Remembering the fallen and helping others bear burdens

DFW Sisters will once again mark World AIDS Day by taking their Veil of Remembrance into the community for signatures

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NEVER FORGET | Sister MaeLynn Hanzment, left, and Sister Ophelia Nutz handle the Veil of Remembrance from World AIDS Day 2010 with loving care. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

Tammye Nash  |  Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

Names have power. And for those who have lost a loved one to AIDS, being able to write those names down and know the memories those names evoke will be preserved and treasured in doing so, can be powerful medicine for healing.

The DFW Sisters, Abbey of the Lone Star, will once again give members of DFW’s LGBT community the opportunity to exercise that healing when they take to the streets on World AIDS Day with their Veil of Remembrance.

“It’s our way of honoring those we’ve lost and making sure their memories live on,” explained Sister Ophelia Nutz, mistress of rituals and ceremonies for the DFW Sisters.

The Veil is a plain white cloth that Sister Ophelia will wear attached to her headdress. Anyone who has lost someone to HIV/AIDS is welcome to write that person’s name on the Veil.

The DFW Sisters, a fully professed house of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence elevated by The United Nuns Privy Council in October, created their first Veil of Remembrance last year as they marked their first World AIDS Day as an officially recognized Sisters mission.

“We spent most of the day last year at JPS Hospital in Fort Worth, participating in their World AIDS Day event,” Sister Ophelia said. “They had just lost a fairly prominent community member there to AIDS, and once they found out what we were doing, what the Veil was for, everyone there wanted to sign it.”

After that event, the sisters came back to Dallas, taking the Veil into the bars here.

“People reacted to the Veil as if it weren’t that big of a deal really — until they thought of someone they had lost,” Sister Ophelia said. “But when they were told that they could write that person’s name on the Veil, that they could write down that memory, some people got very emotional. There’s more than one tear stain on that Veil, I promise you. Some people were too emotional to even sign it themselves, so they asked me to write down a name and a date for them.”

This year, she said, the sisters will start the day by taking the Veil to the noon hot meals program lunch at Resource Center Dallas. Then they will head to Fort Worth for World AIDS Day events at the Tarrant County Health Department, before coming back to Dallas to participate in the World AIDS Day events being held in downtown Dallas

The sisters will wind up the night by taking the Veil to the bars in Dallas.

“We’ll just meander, handing out pens and gathering signatures on the Veil,” Sister Ophelia said.

Sister Ophelia said that she wore the Veil throughout the day on World AIDS Day last year, and will do so again this year. But when the sisters head out next Thursday, they will do so with a new Veil, ready for more names and memories.

Last year’s Veil, Sister Ophelia said, was retired at the end of the night, just as this year’s Veil will be.

She said the sisters will start the day by “saying a few words to kind of sanctify the veil, make it ready to hold those precious memories.” And at the end of the night, they will once again gather to honor the memories this year’s Veil will hold.

“Afterwards, in a more private ritual, we will gather to read the names on the Veil and to light candles in their memory,” Sister Ophelia said.

“At the end, we will have a ceremony to fold the Veil and put it away. We take good care of the Veils; we hold them close and dear to us, just like those who signed it hold their lost loved ones close and dear.”

The Sistory

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were born in San Francisco in 1979 when, tired of the monotony of the city’s ever-present “clone” trend, three men donned nuns’ habits (given in 1976 by a convent of Roman Catholic nuns to a group in Iowa called the Sugar Plum Fairies for a production of The Sound of Music, and a year later transported to San Francisco by Ken Bunch, who later became Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch) and headed out to the local nude beach on Easter weekend.

By the end of the year, their ranks had grown and they chose the name Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, adopting as their mission statement, “to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt.”

The sisters participated in a variety of activities, from performing their pom-pom routine at the first Gay Olympics (now the Gay Games), to protesting the Three Mile Island nuclear plant to staging a gay disco/bingo fundraiser for gay Cuban refugees.

But by 1981, AIDS had begun to emerge as the LGBT community’s biggest, most devastating threat, even though it wasn’t yet called AIDS. The sisters produced the world’s first fundraiser for an AIDS organization that year, a dog show that featured singer Sylvester as one of the judges.

By 1982, San Francisco was at crisis levels, and two sisters, Florence Nightmare and Roz Erection, both registered nurses, worked with other medical professionals to create “Play Fair!,” a safer-sex pamphlet intended to help curb the spread of “the gay cancer” and other STDs.

As the epidemic grew, the sisters fought harder, doing their best to spread the word not just about preventing AIDS but about LGBT equality in general. But the disease was taking its toll: “In 1984, ’85, the sisters in San Francisco had about 16 members. Within a year, that number had dropped to four, because people were dying so fast from AIDS,” Sister Ophelia said.

