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Queering the (Sacred) Body Politic: Considering the Performative Cultural Politics of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

From: Theory & Event
Volume 7, Issue 1, 2003
10.1353/tae.2003.0021

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:



Photo Shoot For Halloween 1995 Posters
From the exhibit, "Changing the Face of Activism:
20 Years of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Inc."
Photo: Brian Ashby at
Thelab.org, http://www.thelab.org/archive00/image101.htm
Used by permission.

Some people would say that we need a ground from which to act. We need a shared collective ground for collective action. I think we need to pursue the moments of degrounding, when we're standing in two different places at once; or we don't know exactly where we're standing; or when we've produced an aesthetic practice that shakes the ground (Butler, 1994, ques. 6, para. 4).
While living in San Francisco, I took them for granted; for me, they were fixtures in SF's cultural milieu, a "natural"1 element in and of the socio-political landscape. I attended their Halloween-in-the-Castro celebrations; I saw them at AIDS Dance-a-thon and Walk-a-thon benefits; they greeted me at the Castro and Folsom Street Fairs; and, they were always in the foreground at Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Pride Day celebrations. If The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were absent from a major G/L/B/T-supported benefit or critical action, somehow the event seemed to be missing something. The Sisters' presence signaled, at once, a deadly serious political critique and an opportunity to celebrate the wicked camp of the Sisters, tricked out in (among other things) nuns' habits, lace, high heels, rubber, and mascara.Formally established in 1979, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Inc. (SPI) is a San Francisco-based not-for-profit organization2 dedicated to social service and political activism, primarily focused on human rights concerns, AIDS/HIV prevention, and protection of freedom of expression. Although originally an organization of gay men, current members include gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, androgynous, and straight identified men and women. The Sisters are also self-identified performance artists. Donning nuns' habits and accessorizing with buttons, jewelry, hats, and make-up, etc., they identify themselves as "holy sacred clowns" as well as "21st Century nuns" (Day, 1997, para. 26). According to their mission statement, SPI members vow to assist with "the spiritual enlightenment and spirits lightenment of the community" by "promulgating universal joy and expiating stigmatic guilt" and "help[ing] others through humor and hard work" (Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Policy, p. 1, their emphasis). The Sisters, because of their high profile presence in SF cultural politics, have attracted considerable media attention. Some supporters, defending against the critique of the Sisters' ostensible heresy, have described them simply as "drag artists" who merely "put on a show" while raising money and awareness about important "gay issues" (Carroll, 1999, p. E8). SPI's public performances have been variously characterized as innocuous entertainment, satirical street theater, carnivalesque camp, and political parody (Carroll, 1999; Garcia, 1999; Lattin, 1999). These descriptions, while sketching an outline of the lighthearted aesthetic (or discursive/celebratory) aspects of SPI tend to do so by foregrounding the campy characteristics evident at events while parenthetically mentioning the Sisters' significant everyday (material) commitment to action in the communities they serve through political activism and critique.When I became acquainted with them in 1994, I wasn't aware of other important facets of SPI's public persona: their solemn commitment to community service, and their habitual participation in political activism. The Sisters' performances as glammed-out nuns are driven by a deeply held desire to materially contribute an affirming, nurturing, and joyful presence to, and affect positive change within, queer communities through a modality of queer performance art as activism. As such, SPI offers an intriguing and important example of the material political force of ludic discursivity and the playful ways that a wicked wit can work in political activism.My objective in this study, then, is to explore some aspects of SPI that trouble what Judith Butler (1998) pointed out is a troubling trend in reading and gauging the political efficacy of particular social groups:
The untimely resurgence of the culture/material distinction is in the service of a tactic . . . that seeks to identify some social movements with the merely cultural and then the cultural with the derivative...


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