For Sister Edith Myflesh, the president of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, dressing up in a nun's habit, strapping on a bra-like headpiece, and spending two hours applying white face makeup isn't just about entertaining. It's an honest to God religion.
The Sisters, the infamous San Francisco order of (mostly) men in drag, started on Easter weekend 1979, can now boast nearly 70 members, with other orders popping up around the world - everywhere from America's deep south to Uruguay. Here, the sisters have become well-known figures by hosting an ambitious calendar of events - including bingo nights, holiday galas, and straight-up parties - the proceeds from which go to support sex and gender related charities. The order has been swept up by controversy in the past. It's not hard to imagine how the Catholic church might object to the sisters. Still, these ladies garner a lot of respect, whether they're fighting breast cancer, staging races in high heels, or just holding their heads high as they stroll down the street in full habit.
I met with Sister Edith, who arrived understandably out of habit, on a rainy Sunday afternoon at The Orbit Room. With eight and a half years experience, she now serves as the order's abbess and webmaster, committing up to 60 hours a month to the cause. Outgoing, verbose, and sporting a thin beard that frames her jaw, Sister Edith -- who also goes by David - begins by explaining with fervor how joining the order can feel like a genuine calling. It comes with a spirituality, she says, much more freeform and accepting than organized religion. As a group (a company, actually; Sister Edith trademarked the order, making it The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Inc.), the sisters have no affiliation to any one creed. Some are pagan, some Jewish, even some practicing Catholics.
Despite the church's stance that the order "mocks" women who've taken traditional religious vows, Sister Edith swears the nuns she's met have been nothing but supportive. "They get what we do," she says, explaining that the tasks of the female clergy - caring for the sick, raising money for charity - have a lot in common with the sisters'. And like parishioners going to confession, Sister Edith has found that people blurt out the most personal things to a member of the order in full makeup. "When we look like that, we're not human anymore. We become mirrors for people to project onto," she says, recalling the times she's given relationship advice to strangers.
That kind of behavior seems less strange when you consider what Sister Edith considers her orders most important mission: to absolve others of sin - and to drink a few cocktails along the way. The sisters specialize in double entendres ("Edith MyFlesh," for example, not only suggests carnal delights it also comes from the biblical passage that gives us the idea of communion). Even "The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence" has a second meaning. Back in the day, the church used to issue indulgences - free passes on followers' sins - to Christians who coughed up enough cash -- and they're actually coming back into fashion. The sisters aren't asking for money, or at least, not unless you're hoping to get into bingo night. "We just want to tell people it's not their fault," says Sister Edith. "They are who they are. We're against this idea of being born with sin, of religion shitting on you."
That explains why the order is spreading so fast all over the world, Sister Edith theorizes: "People are over mainstream religion." Besides, it's an exciting time to be a sister, even if the training process takes a whole twelve months. The San Francisco order is turning 30 this Easter, and that means they'll be rocking the habit in full force. So keep your eyes peeled for bands of wandering nuns. After all, Sister Edith laughs, "One sister is a freak show, two is weird, and three is The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence."