An engaging look into the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, queer activists devoted to social justice
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence make up an unlikely order of nuns. Self-described as “twenty-first century queer nuns,” the Sisters began in 1979 when three bored gay men donned retired Roman Catholic nuns’ habits and went for a stroll through San Francisco’s gay Castro district. The stunned and delighted responses they received prompted these already-seasoned activists to consider whether the habits might have some use in social justice work, and within a year they had constituted the new order. Today, with more than 83 houses on four different continents, the Sisters offer health outreach, support, and, at times, protest on behalf of queer communities.
In Queer Nuns, Melissa M. Wilcox offers new insights into the role the Sisters play across queer culture and the religious landscape. The Sisters both spoof nuns and argue quite seriously that they are nuns, adopting an innovative approach the author refers to as serious parody. Like any performance, serious parody can either challenge or reinforce existing power dynamics, and it often accomplishes both simultaneously. The book demonstrates that, through the use of this strategy, the Sisters are able to offer an effective, flexible, and noteworthy approach to community-based activism.
Serious parody ultimately has broader applications beyond its use by the Sisters. Wilcox argues that serious parody offers potential uses and challenges in the efforts of activist groups to work within communities that are opposed and oppressed by culturally significant traditions and organizations – as is the case with queer communities and the Roman Catholic Church. This book opens the door to a new world of religion and social activism, one which could be adapted to a range of political movements, individual inclinations, and community settings.
"Wilcox (religious studies, Univ. of California, Riverside) has a sterling record of scholarship on queer theory in religion. Here she offers a history and critical assessment of the work of LGBTQ activists who consider themselves nuns … Readers benefit from not only the author’s extensive field work but also her commitment to critical theory and ability to see power dynamics." ~CHOICE
"Wilcox beautifully demonstrates how serious political and social engagement can emerge from queer religious camp. In short, this book piles fascinating and novel theoretical engagement upon great historical and sociological narrative--it's a must read!" ~Anthony M. Petro,author of After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion
"A serious study of serious parody. Melissa Wilcox shows how the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have combined a certain lightness of being with a definite seriousness of purpose to create performative politics and religious practices that open onto a very different world than the one in which we find ourselves. Wilcox brings a scholarly richness and wonderful intelligence to the Sisters stories, offering a lesson about how to live in times when parody is the best, if not the only, way to communicate with any seriousness." ~Janet Jakobsen,Claire Tow Professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Barnard College, Columbia University
"Wilcox, chair of Religious Studies at UC-Riverside, has written an ambitious analysis of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a worldwide “order” of drag queens that originated in San Francisco in the late 1970s as the gay rights movement was gaining momentum" ~The Gay & Lesbian Quarterly
"In this interdisciplinary tour de force, Melissa M. Wilcox draws from history, sociology, queer studies, and religious studies to understand the origins, cultural politics, and religious landscape of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a network of men who describe themselves as “queer nuns” dedicated to “‘the promulgation of universal joy and the expiation of stigmatic guilt’” (their mission, as quoted on p. 15). Since their formation in 1979, the Sisters have been at the forefront of queer activism. Wilcox’s detailed and analytically rich account of the Sisters’ history, activism, and growth draws from an array of archival records and an impressive number of interviews. In addition, Wilcox’s development of the theoretical concept of “serious parody” charts how religious studies and queer studies can intersect in unexpected ways." ~Resources for Gender and Women's Studies