Interview with Melissa M. Wilcox

Melissa Wilcox’s recent book, Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody, explores the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an order of queer activists devoted to community-based activism. The Sisters both spoof nuns and argue that they are nuns, adopting an innovative form of engagement that Wilcox dubs “serious parody.”

Participants: Melissa M. Wilcox (University of California, Riverside) and Hillary Kaell (Concordia University)

HK: Tell us a bit about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence: who are they and what was the context for the order’s creation in the late 1970s?

MW: The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are a religiously-unaffiliated, international order of self-described “queer nuns” with houses (non-residential chapters) on four continents around the world today. They were founded rather unintentionally at first, on Easter Saturday of 1979, when three bored gay men put on retired Roman Catholic nuns’ habits left over from an Iowa City drag show and walked through some of the gay areas of San Francisco. They “manifested” a few more times because they thought they’d hit on something powerful and the group gelled around four founding members who were steeped in Catholicism (one had attended seminary from the ninth grade until well into university, and another had been raised Catholic), spirituality (one was a Transcendental Meditation teacher), radical activism (two had been the founders of the University of Iowa chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, and one of those was a former Mennonite who’d cut his activist teeth in high school organizing a Vietnam War protest), and the arts (one was a choreographer and dance therapist, another had a graduate degree in radio and television broadcasting, and one was strongly drawn to the arts despite having no formal training). So between them they had all of the influences that initially shaped the order. Within a few years, public health nurses like AIDS activist Bobbi Campbell, also known as Sister Florence Nightmare, became important influences too.

HK: As you note, drag, camp, and genderfuck are central idioms and strategies for queer communities’ engagement with politics and religion. What do these terms encompass and what are some key examples, within the Sisters’ work or apart from it?

MW: At its broadest level, “drag” refers to a performance outside of one’s gender identity. Many people today know of drag from RuPaul’s Drag Race, but the history and contemporary performance of drag also goes well beyond the performances on that show, encompassing drag kings and what’s sometimes called “bio-femme” drag – women enacting an exaggerated, high-femme femininity – as well as the famed drag balls that have often knitted together urban queer communities of color over the years and the female impersonators of the mid-twentieth century. Through much of the twentieth century, and still today in some communities, drag has also been a space for expression of the artist’s true gender identity; thus, although there are tensions between drag and transgender communities today, those communities have historically overlapped quite a bit.

Camp, unlike drag, is notoriously difficult to define, and people who try usually end up in the hot seat. But in the interest of helping those unfamiliar with the concept, I’ll say that it’s a form of humor, aesthetics, artifice, and affect that developed especially in gay and transgender communities over the course of the twentieth century but has also become just as much a part of lesbian activism and LGBTQ communities more broadly.

Genderfuck is a particular form of drag, also known as skag drag, where the performer displays clear gender markers of “both” genders. Someone wearing both a beard and a dress is a common example of genderfuck, but so is a business suit and conservative men’s haircut paired with a high soprano speaking voice (or, better yet, a coloratura aria).

LGBTQ activism has made use of all of these cultural tools. Drag communities and transgender communities, for instance, were central to the rising queer activism of the 1960s and the 1970s. Lesbian activists in the same period used provocative humor in many of their stings. Early GLFers (members of the Gay Liberation Front) could be found in all kinds of combinations of gender presentation, and often used genderfuck to make a point about the limited nature of binary gender categories long before the word “non-binary” came into use. In many ways, the Sisters are a natural outgrowth of this history.

HK: This leads to the concept of “serious parody,” which is at the heart of the book. What does it mean and how does it connect to some of the other theoretical concepts—I’m thinking, for example, of José Esteban Muñoz’s disidentification—that you raise in the book?

MW: I worked really hard on articulating exactly what serious parody is, so forgive me for quoting myself here. I note in the book that “serious parody is 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” (70). This idea really came out of my observations of the Sisters, and trying to sort out exactly what it was that made them so interesting and unique. Muñoz’ work – more specifically, his book Disidentifications – was one of the first resources I turned to, but in the end I decided that what he was talking about and what I was seeing in the Sisters were different. What I always got hung up on as I tried to draw connections was that Muoz isn’t talking about people claiming those identities for themselves. There’s nothing redeemable, at least not to the artists he discusses, about white supremacist masculinity or racist stereotypes of Latinas. So disidentification is a form of resistance, and it’s enacted through parody, but it doesn’t encompass the serious aspect of serious parody.

HK: So moving beyond Muñoz then, who were some of the key scholars or studies that you engaged as you crafted the project?

