By Kellen Kaiser
It starts with white face, the kind clowns use, smeared on with a sponge and then powdered to matte. Then eyebrows drawn on with greasepaint, cheeks made razor sharp using the side of a piece of cardboard as a guide, and false lashes applied. Glitter is sprinkled everywhere, liberally. Jewels are affixed at certain points for emphasis. This is the process by which I manifest as my alter-ego. I am a girl who doesn’t wear make-up on a daily basis, I couldn’t draw a straight line to save my life, and in a rush the process takes me at least forty-five minutes. The gay boys who have become my second family always inevitably look better than me no matter what I do. Being a living incarnation of the Goddess/Servant of the Holy Spirit is hard work.
Let me explain. I am one of a few female-born members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. We are an international non-profit organization devoted to social activism, charity work, and spiritual ministry. Started in 1979 in San Francisco by gay men who had raided their high school costume closet for nun garb, the group recently made news as the provocation for Chuck Hagel’s homophobic vitriol. Our motto is “ruining it for everyone.” By dressing in and appropriating religious iconography we court controversy with everything we do. We also raise lots of money, spread joy and self-acceptance, and generally look amazing.
My first memories of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were from when I was four. It was 1985 and my lesbian mothers took me to their Easter celebration held in a San Francisco alley called Lily Street. I remember them as towering Glamazons with otherworldly outfits and endless attitudes. They wore Easter baskets as hats. Their eyes looked as complicated as Faberge eggs. Their command of femininity astounded me even at that age. I told my mom that when I grew up I wanted to be a Drag Queen. She approved. There were a lot of years in there I didn’t think it was a possibility.
Then little by little I started to hear about female-born women doing drag and being called “faux-queens.” “High Drag,” it was sometimes called. I read about a girl winning the prestigious Trannyshack title. If they could do it, not even having grown up within the community, then why couldn’t I? Granted at the time I was in a long term hetero relationship that had made me progressively more normal in a terrifying manner. I would spend the next few years ambivalent about my condition and would ultimately find myself single and moving back to my home state of California. Finally, I was introduced to the Abbess of the San Diego house, who was a woman. Even when she told me the process of becoming a member was intensive and usually took a year and a half, all I could think was, out of my way, I got this.
When people see me out “in-face,” as we Drag Queens call it, they tend to pride themselves on sussing out my gender. “You’re a real girl,” is the most common exclamation. “Everything but the tits…” I say back. They delight to tell me how they figured out that under my make-up I am not a man. “I could tell by the hairs near your ears,” someone once informed me, “they weren’t sideburns.” People regularly admit they didn’t know what I am doing is allowed. At which point I tell them that part of our mission, as an organization, is to defy people’s expectations and I am challenging their perceptions of what Drag means. I like it even better when people aren’t sure what gender I am. To think that a woman dressed as a woman could help destabilize gender makes me gleeful.
In French the word for make-up, maquillage, comes from “mask”, and it has been impressed upon me many times that people treat me with a sort of reverence when I am in-face. I have counseled men who that day discovered they were HIV positive, men who regularly wouldn’t give me a second glance but who tell me their darkest secrets because of how I’m dressed. Until the church is willing to accept all of their followers, I will feel justified in ministering to them. While we are controversial even within the gay community and our parody of Catholic religion makes many people upset, in my mind we put it to good use.
When I first started attending meetings and events with the LA chapter, the almost entirely male membership paid me little attention, despite the well-crafted letter of recommendation I’d brought with me from a much loved member of the SF order. The Sisters don’t recruit. This means that they will let you hang out but they won’t be all that friendly or explain things. It took me seven months to figure out that they were never going to invite me to join but that I instead had to declare my intention unheeded. Like in the church, you start the process as an aspirant, and then become a postulant and a novice before finally becoming a fully professed member. You can do it in eighteen months but it took me two years.
The interim period is filled with make-up tutorials, grunt work, and meetings run with parliamentary levels of efficacy and protocol. It took me a couple of months to match the men I met at the monthly out-of-face meetings to the stunning sirens who arrived at events. They started at some point to be nice to me and now I feel like the spoiled younger sibling to thirty or so older brothers who like to dress up in Mom’s clothing. Slowly, they let me in on secrets like using hair spray to fix make-up in place and told me stories about how they came to be Sisters themselves. A surprising number of them come from very religious backgrounds. I know at least two who went to seminary. They are now nuns who wear glitter in their beards.
I took my vows more than two years after I began, on a hill under the Hollywood sign, wearing a vintage wedding gown and a white veil. The ritual, done under the discombobulated gaze of tourists poured fresh from mini-buses, involved my being wrapped in a long red cloth and lifted by a bevy of my Sisters into the air. Once aloft I was turned in a circle, high in the sky, supported and yet alone. It was, as it was meant to be, transformative. I am not one of those single women who contemplate just throwing herself a big party in lieu of the wedding yet to materialize, but I felt like this was an awesome alternative, no matter what happens with my love life.
Being in the Sisters has also given me a chance to continue my involvement in the Gay community. One of the weird things about being the straight daughter of lesbians is negotiating where you fit in the world you were raised in. I consider myself Queer but it takes a good five minutes to explain why I fit under that umbrella as a heterosexual. I don’t have much to justify it, outside of my predilection for checking out butch women. Usually when people meet me as “Sister Edna St. Vincent Getlaid,” they don’t question my street cred.
My mom once told me to pursue things in life that were both selfish and altruistic, and the Sisters for me are a great example of this principle. I get to say that I volunteer on a regular basis and yet it usually involves vodka tonics. I have learned service is one of the cheapest and safest highs. Every year as we walk in Pride parades and wave at the adoring and photo-snapping crowds, and I see amongst them children who look toward me like I once did the Sisters, star-struck and wide eyed, I know I am fulfilling a dream. I may never make it in Hollywood, but I have made it in real life.