QUEER NUNS AND GENDERBENDING SAINTS: Genderf*cking Notions of Normativity.
This paper builds upon the recent ethnographic research of Melissa Wilcox in her book Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism and Serious Parody. (2) It seeks to explore the connections between the Sisters' use of serious parody and their performativity of gender and fruitfully compare it with the historic female saints' presentation of "masculine" identities. How does the performativity of gender in each cultural context challenge and potentially uphold the assumed notions of normative gender? Is it possible to understand the Sisters' actions and presentation as a part of a history of religious "genderf*ck" performativity within the Christian tradition that originated with the genderbending or cross-dressing saints of the early church? Might a similar action be present, for example, in Sister Soami Deluxe's (formerly Sister Missionary Position or Mish) donning a full nun's habit with customary bushy beard, and the fourteenth-century Saint Wilgefortis, with her flowing hair and full, bushy beard?
To engage in this conversation, we will begin with an overview of the Sisters, their history, and the key element of parody that they are incorporating into their activism. From there, we will move into the historical narratives of the genderbending or cross-dressing saints, focusing on the ways in which gender is contextualized in the narratives of Perpetua (d. 202/3 CE), Marinus (Marina) in the fifth (alt. eighth) century, Pelagius (Pelagia) in the fourth to fifth century, and Wilgefortis in the fourteenth century. (3) It will conclude by discussing how the Sisters both live into and counter the tradition of the genderbending saints.
Oriqins of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
The origin story of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence starts on a high holy day filled with boredom. As it has been told both in the history of the order and to Dr. Wilcox, a professor of Religion and Queer/Transgender studies at University of California-Riverside, (4) the first manifestation of the queer nuns was on Holy Saturday of Easter weekend in 1979. Ken Bunch (Sister Adhanarisvara, later renamed Vicious Power Hungry Bitch), Fred Brungard (Sister Missionary Position, later known as Somai), and friend Baruch Golden donned habits with whiteface makeup, props (most notably a toy machine gun), and a camera to document the whole affair. They strolled through San Francisco's Castro neighborhood and on to a nude beach at Lands' End, and finally ended up at a coffee shop in the wealthy Pacific Heights neighborhood. (5) After the reactions the trio received during this impromptu drag session,
Burch recalls seeing what he termed 'psychological car wrecks' as people gaped at the clearly male nuns, one in makeup holding a toy gun, strolling through the city. 'We realized we had a stick of dynamite,' Burch recalls, 'and that we should do something productive with it. We should use it as a tool for social change, for the change that we want to see.' (6)
This desire to create change led to other manifestations of the Sisters throughout 1979 that included other founding members of the order not present during its first incarnation. Early on The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence fused religious imagery with performance experiences. These included outsider performance art and dance, drag, and skag drag or gender*ck. The latter term refers to a version of drag performance that plays with gender cues to purposely challenge or upend normative or conventional notions of gender (e.g., feminine dress, makeup, and hairdos coupled with a beard or visible chest hair). (7)
Recognizing the unsettling power of the image of queer nuns, the Sisters' early parodies of gender and religion furthered their activism and sense of self-agency. By the end of 1979 and into early 1980, the order had been established and became international in scope, with the second official house being the Sydney chapter followed quickly by the first Toronto chapter. (8) Their mission statement articulated their general guiding directive for the "promulgation of universal joy" and "expiation of stigmatic guilt." (9)
Their vibrant physical aesthetic in particular is something of a cross between RuPaul's Drag Race and traditional Catholic habits. Dr. Wilcox describes the Sisters as "people of a wide range of body sizes, shapes and levels of hirsuteness, wearing dresses and white pancake makeup with bright designs and glitter or formal habits with veils cascading down their backs" (10) These outrageous costumes mark the Sisters as something other than traditional Catholic nuns or queer activists. Theirs is a liminal persona that includes elements and aesthetics of the two but is also something else entirely. It is this sense of being "other than" that initially draws attention to the drag nuns and that first caused the "psychological car wrecks" described by Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch. (11)
