The Sisters are a global network of autonomous Orders or Houses, with the San Francisco Motherhouse being the largest biggest and most active fundraiser. They have members in at least 13 US states and 8 countries on 5 continents; they use the Internet to communicate. Most Orders are based in cities with large gay communities and so they are highly responsive to issues in the LGBT communities they serve.
The organisation now has more than 800 members worldwide. Originally, the organisation included only gay male nuns, but now accepts all genders and orientations including intersex, lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual and transgender people.
The Order is mostly set up as non-profit charity organisations within their countries, raising money for AIDS, other LGBT-related charities and mainstream community service organisations, helping lead the campaign for safer sex and harm reduction, performing modern ritual and educating on various issues and against hate crimes.
The Sisters have been considered controversial by various members both within and outside the LGBT and queer communities but have received the harshest criticism for obvious parodies of Catholic icons and policies.
However, the San Francisco Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence alone have raised well over $1,000,000, distributing it to non-profit organisations that serve not only the ‘queer and sex positive communities’ but also mainstream organisations that don't discriminate in their charity work, such as the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.
Their mission statement says:
The Sisters devote ourselves to community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment. The Sisters believe all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty and use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit.
The Sisters take vows to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt, while serving their respective communities.
In 1982, Sister Florence Nightmare and Sister Roz Erection (both registered nurses), joined with a team of Sisters and medical professionals to create Play Fair, the first safer sex pamphlet to use plain language, practical advice and humour. The pamphlet preceded the AIDS pandemic and coined the phrase "safe sex". They revised it for their 20th Anniversary and it is still one of the few sex-positive, harm-reduction pamphlets available in the US. The Sisters worldwide continue to raise awareness of sexual health, healthy sexuality and many Orders regularly pass out condoms and participate in events to educate on sexual health issues.
Sister Florence Nightmare (aka Bobbi Campbell) became the first "face of AIDS", appearing on the cover of Newsweek (8th August 1983) with his lover. It was believed that humanising the people behind the disease would lead to more compassion, not only from religious and homophobic people who were then demonising gay people but also from the gay community that was at ground-zero of the impending global AIDS pandemic. Bobbi wrote of his experiences living with AIDS in a weekly column that touched people personally and in 1983, together with Dan Turner founded the People With AIDS Self-Empowerment Movement or PWA Movement.
The Sisters in the US have held fundraisers for the Cuban boat refugees (Mariel boatlift), the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, the Gay Games; for Project Open Hand, which provides meals to homebound people with HIV and AIDS; and for conferences, events and alternative proms for queer youth as well as dozens of other organisations every year.
Sister Chanel 2001 (aka Gilbert Baker) created and made public domain the Rainbow Flag. Now an international symbol for LGBT human rights, it is recognised by the International Congress of Flag Makers, and is flown in lesbian and gay pride marches and events worldwide.
Exorcism of Pope John Paul II
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence believe that many institutions and social constructs are a source of dogma, hypocrisy, guilt and shame. This has led to clashes with the Catholic Church, for example when the Sisters staged an exorcism of Pope John Paul II because of his harsh condemnations of homosexuality.
Sister Boom Boom runs for office
In 1982, Sister Boom-Boom, now retired, ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and got over 23,000 votes with her occupation listed as "Nun of the Above". San Francisco passed a law soon after, commonly called the "Sister Boom Boom law", requiring candidates to use their legal name. She was immortalised in Emily Mann's play Execution of Justice about the trial of Dan White for the assassinations of the city’s first gay supervisor, Harvey Milk, and Mayor George Moscone in 1978. Wesley Snipes played her on Broadway.
Nuns of The Above
Nuns of the Above is the comic-tragic name given by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to those in their ranks who have died, mainly from AIDS, and are immortalised in their folk art section of the Names Project Quilt commemorating people who have died from AIDS. It is also a reference to Sister Boom Boom's run for San Francisco supervisor - see above. Created in the early 1990s the quilt has made history several times.
The Sisters' AIDS Names Project quilt for the "Nuns of the Above" was featured at the 1996 NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt display in Washington DC in front of the US House of Representatives and was amongst the first quilts viewed by then Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper. It later featured in the Names Projects' calendar worldwide. The Nuns of The Above quilt itself has been flown around the US and is in high demand for local displays.
Over the years the Sisters have named as saints hundreds of people who have helped on various projects behind the scenes, organising, coordinating actions or projects, performing at events as an artist or MC or even serving the greater LGBQ&T community. Some of the more notable saints include:
• assassinated San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk
• author Armistead Maupin
• actresses Ethel Merman and Rosie O'Donnell
• Professor of Christian Theology at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, Dr Elizabeth Stuar
• artist Derek Jarman
• Jackie Forster (1926-1998), actress, TV personality, feminist and lesbian campaigner.
• Peter Tatchell, gay and human rights campaigner
• Tony Whitehead, first Chair of the Terrance Higgins Trust
• Ian Campbell Dunn (1943-1998), gay rights campaigner in Scotland