I guess I’d better say something about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
It’s ironic that this is the second time in a row I’ve written about nuns, of one sort of another.
Yesterday I told you about a Catholic bishop who is being sued for allegedly persecuting some actual Catholic nuns. Today I’m going to try to talk about a group of queer performance artists that parody nuns. In case you haven’t heard, the LA Dodgers have been all over the news for the decision to un-invite the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who dress in drag as nuns and put on parodies of Catholic rituals, to their Pride Night baseball game, and then to quickly re-invite them. The Dodgers are now announcing a Christian Faith Night to appease the people angry with them about hosting the Sisters.
I have a few opinions about the Sisters, and I don’t imagine my opinions will please anybody.
First of all, I don’t like some of the prurient names the Sisters use, some of their costumes bother me, and I don’t like the parodies of Catholic rituals the Sisters put on. I think they’re in bad taste. I remember that at one point some Sisters walked into a Catholic Mass and received Holy Communion, and if those particular sisters weren’t practicing Catholics, they shouldn’t have.
Secondly, I don’t think it’s fair to say that what they’re doing is cultural appropriation.
No one culture owns nuns. Catholicism isn’t a culture, it’s a faith that’s supposed to embrace all cultures, but even Catholicism doesn’t exclusively own the idea of vowed religious sisters. There are Orthodox, Protestant, and of course Buddhist nuns. Anyone who wants to can make up an order of nuns. I could start one right now if I wanted to, it just wouldn’t have canonical standing in the Catholic Church. In addition, you can’t claim it’s cultural appropriation for a group of gay men to start an order of pretend Catholic nuns, because “Catholic” and “gay” aren’t exclusive categories. Some gay people are Catholic.
I also don’t think what the Sisters are doing can be compared to a minstrel show, and I’ve seen a lot of people saying that. A minstrel show is a white person caricaturing the appearance and mannerisms of a Black person in a culture where black people are disvalued: a person in a position of power putting on a show to make fun of somebody less powerful. The Sisters began their performances in a traditionally Catholic neighborhood where nuns commanded respect, at a time when gay people commanded no respect at all. It’s people without privilege mocking someone above them. It’s the opposite of a minstrel show.
I unreservedly admire how the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence so tirelessly to raise money to help AIDS patients.
They do all kinds of things to help people living with AIDS, and have done since the beginning of the epidemic. They went out of their way to help and support the people that everyone, particularly Catholics, wanted to disappear and die quietly. They did, and still do, for AIDS patients, what Jesus did for lepers. Jesus will reward them for that.
Personally, I never knew that the Sisters were a charitable organization that helped people until recently. I just thought they were a group of performance artists. I was raised my whole childhood to think that being queer is a “selfish lifestyle” and queer people don’t help others. I thought that Catholics were always on the right side of history, and the LGBTQ+ community were a bunch of libertine perverts who would hurt children given half the chance. I thought that, because it’s the line my Catholic upbringing taught me. I went through a lot of cognitive dissonance for many years, before I realized I was wrong. I’m thankful to the queer people who were so patient with me while I was figuring things out.
And I guess that’s my main take on the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence: if you don’t understand why a large number of gay men are parading around dressed as nuns making fun of Catholic rituals, maybe you need to ask yourself what Catholics did to earn that parody?
Maybe Catholics could do what we’re supposed to do, and examine ourselves and repent?
Maybe, instead of pledging a million dollars for a boycott, you could give a million dollars to charities that minister to AIDS patients and do some good in the world?
I know of a really good charity that would take your money. They wear nun costumes, and they’re going to be at the Dodgers game in a couple of weeks.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.