While a version or element of the nun's habit has been a central aesthetic in the Sisters' physical presentation since the beginning, other elements of the persona have varied depending on the house and the Sister. As the order grew and spread nationally and internationally over the next several decades, a few other typical elements developed. Whiteface and drag makeup, sunglasses, and bedazzled and glittered cornets are constant, but at times semi or formal dresses are donned in lieu of traditional habits. The style of habit is generally connected to region or cultural context. Whiteface/drag makeup and various styles of habits and dresses tend to be the normative look for the American and European traditions, whereas the Australian and some English houses favor the combined look of sunglasses and traditional nun's grab without white-face. (12) Those within the latter tradition feel that the over-the-top drag style of the other houses undermines the "usefulness as a reference to the work of the nuns," (13) and takes away the clearer reference to religious parody. They maintain that becoming a "parody of a parody" (14) dilutes the message. It becomes a "more recognizable genre of drag than it is a genre of parody of faith and religion." (15)
Sydney's Sister Rowena Keeper of the Holy Doily speaks to it this way, "it is actually a much, much stronger representation, and far, in our opinions, greater parody of foibles and failings of faith, particularly from the organized church view, that it be recognized for what it is by wearing something that is recognizable." (16) Whether in traditional habit and sunglasses or whiteface and evening gown, the presentation of the Sisters is striking and marks the Sisters in the tradition of gendeif*ck.
This phenomenon, as described by Wilcox, is a performative construction named as such "because it f*cks with' gender: it disrupts takenfor-granted ideas about the predictability of the relationship between gendered traits and appearance, physiological sex, and sexual desire." (17) In regard to the Sisters, this disruption of gender cues is seen in the contrasts between male facial and/or chest hair on the one hand, and the religious habits, dresses, and makeup usually associated with notions of the feminine on the other. To the unaware or uninitiated, the Sisters' religious parody and cross-dressing in habits both challenge and confuse one's assumptions of traditional gender notions and cues. As Wilcox explains,
The Sisters are working with popular images, the roles implied, and the affect evoked by these tropes or representations that communicate to the people they serve who the Sisters are and what they do. The trope of the nun presents the Sisters as reliable and trustworthy, serious and earnest, engaged in selfless service to those around them. The sharply gendered nature of these imputed qualities is particularly striking. (18)
Dr. Wilcox names their form of parody, "serious parody" because the topsy-turvy spectacle of skag drag causes one to rethink the gendered notions of nuns and their service. Wilcox defines "serious parody" as "a form of cultural protest in which a disempowered group parodies an oppressive cultural institution while simultaneously claiming for itself what it believes to be an equally good or superior enactment of one or more culturally respected aspects of that same institution." (19) For the Sisters, this serious parody presents something beyond dress; it can be found in their commitment to community care, activism, and the veneration and recollection of queer saints.
For example, the Sisters engage in missionary and care work within the LGBTQ. community. During this time, often referred to as bar missions, (20) they promote safe sex by passing out care bags and self-created pamphlets. At other times, they offer rituals such as the veil of remembrance and the veil of shame (21) for people to grieve and let go of guilt, respectively. The Sisters' mission is to offer their community absolution from guilt, to assist others in their "right to express their unique joy and beauty," (22) and to use "humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit." (23)
The Sisters' often advocate for safer sex practices in full nun drag (24) because in certain cases they are more effective than traditional health workers. However, in many houses, there is resistance to engaging in actual sexual activity while wearing the habit. (25) This implies a certain acceptance of the separation of religion and sex. (26) Toward the end of her book, Wilcox reflects on the implications that the order raises around the neoliberal privatization of sex and its separateness from religious imagery, and questions if their activism is contributing to the "biopolitical management of queer bodies" through "state surveillance and control of queer bodies." (27)
