By Daniel Lancaster
It was an amazing surprise, especially after hearing how
elusive they are, to receive a phone call from the Mother Superior
of the Tampa Order of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
inviting me over for tea and cookies. I simply remained quiet on
the other end of the phone, elated to a point of stupefaction.
“Well, are you coming, darling, or not?” Sister Agatha Frisky
asked in a sharp tone. “The tea isn’t getting any warmer!”
“I’ll be there,” I managed to stammer and, after hanging up,
I began to collect myself for what was to be a surreal day indeed.
I arrived precisely at 2:15 PM at the door of the South Tampa
convent that Mother Superior and
President of the Tampa Bay Chapter
called home. I was greeted by a
vision wrapped in gold chiffon and
adorned in jewels — or maybe they
were sequins. “Sister Freda Swallow,
at your service,” she said, smiling.
All of the active members of
the Sisterhood were there: Sister
Freda, Sister Jacqueline Eatsasses,
famous for her fine robes and the
jockstrap underneath and Sister
Merry Widow in another divine
gown she slaved over. There was
Sister Shirley B. Medicated, decorated
in lilac and lace and seated
upon a bar stool, and Sister Ida Slapter, adorned in rainbows and
a Carmen Miranda hat. Guard Iva Bigwun, a bodyguard for The
Sisters, stood tall near the entry. Seated on the sofa were Sister
Mary Mount N’ Dew Me, sporting the “Blues Sister” look, and Sister
Monica Muffdiver, with her catty spectacles. Sister Agatha Frisky
seated me and offered me a cup of tea before seating herself.
“So,” I began, biting into a delicious butter-pistachio scone,
“Where do I begin?”
“Why, at the beginning, dear.” Sister Merry Widow replied,
A collective giggle followed. I realized I needed to be on my
toes for this interview. These ladies could be quite intimidating,
all together in one room.
“Tell me about the origins of The Sisters.” I ventured.
Sister Agatha, decked in her purple locks and black and white
frock, spoke first on this topic. “From what I’m told, in about
1976 while I was busy being born, a convent of Roman Catholic
nuns lent some of their retired habits to a group of men
p e r f o r m i n g their version of The Sound of Music.” Three
years later in 1979, the time of the “Castro Clone” on an
Easter Day in San Francisco, the habits resurfaced when
three men wore them all around San Francisco and
challenged the world. This shocked people — but it got their
attention. In 1980, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence was
formed. By aid of a city grant from San Francisco, The Sisters
commissioned their first habits and wimples (veils), and began
their ascent into popularity. During the same year in the time of
the Three Mile Island Protest, The Sisters said the “Rosary in Time
of Nuclear Peril” to Protest nuclear energy. First, they demonstrated
messages of peace and tolerance through performance art.
Next, they took on perils that their community suffered from.
Hosting benefit bingo events and other fundraisers, they donated
the proceeds to charities that fit their mission statement.”
“Wow!” I said. “I didn’t realize. And this, being the first
official order, is who you emulate?” Sister Freda spoke up for this
one. “They are whom we have to emulate. There are strict
guidelines and bylaws that go with donning this wimple.”
The wimple in question is the Tampa Order’s signature
wimple. At the suggestion of Sister Shirley and designed by one
of their “far-flung” Sisters, “The Rubber Nun,” a pirate hat, was
used, representing the Gasparilla invasion. Each Sister decorates
hers a little differently and every Order of this worldwide
organization has its own signature wimple. I was told by Sister
Jacqueline that when a sister holds a successful event, she earns
a pin for her wimple.
“Our Order,” began Sister Ida Slapter after a thoughtful sip
from her tea cup, “has been around for two years, having been
founded originally by Sister Fister, who has since retired to L.A.,
where she is likely infiltrating the hierarchy of the Order there.”
“What makes you all do what you do?” I asked, to no one in
particular. Another collective giggle ensued.
“We all have our reasons,” Sister Shirley B. Medicated began,
“But largely, there is just such an appeal about spreading
awareness and doing good things for our community. My
personal message is indulgence, not guilt. We dress as nuns
because we are nuns, spreading a sort of non-denominational
form of gay spirituality.”
“Is that your primary message?” I asked.
The newest sister to the fold, Sister Monica Muffdiver, who
has recently been required to perform several initiation tasks in
order to become a member, was the first to speak on this. I could
tell Sister Agatha Frisky was carefully watching her with a mix of
pride and motherhood. She was crossing her legs a lot, and
Was this stuff really tea? Without requesting, my own cup
was continuously being replenished somehow.
“Primarily,” Sister Monica began, “our message is that of
indulgence. But when we’re out there in the community, we are
spreading the message of safer sex.”
“Safe… er?” Admittedly, I was a bit confused.
“Well, dear, there really is no ‘safe’ sex.” Miss Muffdiver
replied. “But with proper education and the proper tools, one
can have the safest sex possible.”
