wearing such provocative symbolism together with plastic machine guns, was strange even by San Franciscan standards. But off they went, into the city, to make their mark. This was the beginning of a world wide order that anyone could join, but those who really wanted to create chaos whilst fighting against discrimination. And it really worked! Within five years they had already raised many thousands of dollars for local charities whilst annoying those who saw them as a pest and ‘threat to society’.
The Sisters have spread throughout the world and there are ‘houses’ or ‘convents’ throughout the world – all over the U.S., Australia, Europe and also in the UK. The Manchester House started 21 years ago and even the Sisters are expanding and growing. Sister BangBang is one of its members and comments about how fighting for human rights has its detractors.
“We’re quite a spiritual group of nuns, and reflect the hard work that more religious nuns in our society do. We’re certainly not against religion, and even within our Manchester House we have practising Catholics, Muslims and Buddists but we will fight prejudice and any form of stigmatic guilt thrown at anyone!”.
There is one catch in joining the Sisters though, which began as a street protest back in the 1980s. San Francisco was about to welcome the arrival of the Pope, but the Sisters had an alternative form of welcome. They announced they would be performing a mock exorcism “to rid him of the devil of homophobia”. Before he arrived, the were moved on but not before garnering huge press coverage. The Roman Catholic Church, in response, entered The Sisters into the official Book of Heretics!
“We do tend to create chaos and havoc, but our intentions are good and pure”, says Sister BangBang. “We get out and about and we make a difference, and looking like a 21st century nun really does help us raise a ton more money for charity. After all, we don’t dress like this NOT to be noticed!”
The Sisters are more than a bucket rattling entity though. Many times they have, as individuals or as a group, helped those in need on a more personal level. As Sister BangBang explains, “we’re not trained counsellors but we do care and we will help. If someone has suffered in some way – a death, found out they’re HIV positive, been bullied, attacked in the street – whatever – then we feel passionate about helping in some way. Maybe in guiding someone to the right help, maybe listening to what they need to say, maybe just being a friend in need. We are Sisters with a purpose.”
Surprisingly, this is no drag bag organisation. It can take up to 18 months to become a “Fully professed Sister” - a black veil. The path of Indulgence does seem to reflect that of nuns in more religious orders, moving an aspiring nun through Postulancy and the Novitiate before arrriving at the final goal. “It’s a very proud moment to become a full Sister, but the path there is equally as important – it’s a training ground, and it also weeds out who think we’re just in it for the frocks and the makeup!”.
Twenty one years since they first formed at the Manchester Pride celebrations, the Manchester Sisters are growing with many new members, and much of their growth has been because of social media. More than other Houses in the world, the Manchester ‘branch’ have created a cutting edge website, encompassed the world of Facebook and Twitter and even produced a number of outrageous videos. World domination?
“No domination!”, laughs Sister BangBang, “but it’s important to use every tool to get out there and show what we can do to help.”
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