Metro Weekly

Sisters Act: Meet the D.C. order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

They're here, they're queer, and D.C. is getting used to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and their "drag activism"

Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence -- Photo by Julian Vankim
Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — Photography by Julian Vankim

Among the thousands of demonstrators on the steps of the Supreme Court last month in the lead-up to oral arguments over marriage equality, seven proponents stood out. They wore habits, headdresses and painted faces.

Neither true nuns nor traditional drag queens, yet drawing inspiration from both, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence no doubt unsettled, even offended, at least a few fellow activists — particularly on Saturday, April 25, when approximately 6,000 protesters were assembled on behalf of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage.

Even some LGBT activists have been critical or wary of the infamous Sisters organization, a mostly gay collective started 36 years ago in San Francisco.

“The Sisters are often accused of ruining it for everyone,” says Christopher Thompson, better known as Sister Sedusa Poly Tishun. “To an extent, that’s kind of the point. We’re ruining the guilt that people try to throw upon us…. We have been made to feel guilty for so long for being gay, to feel guilty for wanting the same rights and respect that everyone else has. And sometimes, the loudest wheel is the one you take care of first, so that’s kind of what we are. We are that loud, squeaky wheel.”

In terms of shock value, it doesn’t get much louder than the Sisters and its brand of “drag activism.” Thompson cites that as a key reason D.C. has struggled for decades to establish a mission affiliated with the international Sisters organization.

“While D.C. is politically liberal, it tends to be very socially conservative — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s just how it falls. I think with D.C. being the place of political power, sometimes it gets stuck in its own head. And gets stuck in the mentality — I don’t mean this in a bad way — of keeping up appearances and being respectable.”

But less than two years ago, Thompson, a federal contractor by day, decided to try to shake things up. He vowed “to bring a little frivolity and rebelliousness and sister magic to the District.” A native of Alabama who had recently moved to D.C. from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Thompson worked with a sister originally from Seattle to identify some prospective local siblings, mostly via social media. By October 2013, Thompson had become Sedusa Poly Tishun, a name partly triggered by lust for “a certain Pennsylvania Representative who broke Facebook with a college football photo” (openly gay Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Sims). Eventually, Sedusa recruited the minimum six “aspirants” needed to form a proper mission.

In mid-March of this year, the San Francisco-based United Nuns Privy Council, the rather loosely organized Sisters main governing body, granted mission status to the DC Sisters. The lofty official name, inspired by Charles Dickens’s term for early Washington, is the Abbey of Magnificent Intentions. Sedusa serves as the Abbess of the mission, leading its work in “fundraising, fun-raising and hell-raising.”

Each sister had her own reasons for joining the group, whether drawn to the style of drag — clownish, very hair-friendly and androgynous — or style of activism, or both. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence first gained national attention in the 1980s helping out during the AIDS crisis, and advocacy of safer sex and HIV prevention and treatment remains a key motivation for many. Most of the community outreach happens at bars. In just the past few months, the DC Sisters have become a regular presence at the DC Eagle, JR.’s, Number Nine and the Green Lantern. Anyone can become a sister — straight or gay, man or woman, and anything in between — as long as they believe in the organization’s queer-friendly “come as you are” outlook and dedication “to promulgate universal joy.”

“It’s all about seeing people smile and laugh and have a good time,” Sister Sedusa says. “As well as reminding people, there’s nothing wrong with being gay, there’s nothing wrong with being trans, there’s nothing wrong with being HIV positive. And helping people accept their own lives and live their reality.”

On the 10 pages that follow, we give you the D.C. sisters, photographed exclusively for Metro Weekly by Julian Vankim. Watch for them when you’re out and about and let them spiritually enlighten, guide and tickle you!

The DC Sisters next appear at the Dining for Dollars fundraiser for the LGBT Fallen Heroes Fund during Bear Happy Hour this Friday, May 15, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. downstairs at Town Danceboutique, 2009 8th St. NW. Tickets, including food from Mission BBQ and one specialty cocktail, are $20. Call 202-234-TOWN or visit lgbtfallenheroesfund.orgFor more information on the DC Sisters, visit facebook.com/dcsisters.

Additional reporting by John Riley.

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @ruleonwriting.

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