Queer Nuns for Equality

If you attend San Francisco’s Pride Celebration this year, don’t be surprised if a queer nun—dressed to the nines in religious habit and full painted face—offers you a dime bag.

The purveyor of this gift, clearly a master of word play, will be Sister maeJoy B. withU, who will be handing out small bags filled with white glitter, a rose petal, an actual dime, and a note reading, “always, maeJoy be with you, not for internal use” in exchange for a five-dollar donation for charity.

Sister maeJoy is a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence—a 21st century queer order of nuns that contort gender roles and religious imagery to combat stigma, spread happiness and serve the community. Started in San Francisco in 1979, there are now Orders around the U.S. and across the world. San Francisco’s Order has more than 50 members and a long history of LGBT and AIDS activism in the Bay Area. 

maeJoy has been a Sister since 2006—she’s approaching her tenth anniversary with the Order in October.

“I don’t step out with the idea or intention of shock value,” explains Sister maeJoy, when asked about the Sisters’ use of drag, religious garb and elaborate makeup. “Even still, we can’t step out with a gender-change normative and not be judged. If I’m pissing someone off, or being judged, or really stirring the soup, I feel like I’m doing it right. That’s part of the work that I feel like I need to do.”

When she joined, maeJoy vowed, as do all Sisters, to do two things: “promulgate universal joy” and “expiate stigmatic guilt.”

“The first vow is fun, and the second one keeps me busy,” she says. As she describes the projects and causes she’s become involved in since joining the Sisters, it’s apparent that she takes her role as an activist—to protect the rights, welfare and health of marginalized or stigmatized people—seriously. She, and the other Sisters, rivet their audiences through humor and theatrical tactics to draw attention to instances of discrimination or prejudice.

A particularly memorable experience she had—on the road to becoming a fully professed Sister—was when she, and other fellow Sisters, rallied to support attendees of a gay high school prom in Hayward. They knew that members of a conservative group were going to be standing outside the prom in protest. Although the conservative group held signs with slogans such as “You were not born that way,” the Sisters were there in full support of the prom-goers.

“I wore outrageously huge stilettos and big pink wig that rose probably three feet above my head. I could stand in front of the protestors and block their signs. It was such a memorable moment. To see the happiness of the prom-goers arriving, knowing they had allies and weren’t only walking through a field of enemies.”

After Proposition 8—opposing same-sex marriages in California—passed in 2008, maeJoy and her fellow sisters joined One Struggle, One Fight and walked, in full dress and makeup all the way from the rainbow flag in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood to the State Capitol in Sacramento. It took them six days to walk the 90 miles. “It was with great joy that I walked into the Capitol. We were there for civil rights for everyone.”

All of the funds raised by the Sisters benefit community nonprofits or other health or social service providers. The organization maeJoy helps raise money for is St. James Infirmary—a nonprofit that provides health services and resources to current or former sex workers. St. James Infirmary is close to maeJoy’s heart—she’s been part of the organization for the past 15 years.  

When maeJoy joined the Sisters, she spearheaded a “novice project” to benefit St. James Infirmary. The party-slash-fundraiser—ShamRock ‘N Shenanigans—at a bar on Polk Street was so successful the Sisters held it for a number of years afterwards. Over the years, maeJoy has raised about $12,000 through the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for St. James Infirmary.

She says her two roles—as an employee for St. James Infirmary and as a Sister—complement each other. At her day job, she’s spoken to thousands of people about sex and drugs, and she takes this ability into her outreach as a sister.

“Sex workers and runaway kids and folks that use needles to get drugs into their system are my people. That’s where I can help really well, and that’s my emphasis.”

maeJoy practices and preaches harm reduction “all the way through,” even organizing an outreach and awareness campaign for the past few years during Pride. She’s the inspiration and motivation behind the “Pride don’t gotta be a DRAG” card, which the Sisters pass out to partygoers to remind them to think ahead and plan for things like food, hydration, sex and drugs for Pride. 

“It’s about how to take care of ourselves and practice harm reduction to minimize harm not only to ourselves but to our buddies,” she explains.

The last thing to know about the Sisters?

“Always say ‘hello’ to a Sister, and know that you’ve got a nun on your side.”

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