Imagine you’re a gay man dying of AIDS in the 1980s. Alone in a hospital room, rejected by your family, ignored or condemned by the government, and painfully aware that not even the nurses want to be in the same room with you for fear of catching “gay cancer.”
There’s only one person brave and compassionate enough to be by your side. It’s another gay man who you don’t even really know. But he’s willing to do whatever small gestures he can to make you feel like you’re not forgotten. He’ll listen to your story or hold your hand. Most importantly, he’ll make sure that someone is there and let you know that someone still cares that you’re alive.
That, for anyone who’s still wondering, is why the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are being given the Community Hero Award at Dodgers Pride Night on June 16.
As a bit of camp, the Sisters also dressed as nuns when they carried out their ministries to the sick. That’s the detail that professional stokers of outrage have seized upon.
While Dodgers future Hall of Fame pitcher Clayton Kershaw is no firebrand, he’s also objecting to his team honoring the Sisters, as he told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t agree with making fun of other people’s religions.”
Kershaw also revealed that he moved up the timing of his Dodgers Christian Faith Day announcement as a response to his team honoring the Sisters.
While he emphasized that he won’t be boycotting Pride, it’s still a disappointment to hear an honorable player like Kershaw use Christian Faith Day as a cudgel against a group that was being honored for providing comfort to the sick and outcasts of society. Especially since he’s one of the game’s biggest stars and has been counted on as an ally during previous Pride Nights.
Kershaw is the most prominent of several players who focused solely on the Sisters’ drag habits and viewed them as an attack on their faith. To be honest, if the Sisters’ attire still shocks Catholics and Christians, that’s because it was meant to do so — and there’s a message behind it.
As any good performer knows, you don’t call attention to centuries of abuse against a marginalized community at the hands of one of the most powerful entities in human history by being polite.
Shortly after the Sisters were founded in 1979, their campy nuns’ habits became a component of their activism, partly as a response to hate preachers who patrolled San Francisco’s Castro District to excoriate the gay community and proclaim they were going to hell.
Then when AIDS began ravaging the country, the Sisters used their drag as a way to draw attention to the desperate need to comfort the gay community at a time when the institutional Catholic Church was ignoring their plight, proclaiming homosexuality was against “natural moral law,” and continuing to preach against the use of condoms as a way to combat HIV.
That’s what the Sisters nun costumes are about. It’s not simply shouting “Your religion is stupid” in a vacuum. They’re a satiric response to the attacks that religion carried out against our community during our time of crisis. And, despite all the condemnations, it’s a comparatively tame one at that, especially when juxtaposed against the acerbic send-up of Monty Python’s “Every Sperm is Sacred” or the wrathful brilliance of George Carlin.
What’s more, as much as all of the attention on this story has been sucked up by politicians like Marco Rubio or reactionary firebrands like Bill Donohue and CatholicVote, they don’t speak for all Catholics. While Kershaw worries about The Sisters mocking religion, several Catholics aren’t offended at all. There are even some actual nuns who support the Sisters.
Sister Jo’Ann De Quattro, a member of the Catholic Sisters of the Holy Names, heard about the controversy and told America Magazine’s Michael J. O’Loughlin that she approved of the work of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. “We used to refer to them as the ‘corporal works of mercy.’ They visit the sick, they feed the hungry, clothe the naked. So that’s good,” she asserted.
As for their drag, she ruminated, “I just thought they were trying to attract attention by their kind of outlandish garb.” In other words, De Quattro saw The Sisters’ costumes for their underlying purpose and chose to judge the group by their good works instead.
That explains why she found them worthy of honor. A lot of people weighing in on this issue could learn a lesson from her.
The thing is, I don’t necessarily blame players like Kershaw for not being aware of the Sisters’ good works or the serious messages underlying their drag costumes. I didn’t know much about them either until I read Cyd Zeigler’s overview of their organization at the start of this Pride Night brouhaha. Seems like including LGBTQ history in public school curricula might be a good idea!
Honoring the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence during Dodgers Pride Night is an opportunity for all of us to learn those vital stories about how they were often the only people comforting an AIDS-stricken gay community while more vocal pious types were content to watch us die.
It’s a shame that players like Kershaw can’t hear those stories over the din of the outrage machine.