By invoking the term "neoliberalism," Wilcox speaks to the ways in which certain pockets of queer communities are able to find acceptance within the dominant culture. For many, the intersections of their queer and religious identities place them permanently outside of the power hierarchies of free-market capitalism, even as they are simultaneously being commodified and consumed for their liminal otherness. At the same time, however, she goes on to note that while the Sisters do have ties to the state and the structure of cultural control and power, their nun work follows a "harm reduction model in which they offer to their communities information and tools but do not dictate behavior or condone and condemn certain actions." (28)
The Sisters' serious parody also can be found in the structure of their membership process, which includes the taking of vows, the taking of a new religious name, and the transformation of the self into one's Sister persona. Naming is common to both traditional religious orders and this queer, specifically drag, culture, and tradition. In each context, as one moves into their public persona--be it drag, queer, or straight nun--they take on a name that represents and embodies their connection to the community and their commitment to the order. Within the Sisters' community, naming can be an individual or communal effort, but it always incorporates wordplay, often with religious and sexualized imagery. Several examples of the more vivid and dynamic of the Sisters' naming style are as follows: Sister Missionary Position, (29) Adhanarisvara/Vicious Power Hungry Bitch/Vish-Knew, (30) Daya Reckoning, (31) Sista Anita Lynchin' (32), Mary Arse Lick and Old Lace (33), Gladness of the Joyous Resuretcum (34), Mysteria of The Holy Order of the Broken Hymen (35), Babylon Anon (36), and Kali Vagilistic X.P. Aladocious. (37)
Over and over within Dr. Wilcox's research, the Sisters talk about the power of their names and clerical personas. Through their naming and activism, the Sisters feel they are engaged in the agency of nun, thereby validating them as nuns. As a result, even as they are spoofing tropes of religious orders and nuns within their cultural context, they are also actually real, self-ordained nuns, acting as nuns act. The reality of their agency as nuns is embodied in the structures and work that they enact within their community contexts. In these ways, it could be said that the Sisters remarkably resemble other religious orders. And yet their sex positivity and stated mission place them outside of the Catholic Christian traditions from which they borrow and build on.
Soon after the beginning of the Jewish movement that was to become the Christian Church, morality tales of exceptional and heroic martyrs and saints floated throughout the community. They upheld communal ideals, offered encouragement to those seeking fortification in their faith, and warned those whose faith was wavering or those who were thinking of leaving the fold. From this hagiographic genre, there emerged several subgenres of narratives that highlighted or touched on gender constructions. Two of these subgenres include elements of genderbending, namely those of the "cross-dressing saint" and the "reformed harlot."
The first subgenre is generally constructed in a threefold plot structure, "(1) flight from the world (2) disguise and seclusion and (3) discovery and recognition." (38) The latter moves from the life of fancy and harlotry, to an encounter with the holy and conversion, to an acetic reconstruction and death. For our purposes, this article looks specifically at elements present in the stories of Perpetua, Marinus (Marina), Pelagius (Pelagia), and Wilgefortis. All these narratives bare elements of the "cross-dressing" category, with St. Pelagia also fitting into the "reformed harlot" trope.
To begin, let us quickly summarize the key narrative points in each story. The first story is that of Perpetua. According to her diary, Perpetua is a young middle-class mother and wife in second-century North Africa, whose conversion to Christianity leads to her condemnation and martyrdom in 202/3 CE. She is jailed along with several other Christians and sentenced to die at the military games in honor of the Emperor. Despite her father's and the magistrates' attempts to change her mind and get her to offer sacrifices to the emperor, Perpetua remains steadfast in her commitment to worship only the Christian God. While in prison awaiting the games in which she will be martyred, Perpetua is given prophetic visions. In one, she turns into a gladiator and bests an Egyptian opponent.
In real life, Perpetua and her fellow companions are finally executed in the games. (39) However, Perpetua's direct and commanding responses to her father and the magistrate, and the genderbending image of her as an embattled gladiator, are unexpected for a woman of her time. For Perpetua, the confusion of her gendering comes across not through physical figure or dress, but rather through her actions, her agency, and her gladiatorial vision.