MW: It depends on which part of the project you’re referring to. I’ve never been the kind of scholar who chooses a research question to pursue based on the current state of the literature, and then selects a location, focus, and methods that best suit the question. I’m more like a toddler who sees something shiny and runs after it! Put a bit more intellectually, I believe in trusting your gut, so my projects always start with being intrigued. I can’t always say why I’m intrigued, but I know that being intrigued usually means there’s something really intellectually interesting going on even if I don’t yet know what it is. So I start hanging out with people, listening and asking questions, and eventually the research tells me what the analysis should be. I started out the Sisters project thinking I wanted to learn about how individual members of the order interacted with religion, and although there’s a chapter on that in the book, my focus ended up being something far more complex and interesting.

Once I’d worked through what I was seeing and had come up with the idea of serious parody I was especially influenced by other work on queer (broadly construed) performative protest. Jan Cohen’s and Benjamin Shepard’s writings on the Church Ladies for Choice became go-to resources, as did Jonathan Kalb’s study of Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping and much of Richard Schechner’s corpus of writings. Closer to my topic, I was especially helped by Benjamin Shepard’s research and by Sara Warner’s Acts of Gaiety, which pointedly reminds us not to cast lesbian activists of the 1970s into their stereotyped role of drab and dour moralists with no fashion sense who only existed to make the drag queens look prettier.

HK: To broach a different topic, at one point you discuss how a sister from the French house is in Warsaw facing down protestors at EuroPride. She credits her authority to the fact that her habit so closely resembled a well-known order in Poland and France. What differences, if any, did you find in historically Catholic majority countries and those with Catholic minorities, like the United States? Did it affect the Sisters’ work and their reception in queer and non-queer communities?

MW: I think the difference is less about Catholic majority versus minority countries – after all, France was among the earliest countries to develop a wide network of houses of Sisters – and more about how strict people are about their Catholicism in a given area. I get this insight in part from Hermana Dolores Raimunda of the Montevideo house in Uruguay. Hermana Dolores suggested to me that the Sisters have been successful in Uruguay in part because people there take their Catholicism a bit less seriously than they do in other Latin American countries. Proving the accuracy of this assessment would take more work, but it’s interesting to think about the predominantly-Catholic places where the Sisters have thrived (like Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Montréal, and most of France), those where they’ve struggled (like Poland and Dublin), and those where they’ve never gotten a foothold (like Italy, Portugal, and much of Latin America). Hermana Dolores may be on to something.

HK: Along similar lines, I was curious about those Sisters from non-Catholic backgrounds. Did they already have some familiarity with women religious? Did parodying Catholic vestments and ritualization mean the same to them as to Sisters who were raised as Catholics?

MW: I sometimes joke that the Sisters are the love children of the drag queen Divine and Maria from The Sound of Music. Some Sisters are familiar with Roman Catholic nuns from being raised Catholic – and the number of people from Catholic backgrounds in the order appears to be proportional to the number in the general population, at least in the U.S., so the order isn’t drawing especially Catholics and former Catholics – but others aren’t familiar with nuns in that way. Everyone, though, knows the popular culture version of the Catholic nun. The role the Sisters are reclaiming (and with nuns, reclaiming is a stronger dynamic than parodying) is just as much the nuns from The Sound of Music or Sister Act as she is the nun who taught you in second grade. She’s Mother Teresa, and today she’s also a newer trope of the Buddhist nun. There certainly are Sisters who emulate or honor nuns they know – I think of Sister Mary Ralph, who’s named after her Roman Catholic aunt, or Sister Maria Caffeina Mochalatte, a radical Catholic who deeply respects the feminist nuns she spends time with – but lots of them are also emulating an ideal, a trope, more than a person. I think for most members of the order with Catholic backgrounds, the Sisters’ habits and their rituals are too far removed from Catholicism to have a strong resonance in that way. In Australia, where the Sisters still wear more traditional, formal habits, it’s a bit different, but for one of the founders who was raised Catholic and initially entered a monastery before coming out, a “gay male nun” – of which there are none in formal Roman Catholicism – is exactly the right thing.

HK: I also wanted to ask you about secularism. The book briefly explores how sociologists (and anthropologists) of religion have used the term, and also how the Sisters mobilize it when they discuss their lives. Can you tell us more about it?

MW: There’s so much to say here, including the growing importance in the U.S. especially of research that questions the “sacred-secular” divide itself. This very divide is a Christian concept, so it’s hard to avoid suspicion of the veracity of claims to secularity when secularity is, conceptually at least, Christian. Regarding the Sisters specifically, it’s important to know by way of background that they’re a part-time, volunteer order. Once a week, once a month, a few times a week, someone who’s usually a student, a warehouse stocker, an accountant, a teacher, a homemaker, or any number of other professions will “manifest” as their Sister or Guard persona. “John Doe” or “Jane Doe” will cease to exist, and “Sister or Guard whoever” will come into being. Many Sisters distinguish between these two persons by calling them their “secular persona” and their “Sister [or Guard] persona.” So the Sisters become sacred almost by default, since the other persona is called “secular.” Yet many claim that their Sister or Guard persona isn’t religious, whereas their secular persona may be deeply spiritual. People generally say that the Sister or Guard persona and the secular persona mesh over time, so eventually the Sister/Guard personas also become spiritual, but the troubling of the sacred-secular binary between non-religious queer nuns and spiritual secular personas is intriguing.