“That’s why the sisters always have a purse full of safe sex kits,” she added. “And since the Dallas County health department stopped doing it, we are the only ones in Dallas handing out free condoms.”

More than camp

While many people may think of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence as little more than campy entertainment, for the sisters themselves, it is serious business, Sister Ophelia said.

“For a lot of us, for most of us, this is a real calling, a way to give something back to the community,” she said. “This isn’t just something we do for fun. And it’s not something just anyone can do. There’s a whole process you have to go through to be a sister, and we have a packet that everyone who wants to be a sister has to read right at the start that explains the cost, so that they know what is involved.

“There’s just so much more to it than people realize,” Sister Ophelia added. “People just don’t realize everything that goes in to being a sister.”

She points to another “veil” the sisters offer up — the Veil of Shame — as an example of how the sisters serve their community as so much more than just comic relief.

On the Veil of Shame, Sister Ophelia said, the sisters invite people to write down “every hateful, mean thing that has ever been said to them or done to them, to write that down and let it go. We offer to bear that burden for them, and afterwards, we take the veil out and we have a ceremony to burn it, to release all that negative energy and to let that burden go.

“The last time we did the Veil of Shame, I had several people tell me how much easier they felt after writing that stuff down,” she added. “And I have to tell you, to wear that veil, to carry around all that pain — it took everything I had in me not to break down and start bawling my eyes out.”

Even without the Veil of Remembrance or the Veil of Shame, Sister Ophelia said that when the sisters go out in their garb, they often serve as a kind of spiritual advisor and confessor for the people they meet.

“If I go out to a bar in my regular clothes, just as myself, I am not going to have strangers walk up to me and start telling me their problems.

But when we  go out as the sisters, people come up to us all the time and they will tell us their deepest, darkest secrets. And we have to be ready to help them,” Sister Ophelia said.

“We’ve all had what we call ‘a sister moment,’ when something like that has happened to us,” she continued. “Maybe it’s because of the sense of anonymity we have when we go out in our makeup and our habits. I think that maybe that makes it easier for people to approach us. At least, it’s easier for those who aren’t afraid of clowns!”

And despite their camp antics and outrageous makeup and costumes, despite the fact that they are just men looking for a way to give something back to their community, Sister Ophelia said, when someone comes to them in need, whatever the need is, the sisters will answer the call.

“We have to be able to offer them help, to give them resources, to give them somewhere to go to get the help they need,” she said. “After all, that’s why we’re there.”

……………………..

2011 World AIDS Day

A coalition of 15 North Texas AIDS service agencies and other community organizations have joined forces this year to present a joint event commemorating World AIDS Day.

The 2011 World AIDS Day Dallas event will be held Thursday, Dec. 1, from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Main Street Garden, 1900 Main St., in downtown Dallas. It will feature speeches by local community leaders and AIDS activists, performances by the Booker T. Washington High School African Drum Ensemble and The Women’s Chorus of Dallas, and a display of blocks from the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Todd Hedrick, chair of the event and a board member with AIDS Interfaith Network, said organizers’ goal for the evening is to “raise awareness and help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in Dallas,” in keeping with the national focus on “getting to zero,” meaning zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths.

AIDS Interfaith Network took the lead in organizing this year’s events. Partner organizations are AIDS Arms, AIDS Services of Dallas, the Anthony Chisum AIDS Foundation, Booker T. Washington High School, Bryan’s House, C.U.R.E., Legacy Counseling Center, Legal Hospice of Dallas, ONE, Out & Equal DFW, Parkland Health and Hospital System, Razzle Dazzle Dallas, Resource Center Dallas, RESULTS and The Women’s Chorus of Dallas.

Sponsors are AIN, Downtown Dallas Inc., Greater Than AIDS, Texas Instruments, BlueCross BlueShield of Texas, The Women’s Chorus of Dallas, Dallas Light and Sound. ThinkHaus Creative, Avita Drugs, Caven Enterprises Inc., C.U.R.E., Dallas Tavern Guild, Kevin Sloan Studio, Michael Dyess and Bert Burkhalter, Sterling’s Bookkeeping and Tax Service and The UPS Store in Highland Park.

World AIDS Day at CoH
Cathedral of Hope UCC, located at 5910 Cedar Springs Road, will also be holding special World AIDS Day events on Thursday, beginning with a display of 20 panels from the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, open that day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Free and anonymous HIV and syphilis testing provided by UT Southwestern Medical Center will be available at the church from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and F.A.C.E. — Faith Acceptance Caring Educating, an HIV/AIDS support group at the church, will host a reception from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., with organizations and resource groups from across the Metroplex invited to participate by having information tables at the reception.