By contrast, Marinus' (Marina) story, which is alternately set in fifth-or eighth-century Syria, is centered on dress and presentation. After the death of her mother, Marina's father seeks to marry her off before becoming a monk. But Marina does not want to marry and instead joins her father for life in the monastery. To prove her determination, Mary cuts her hair, dresses as a man, and changes her name to Marinus as the pair set off to join a monastic order.
The next ten years goes by with little conflict as the other monks chalk up Marinus' fluid gender cues as the byproducts of the acetic life. But after the death of the father, Marinus is sent from the monastery with two other monks to attend to the community's business, which leads to an overnight stay at an inn. Months later, the innkeeper's daughter falsely accuses Marinus of being the father of her unborn child, as she wishes to protect the identity of her Roman soldier lover. The innkeeper furiously approaches Marinus' abbot, and Marinus is thrown out of the monastery. He sits outside the gates until the innkeeper's grandchild eventually joins Marinus. The two live outside of the monastery for several years until the other monks convince the abbot to reinstate Marinus and the child, provided that Marinus perform the penance of heavy chores.
Marinus dies several years later, his female biological sex is revealed, and all wrongs are righted. Ever since the time Marinus adopts the garb of a monk and changes his name, everything about him aligns with the performance of his perceived gender, including accepting the child he could never have fathered. Marinus is so committed to the perception and performance of "masculinity" that he loses everything (home, life, community) instead of revealing his biological sex.
Our next cross-dressing story is that of Pelagia (Pelagius), a fourth- to fifth-century reformed harlot of sorts who takes on a male persona after her conversion. In the story, Pelagia is a wealthy actress and harlot in Antioch, who converts to Christianity after listening to a sermon by a bishop named Nonnus. While going through the catechism rites for entrance into the faith, the Devil comes trying to collect Pelagia, but Nonnus casts him out, making the sign of the cross and breathing on the old demon. Pelagia subsequently sells all her wealth and releases her slaves. The night before her final entrance into full conversion, Pelagia steals one of Nonnus' tunics (Gk. chiton). Disguised as the monk Pelagius, Pelagia heads for a cell she has built on the Mount of Olives and lives out her days as an ascetic monk. For Pelagia, the embrace of a masculine persona offers two forms of freedom. The first is a freedom from the Devil, who leaves the narrative after Pelagia dons the chiton. The second form of freedom is found in her ability to move to live out a solitary life, something seemingly inaccessible to Pelagia if she had stayed in her previous life and if she had stayed within the Christian community. It is also interesting to note that Pelagia presents a form of self-agency and success that is rarely associated with women in these narratives.
The most recent of all the stories is the tale of Wilgefortis (40) which emerges sometime between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries CE. Wilgefortis is the Christian daughter of a pagan Portuguese king and has secretly dedicated her virginity to God. Her father decides to marry her off to a neighboring ruler (the narrative varies as to whether he is a Sicilian pagan or a Portuguese Muslim king). First, she appeals to her father to stop the wedding, yet this only leads to invoking his anger and her being locked in the dungeon. From there, she prays that God will intervene by making her utterly repulsive to the would-be suitor. The next morning her prayers are answered thanks to the appearance of a full lush beard on Wilgefortis' face. This repulses the bridegroom-to-be and further angers her hot-tempered father who demands to know the cause of her changed appearance. When the lady replies that it has come from the God she adores, her father responds in turn by saying, "you shall die, like him you adore," and has his daughter crucified. (41)
The appearance of a non-traditional gender cue such as a beard on a beautiful woman is central to the narrative and acts as both rescue and death sentence for the saint. It is not only off-putting but makes the intended spouse so repulsed that he calls off the wedding. At the same time, however, her appearance and her crucifixion tie her to the person and physicality of Christ. This leads to a blurring (genderf*cking) of the virginal saint Wilgefortis and by extension, inversely, Christ himself.
