Sisters Crown Jesus H(unky) Christ on Easter

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, along with Honey Mahogany and Alex U. Inn brought San Francisco’s queer community together Easter Sunday for the 2021 version, of an Easter tradition that dates back more than 30 years.

If you’ve been to almost any pride event since 1980, you have likely seen nuns decked out in over-the-top habits and clown makeup, each with a unique campy drag persona floating about, taking selfies and making noise. These nuns are members of a charitable organization called “The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’’. Set up in chapters — called “houses” in grand drag tradition — across twenty six states in eight different countries, on four continents — the Sisters have been serving the LGBTQIA community since 1979.

Much of their work is in contributing direct grants to under-funded projects and smaller organizations, in addition to activism promoting human rights and fighting bigotry in all forms. It takes money to serve the community, and the Sisters have evolved into master fundraisers.

San Francisco’s gay Easter celebration began in the early 1990s. Sister Roma, a 34 year member of the organization, says in those days, “it was a small community event in Collingwood Park.” The Easter Sunday celebration is oft-associated with Mission Dolores Park, where tens of thousands pack the large hillside park most years, but throughout its history, the event has shuffled locations from Collingwood to Dolores, Dolores to Golden Gate Park, and notably to Castro Street, where 50,000 people attended the Sisters’ 20th Anniversary Celebration in 1999. Year after year, the Sisters prove it’s not the location of the festivities, but the spirit, message and energy that draws lively, and often generous crowds.

This year’s “Rise Up with The Sisters”, presented exclusively on Twitch was a noticeable but necessary (thanks again COVID-19) departure from the party atmosphere of events past. But remember, getting the gays to come out of pocket is — you might say — The Sisters’ spiritual gift.

About 500 people watched “Rise Up” live, presented Easter Sunday, the day after the unveiling of “Nunny Bear,” a new honey bear art piece by artist “fnnch.” Prints were made available (on wood and paper) near the beginning of the two-hour broadcast, and according to the on screen presentation, they were sold out within two minutes. Impressive considering the obvious decrease in live audience. More impressive is the almost $25,000 total from sales of “Nunny Bear,” an 18-foot version of which now adorns the side of the Powerhouse in San Francisco’s SoMA neighborhood.

In non-COVID years, the Sisters parade contestants across a stage by the dozens for the Hunky Jesus and Foxy Mary contests, as well as an Easter Bonnet contest. The Foxy Mary contest can represent everything from respectful femininity, to over-the-top campy drag. This year, the demonic-looking “Mary Blessed F***er of COVID,” one of only a handful of options for Sisters Roma and Dana Van Iquity to choose from, won the crown.

Hunky Jesus was a bit better attended as far as entries, though the bulk of the submissions came from what appeared to be a single visit to Dolores Park (aka “the gay beach”) with some props and a camera. Not enough entries perhaps? Regardless, the show must go on, and the camera person did manage to find some good-looking shirtless guys, a staple of the normally live event. The winner was “#SweetJesus” whose elaborate video submission won the hearts of the judges.

My San Francisco social bubble watched Rise Up at our place, dancing to DJ Juanita MORE’s house set, cheering for the fundraising victory, and the various pre-recorded drag performances presented by emcees Honey Mahogany and Alex U. Inn. A few standout performers were Kai Kai Bee Michaels, Miss Shugana, Madd Dogg and Nikki Jizz.

The closing song was a socially-distanced music video of drag performers lip syncing all twenty one solo roles in the 1985 song “We Are The World.” Each performance, though a caricature, managed to not be offensive with the exception of Ray Charles. Impersonated by a performer identified only as “Qween” who, while performing as the late blues legend, seemingly struggled to eat a chocolate popsicle and ended with chocolate smudged all over their face and sunglasses. A blind attempt at humor as bad as this joke.

We Are The World fits 2021. The rest of the video was impressive and emotional.

“Pretending day-by-day

That someone, somewhere soon make a change

We’re all a part of God’s great big family

And the truth, you know, love is all we need.”

Like most unrehearsed online productions, 2021’s Rise Up was not without its technical glitches, mainly audio and graphic problems. At one point during Hunky Jesus, Sister Roma referred to a graphic that vanished from the screen mid-sentence. Without missing a beat she said, “Oh, and this, ladies and gentlemen, is invisible Jesus…the one most of you worship.”

On Easter Sunday, with calm confidence, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence raised five-figures on the internet in a few minutes. Glitches, and missteps be-damned — this year’s Rise Up was a success!

With any luck, we will rise up the hill to the gay beach at Dolores Park next Easter, and celebrate the resurrection of so-called “normal life” with San Francisco’s favorite philanthropic Nuns.

Note: This piece was originally reported and written for Outword Magazine.

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Christopher J. Beale (@RealChrisJBeale) is a multimedia journalist living in San Francisco. He hosts the podcast Unpacked, and the queer radio show “On Bay Time,” Monday afternoons on BFF.fm. Christopherjbeale.com

Freelance multimedia journalist and broadcaster based in San Francisco. Bylines: KQED, Outword Magazine, The Bold Italic christopherjbeale.com

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