Meet the Biggest Little Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Reno’s chapter of an international network of drag-queen nuns
On a recent Sunday evening, a peaceful, congenial crowd of about 50 people and two dogs gathered in City Plaza to memorialize AIDS victims. A wiry, bearded man was trying to address the crowd, but his voice was too quiet. His mouth was too far from the megaphone.
Someone yelled, “Closer! Pretend it’s a wiener!”
It could have come off as an insulting gay slur, but it didn’t. The tight-knit group running the vigil believes that a little raunchy humor is good for comic relief. The crowd erupted briefly in giggles. The speaker held the megaphone closer, and the somber mood of the memorial was restored instantly. Minutes later, as the speaker fought through tears, recounting his story of battling HIV and depression, a tall man with the exaggerated poise of a dancer, wearing a Mad Max-meets-Oscar-Wilde interpretation of a nun’s habit and Mardi Gras eye makeup, held the speaker’s notes where he could read them easily and handed him tissues.
The “nun” who assisted the speaker is known as Sister MoraLee D’Klined, a member of Reno’s Biggest Little Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The group is a non-profit that formed in 2008, a branch of an international group that originated in San Francisco in 1979. Since then, around 80 local orders of drag queen-nuns have formed.
“There is no criteria to become a nun,” said a member who goes by Sister Wanda Sitonit. “It has to be a passion. It has to be a calling to want to help and serve your community. We don’t discriminate whether you’re biologically born a male or a female, whether you’re transgender, whether you’re gay, straight, whatever it is. We accept you with open arms, because that’s the way we accept the community.”
Being a Sister is a commitment. They rise through the ranks—“aspirant,” “postulant,” “novice” —to eventually achieve the ultimate status of “fully professed.” Each rank comes with additional responsibilities and the additional privileges of wearing a more authentic nun’s habit and more makeup. A postulant, for example, may camp it up all he or she likes with the eye makeup but must rise to the novice level to publicly sport lipstick, which is a symbol of one’s readiness to speak on behalf of the organization.
Sisters at every level devote themselves to community service, “respect for diversity” and “outreach to those on the edges.” In Reno, that means distributing hygiene supplies and clothing to the homeless, raising funds to award to grassroots organizations, and dropping by bars to hand out condoms during Reno Wine Walk events.Mixing business with pleasure
The anatomy joke about the megaphone wasn't an isolated instance in which the sisters combined mischievous frivolity with more serious business. While the mood may be lighthearted during a “Condom Ministry,” the issue runs deeper.
“Too many young people—they’re not practicing safer sex. They didn’t live through the early years of [the AIDS epidemic], seeing the whole community just die off,” said a veteran sister in a full habit, six strings of pearls and glamor-length false eyelashes. He goes by the name Papa Bubble.
Like all the Sisters, Papa Bubble uses only his nun’s name in public. That’s partially to protect the Sisters’ safety, partially to ensure that no one risks being fired from a job for being a drag queen (though, Papa Bubble said, that’s less of a concern nowadays than it used to be), and partially to follow in the tradition of actual nuns and other religious figures who take on a new identity when they take their vows.
“Pope Francis is not his real name. It’s Jorge,” Papa Bubble pointed out.Behind the makeup
A few days before the AIDS memorial, Sister Wanda sat down for a cup of tea, and to talk about life as a drag nun. By day, Wanda is a 31-year-old introvert in a baseball hat, stud earrings and a three-day stubble.
In drag, however, “Wanda is an extrovert. She loves attention.” Wanda also loves the opportunity that the costume provides to disarm strangers and strike up conversations.
“When you’re standing next to a 6-foot-tall drag clown, your insecurities aren’t going to be as [pronounced],” Wanda said. “I think that’s what we bring to the community. We’re an ear. Sometimes someone wants to say something and no one wants to listen to them.”
Wanda’s partner is a 28-year-old in a tank top with neatly gelled hair. In costume he becomes Sister Ivanna Come Loudly.
Ivanna explained what it’s like walking around dressed in high camp: “The way people interact with you changes. It’s almost like putting on a mask in some ways. You go out and you talk to people. People open up to you. It’s weird to have people you don’t know tell you things about them that are personal or private.”
Wanda, who grew up Catholic, likened the experience to going to confession: “You know the priest is sitting there, but you don’t get to see his face.”Ready to listen
Just as the sisters' mood switched gears from irreverent to serious at the AIDS vigil in City Plaza, they're often called on to be the life of the party one moment, and a sympathetic ear for a distressed person the next. Once when the sisters were visiting a bar, a woman approached Ivanna to say that she was confused about how to react to the fact that her son had come out as gay.
“My response in that situation is, ’What would you want as a person?’” Ivanna said, recalling the conversation. “You’d just want to be loved and accepted, and basically told, ’You’re normal. And there’s nothing wrong with you, and we love you no matter what your decisions are.’ I told her about fighting through that coming-out process, and what it would have meant to have support from the beginning. That’s the thing I like most about sistering, is just people feeling like they can tell you things. … I work in a job where I get to talk to people all the time, because I manage a restaurant. But deep, dark secrets don’t usually get revealed when you’re correcting someone’s mis-cooked steak, you know?”
While the Sisters aren’t necessarily trained counselors, they are prepared to refer people to professional help.
“If someone’s in crisis and they want to kill themselves, we definitely know the suicide prevention hotline, all that stuff,” Wanda said. “We do know those numbers.”All in good fun
Do the Sisters ever see any opposition from religious groups? Not much, they said.
“I’ve had a couple people get offended because we’re nuns,” said Wanda. “We tell them what we do and why we associate ourselves as nuns, because it’s a selfless job. Then they’re like, ’Oh, I thought you were mocking the Catholic Church.’”
“There is a portion of it that is a bit sacrilegious for the purpose of starting a conversation,” Ivanna added. “I think that’s part of the fun. If someone wants to be offended, that’s their right, but the goal isn’t to offend people. It’s to start a conversation.”