In all these saints' stories, there is an element of genderbending or cross-dressing, which runs counter to typical or socially constructed norms. Each of these saints uses gender and gender perception as a means of maintaining certain positionality within their faith. Perpetua embraces her masculine persona as a means of fortifying her bout with death. By taking on a prophetic masculine identity, Perpetua is able to not only boldly face the coliseum but is also able to seek the death of a martyr on her own terms and demand the care of her fellow Christians. In the cases of Pelagia and Marinus, the donning of the monk's habit allows them the ability to engage in the monastic life with very little challenge (a least for a while in Marinus' case) because they are no longer bound by the demands of marriage and childbirth that are expected of women in their respective cultures' social structures. And finally for Wilgefortis, the appearance of a typically male beard becomes the agent of protection for her consecrated virginity and allows for her to die as virgin martyr, holding her faith above her life.
Kristen Upson-Saia analyzes how theses narratives function both in the upholding and stripping of gender perception,
I argue that these texts received little censure precisely because they worked to strip cross-dressing of its transgressive nature. Through several narrative techniques, these vitae attempted to diffuse the dress practice's challenge to the conventional gender binary by inscribing and naturalizing femininity onto the ascetic's hidden body. Despite this goal, however, [they] paradoxically served to confuse the gender identity of the protagonists. Thus, in the end, the writing of cross-dressing worked for and against notions of a stable gender binary. (42)
As a result, the fluidity of gender (e.g., between Wilgefortis and Christ), and the possible threat of discovery, always leaves the reader with the stark awareness that that the monk is not what they seem. (43) Upson-Saia also speaks to the reader's insider knowledge, as the reader is aware that Marinus is biologically female even as the rest of the characters do not. Once again she says, "Although the disguise is supposed to conceal the monk's gender identity, these scenes function to reveal to the readers the secondary quality of the saint's masculinity." (44) We the audience consequently become part of the parody of gender being played out in the context of the story.
Even as these stories may seek to strip cross-dressing and gender queering of its power as Upson-Saia suggests, in the end they still open up space for that very action. In their ambiguity of gender and gendered presentation, these narratives of the genderbending or cross-dressing saints create within the Christian tradition a space for narratives that queer normative notions of gender as a binary.
Conclusion: Sisters and Saints Within a Continuing History The modern genderf*ck of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence enters a historical continuum within which gender queering and religion exist in complicated relation. For both the Sisters and the Saints, there is a generative value to assuming a persona that queers and challenges traditional gender cues. In doing so, one speaks to and highlights the reality that gender is more performative than fixed and that it is a construction that is fluid and changing. As Judith Butler says in Gender Trouble,
The parodic repetition of gender exposes as well the illusion of gender identity as an intractable depth and inner substance. As the effects of a subtle and politically enforced performativity, gender is an 'act,' as it were, that is open to splitting, self-parody, self-criticism, and those hyperbolic exhibitions of 'the natural' that, in their very exaggeration, reveal its fundamentally phantasmatic status. (45)
By engaging in the performance of gender that is not expected, both the contemporary activists and the ancient saints challenge and dismantle the notion of gender binary. This in turn offers examples of a cultural space for those who have been marginalized because of their gender presentation.
This opening up of space for gender non-conforming individuals is most needed in the Christian tradition. Locating the Sisters within a long lineage of genderbending saints recovers and updates the Church's history of erasure, which has been intent on eliminating and removing that which it perceives to be transgressive. The Sisters become through their actions "real nuns" by countering this rejection of gender fluidity and by caring for those who are gender fluid through actions of radical acceptance and the expiation of guilt. By engaging in their work as nuns, the Sisters use gender to guard their "holy work," just as the saints used gender queering to guard their sacred faith. It is by challenging gender normativity and affirming gender fluidity in their presentations and performance that The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence carry on the tradition of the genderbending saints of the early church.