HK: You did extensive fieldwork for this project. What were some of the most memorable moments? Some of the challenges?

MW: Many of my most memorable moments are simply walking down the street amidst a gaggle of very tall, whitefaced nuns, talking about something interesting or listening to them tease one another, trying not to inhale clouds of cigarette smoke, and watching with amusement the reactions from people on the street who hadn’t seen Sisters before.

One of the experiences that sticks with me is being on bar ministry with a group of Sisters in Berlin and being turned away from a bar because it was a sex-segregated men’s space and I’m female. The mother of the house had warned me in advance that this might happen, and had assured me that their long-standing policy was to refuse to enter a space without their entire group included. So we walked away from the bar, but I was left pondering both my commitment to honor safe space and my discomfited reaction to being blatantly banned from a space on the basis of my embodiment (because it certainly wasn’t about my gender expression, or I would have fit right in!) – as well as the forms of privilege that had protected me from such experiences up to that point in my life.

One of my favorite stories has more to do with archival research than fieldwork. Many of the order’s archives – and many important archival documents from the early Radical Faeries, the GLF, and other gay movements from the 1970s to the present – are stacked floor-to-ceiling in a hand-built house in a Radical Faerie sanctuary in rural Tennessee, with no electricity, no plumbing, wood stove heat, and a brown recluse infestation. I was honored to receive an invitation to visit and stay overnight, and my host was absolutely lovely, kind, and generous, but after regaling me all afternoon with stories of the house’s various denizens (the pack rats and the black snake were fine with me, the scorpions only lived in the woodpile, the rattlesnakes hadn’t been seen in years), he told me about the brown recluses at dusk, as we were sitting in a memorial grove, surrounded by remembrances and ashes of Faeries who had passed away. “Oh,” I said, trying to remain composed. “So should I shake the covers out before I go to bed tonight?” “No,” he replied with the aplomb of someone who’s lived with brown recluses for years and has an effective folk remedy for their bite. “They like more protected spaces. Just don’t reach under the bed.” With no cell service and no way to charge my phone, I stayed awake most of the night with my little keychain penlight on, shining it into the corners and trying not to get spooked. But I survived, bite free, and now I’m trying to figure out how to help those archives survive as well.

 HK: What are some of the broader implications for the concept of serious parody and the ‘queering’ of religion, especially in Christian heritage or Christian majority contexts?

MW: There are so many! I’m still working them out, to be honest, and I hope with the publication of the book that others will join me in that effort. I’m still wondering how common serious parody is; I mention in the conclusion a few other cases that might be examples, but neither is quite as good a fit for the concept as the Sisters are, so the jury remains out on that question. For religious studies and queer studies, though, one of the things I keep coming back to is the profound effect it could have on both fields if we took the Sisters at their word that they’re queer nuns. When I tell people I wrote a book on queer nuns, some are quick to reply, “Oh, I know queer nuns! I’m sure Sister Mary Joseph, my gym teacher, was a lesbian.” We can think of “queer people who are also nuns,” but the concept of queer nuns seems to evade many people because we associate “queer” inextricably with sex but keep “nun” and “sex” strictly apart. In this sense, we literally cannot think “queer” and “nun” together. What would it do if we could? What would queer studies get out of taking religion seriously for once, and also thinking about it in the complex ways that religious studies scholars are trained to do? What would it mean for religious studies to take queer religious practices – queer nuns, or as I’ve suggested elsewhere, “worshipping cock” – seriously as religious practices? We would have to radically redefine our understandings of words like “nun” (no longer only women, no longer always celibate) and “worship” (no longer solely focused on the world beyond the human, the disembodied, or the heterosexual). Until we do, we’re still reproducing (pun intended) a heteronormative, cisnormative field.

HK: Ending on another broad note, what are you working on now?

MW: Well, that theoretical stuff about bringing religious studies and queer studies together in more than a simple additive way is one possible book project. I’m still a little daunted by the idea of writing a theory book, but I’m kind of excited to explore it. There’s a little initial theorizing in the textbook I just finished writing on queer and transgender studies in religion; that’s coming out through Rowman and Littlefield, hopefully in 2019. The other project (because who can leave ethnography behind, really?) is on leather spirituality: organizations and individuals who find connections between BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, and sadomasochism) and spirituality. I’ll probably be working primarily in San Francisco and Los Angeles on that project, but as with the Sisters project I like to set out from a specific trailhead and then just see where it leads me.