I was quite familiar with the tools of which she spoke. Each
year at Pride events, as well as with regular spontaneous visits to
various bars in the area throughout the year, The Tampa Order
arms themselves with “Safe-R-Sex Kits,” which contain a condom,
a package of lubricant, and information on proper use, as
well as a synopsis on The Sisters. Children, should they be in the
crowd, are, of course, never handed the packets.
“It must be hard, approaching people with condoms when
you’re in drag and white face, dressed as a nun!” I said, trying
to picture myself getting out there on a Barbie Scooter
and handing out prophylactics to the masses. The make-up alone, I
was told, takes over an hour to perfect for each intricate face.
“It’s really much easier than you may think,” commented
Sister Freda Swallow. “People love us, and the safer sex kits give
us a reason to go talk to them, to spread our message, and to
hopefully make a difference. They really respond well to our
brand of — direct marketing — shall we say?”
“Sometimes, they respond too well!” Sister Merry Widow
exclaimed, followed by another collective giggle.
“How so?” I asked.
“Well, for some reason,” interjected Agatha, “the cutest
boys want to come talk to you when you’re in a dress, tights, and
white face. My only explanation is, perhaps they are drawn to
“Tell me about some of your events.” I asked. “I know about
your regular appearances at Pride events, St Pete and Tampa
alike. What else have you done?”
“Sugar,” Guard Iva Bigwun spoke up, “Did you even glance
at our website?”
At this, I had to laugh at myself. I had indeed seen the
website, but I never got past the photo gallery. Sister Jacqueline
stood and began naming all the good deeds that The Tampa
Sisters have done since their inception.
“Originally, there were of course the Pride marches, during
which we handed out flyers that spoke out against bare backing.
With the help of Club Z-109, we have thrown two annual Wig
Drives, which benefited the American Cancer Society. We regularly
appear at the Tampa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, most
notably, during an election year when we hand out flyers to keep
the community from sleeping with the GOP. We hoped to sway
the vote in support of Human Rights. The slogan was “Take a
stand — don’t lie down.” Last year, at the festival, we introduced
a film about the L.A. Sisters, and prayed for a lone protestor.”
“Yes, I remember.” I said, recalling a photo in the Gazette, in
which Sister Agatha and Sister Jacqueline were seen in a crowd.
They were silently praying upward for a man with a bullhorn who,
apparently alone, was speaking out against the film festival.
“The folks at the Hub (a downtown Tampa landmark bar)
had our back, too.” Sister Agatha said. “A few of us were also
photographed by Covivant Gallery during the Family Values
Portrait installment, and later performed at the “STOP RONDA”
rally put on by the Gallery and Skippers Smokehouse. We sang
a little ditty on stage there called “My God,” where we said what
we had to say about the goings-on with the County Commission.
We were such a hit, that we were asked to perform the
number again at the MCC Church in Tampa following our
second annual wig drive. Reverend Phyllis and the congregation
loved us, especially our song that largely spoke of the general
concept of a God that doesn’t hate.”
“And then there’s BINGO!” Sister Freda announced, joining
Jacqueline in standing to orate. “Every six weeks at the Tampa
Metro Center, or at the St. Pete Metro Center, (rotating turns)
The Sisters host a Bingo event. The first two Bingos were to
benefit the respective centers, both of which do amazing work
for the GLBT community. Our next Bingo on July 29 will be at the
Tampa Metro Center on N Florida Ave at North St. at 7 PM. That
will benefit Metro Charities HIV/AIDS Programs and our Sisters
501(c) (3) Fund.”
I was honestly overwhelmed. Here was a group of men dressed
in costumes that I once thought mocking, never fully realizing how
many wonderful things they had done in just two years. Which
made me wonder: What were their plans for the future? What of this
“World Domination” mentioned on the website?
But as I opened my mouth to attempt to open this can of
worms, I blinked, and in a second they were gone. The Sisters,
the cookies, and even the tea were all gone. All that was left was
the echo of giggling throughout the empty convent.
I’m pretty sure they even “borrowed” my car.
I later learned that as an organization, The Sisters are focused
on the equality and enrichment of the gay and lesbian community
and yes, eventually the world. Although their bylaws suggest
they do not take a stance on political issues, they will always
be found standing up and speaking against what is unjust or
damaging to the gay and lesbian community. As Agatha mentioned,
somewhere between my third and fourth cup of what
she called The Sister’s special blend, “When you have a message
— any message — and you need the public to hear it, how can
you not be a teensy bit political?”
As I walked home, I reflected on my interview and tea with
The Sisters. I think I may visit the website again, www.flsisters.org
and learn more about these fascinating creatures of good will.
I’m definitely going to their next bingo event on Saturday, July
29 at 7 PM at the Tampa Metro Center on Florida and North Street.
I still wonder what was in that tea…
Sisters continued from page 5
By Daniel Lancaster