At the same time, however, there are also ways in which each of these traditions can be perceived to be reinforcing problematic notions or constructions of gender even as they are simultaneously challenging them. Even within presentations of gender by the Sisters and saints that challenge normative gender constructions, these normative notions still hold as binaries that are reinforced through communal reactions. For example, within the Wilgefortis narrative, the beard acts as a transgressive gender cue even as it still harkens to the binary. The beard removes any desire for the lady, but she still holds all the other identity markers of an attractive woman. Wilgefortis wants to be rendered repulsive to her would-be husband, but this subliminally tells the audience that no woman with a beard could possibly hold any sense of femininity or attractiveness. In this way, the narrative holds up a binary where women would never have beards lest they become monstrous. Perpetua also presents a narrative that focuses on her direct actions and her embrace of a masculine persona, but her femininity is still highlighted and on display through her body as sexualized object within the text. As Upson-Saia observes, "While early Christian leaders were willing to attribute spiritual 'vitality' to ascetic women, they rarely wished ascetic women to represent such 'manliness' in their dress." (46)
The gender queering of the Sisters and saints acts as a challenge to normative constructions of gender even as it upholds cultural perceptions of gender norms. In the end, there is more that connects these counter-cultural presentations throughout the ages than separates them. Therefore, through their embodied actions during manifestation of their nun personas within the community and the culture at large, the Sisters challenge and upend traditional notions of gender and religion. So it is that the Sisters stand in direct challenge to conservative religious and cultural notion of a fixed and stable gender binary.
(1.) Melissa Wilcox, Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody (New York: New York University Press, 2018). 66, & "Sistory", 1979, https://www.thesisters.org/sistory
(2.) Melissa Wilcox, Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody (New York: New York University Press, 2018).
(3.) There are no specific dates to be found for the legend of this saint, but we do know that her story comes to popularity in the 14th century.
(4.) Wilcox Faculty page University of California, Riverside, https://religiousstudies.ucr.edu/full-time-faculty/melissa-m-wilcox/
(5.) Wilcox, 33.
(6.) Ibid, 33.
(7.) Ibid, 32 & https://lgbtrc.usc.edu/files/2015/05/LGBT-Terminology.pdf
(10.) Ibid, 3.
(11.) Ibid, 33.
(12.) Ibid, 82.
(17.) Ibid, 85.
(18.) Ibid, 83.
(19.) Ibid, 70.
(20.) Ibid, 100.
(21.) Ibid, 198-201.
(24.) Ibid, 100 & 134.
(25.) Ibid, 207.
(29.) Ibid, 5.
(31.) Ibid, 134.
(32.) Ibid, 162.
(33.) Ibid, 195.
(34.) Ibid, 63.
(35.) Ibid, 57.
(36.) Ibid, 195.
(37.) Ibid, 23.
(38.) Davis, Stephen J, Crossed Text, Crossed Sex: Gender Intertextuality and Gender in Early Christian Legends of Holy Women Disguised as Men, Journal of Early Christian Studies, pg 7.
(39.) Rea, Jennifer A. and Clark, Liz, Perpetua's Journey: Faith, Gender, & Power in the Roman Empire.
(40.) A generic name that is either connected to the latin "virgo fortus" (courageous virgin) or corrupted german "hilgevartz" (holy face) https://historycollection.co/saint-wilgefortis-the-brave-virgin-with-a-beard/
(42.) Upson-Saia, pg 1.
(43.) Upson-Saia, Kristen, Gender and Narrative Performance in Early Christian Cross-Dressing Saints' lives pg 2.
(44.) Upson-Saia, pg 2.
(45.) Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble, 200.
(46.) Upson-Saia, pg 1.
Butler, Judith, 1990, Gender Trouble, New York City, NY: Routledge Press.
Upson-Saia, Kristen, 2010, "Gender and Narrative Performance in Early Christian Cross-Dressing Saints' Lives," Studia Patristica XLV, pp. 43-48.
Wilcox, Melissa, 2018, Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody, New York City, NY: New York University Press.
Wilgefortis, Saint, https://historycollection.co/saint-wilgefortis-the-brave-virgin-with-a-beard/.
Jessi Knippel is an academic, writer, and artist who lives in the promised land of Southern California with her partner and tiny human. She is currently working on an intersectional Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate School in gender, religion, and media. A muralist at heart she pieces together projects, events, thoughts, and people in her work and non-work life. You can see her various works on Instagram@seattierainartist; on Twitter- @jessiknippel; and at www.jessiknippel.com.
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2019|
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