A special worship service based on the “Get To Zero” theme and including a performance by the Turtle Creek Chorale begins at 7 p.m.

World AIDS Day in Tarrant County
The Tarrant County Public Health Department will be holding a World AIDS Day event Thursday, Dec. 1, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the health department offices, 1101 S. Main St. in Fort Worth.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 25, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Pumping tin

Playing a sexy ax-man in ‘The Wiz’ has been rewarding for Sydney Harcourt

TAKE IT EASY | Sydney James Harcourt, above, deals with the Texas heat by wearing gym clothes everywhere — except, of course, onstage in ‘The Wiz,’ where he’s layered in a heavy costume, opposite, that has sweated off two waist sizes in four weeks. (Photos by Arnold Wayne Jones and David Leggett)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

When Sydney James Harcourt signed to play the Tin Man in Dallas Theater Center’s new production of The Wiz, he didn’t know he’d have such a tough act to follow… or that that act would be one of his best friends.
Wade McCollum, who played the MC in DTC’s Cabaret, is one of Harcourt’s closest friends. McCollum’s legions of gay fans swooned over his ripped, muscular frame — a legacy Harcourt became all-too-aware of very quickly.

“I can’t hear enough about Wade’s abs,” he says with a sigh. “Everyone has a story about how ripped he was — abs, abs, abs. Well, the part I’m doing right after this is Rocky in The Rocky Horror Show at the Old Globe in San Diego, where I’m wearing nothing but a gold Speedo.” And the specter of McCollum’s physique is enough to give him an inferiority complex.

Not that that’s likely to happen. True, he’s been in training with a low-fat regimen to get his body in peak shape for Rocky. But just playing the Tin Man eight shows at week at the DTC has worked wonders.
“I’ve probably dropped two waist sizes since I started,” he says. And there are still two more weeks to go.

He’s not complaining. Wearing the costume has been spectacular for helping him develop the character. He’s so constricted, he knows what it must be like to have rusted in the woods.

This isn’t the first time Harcourt has had to contend with a complicated costume — he spent 18 months on Broadway, playing Simba in The Lion King eight times a week. The headdress for that costume occasionally made him bleed. But getting decked out as the Tin Man has been a commitment of an entirely different level.

The process begins with Harcourt donning a neck-to-toe Under Armour bodysuit to wick perspiration away from his skin. Then he applies the shiny foil makeup to his face, taught to him by a professional makeup artist. (“It’s changed — I’ve figured out my own way to make it look more reflective,” he says.) That can take half an hour. Next comes sliding into the silver Lycra bodysuit, onto which are stitched most of the components of the Tin Man’s costumes. They are not detachable. And the sweating begins immediately.

“Originally, they were gonna be separate and we could wash the Lycra suit,” he says. “But they are all attached. That suit has not been washed since we started. It started to smell like a pickle. Now they just spray it with Febreze and let it dry in the sun. I used to be self-conscious, but I am no longer the smelliest costume. There are worse.” He refuses to name names.

Next, the arm pieces are then strapped down in a ritual Harcourt describes as “like putting on a snow suit: You have suspenders and a hood and the tap shoes and spats. The last thing is the shell, which is like armor. I cannot get into that without help. And I cannot get out of the costume at all without someone’s help — trust me, I’ve tried.”

All of which means that once Harcourt is strapped in he cannot — ummm … relieve himself. At all.

“The bathroom breaks are carefully timed,” he says. Once you’re in, you’re in for the show. It’s only 90 minutes, but altogether I’m probably in it three hours.” On days when he performs two shows with a three-hour break in between, he gets out of the costume entirely — including the makeup.

“Yeah, it looks weird walking around without the costume,” he says. “It kinda looks like blackface.”

The first time Harcourt actually performed at rehearsal in the costume nearly killed him. After the R&B jive of “Slide Some Oil to Me,” he bent over, panting and exhausted. He them transitioned immediately into the ballad “To Be Able to Feel.” That caught him off-guard when he showed up to rehearsal — the song had been moved by director Kevin Moriarty to much earlier in the show than it was originally.

But the one-two punch of Harcourt’s solos has made the Tin Man — and  arm pieces are then strapped down in a ritual Harcourt — the darling of audiences and critics. And he didn’t see it coming.

“I play him as completely sexual, and some of my jokes didn’t seem to be working,” like when he calls Lion a “pussy… cat.” But when he started in front of an audience, the reaction was intense.

“I think people are responding just to how much I love doing it,” Harcourt says.

For good reason: In his 13-year professional career, this is the first time Harcourt has created a role, rather than understudying someone else’s creation. And he likes it — as well as the reception he’s received on his first stint in Texas.

It’s enough to warm the heart of this Tin Man.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 29, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens