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

11.25.11-DV-Cover-(small)

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

COVER STORY: A Sister Act

FRESH FACES | Novice Sisters Amanda DeFlower, left, and Bertha Sinn say the DFW sisters have a calling to educate the public. (Courtesy DFW Sisters)

DFW Sisters bring the outrageous fun and dedicated activism of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to North Texas

RELATED ARTICLE: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SISTERHOOD

M. M. ADJARIAN   |  Contributing Writer
editor@dallasvoice.com

In their whiteface makeup, gaudy jewels, spangles and nun habits gone gloriously wild, the DFW Sisters are hard to miss — and equally hard to ignore. “[Our appearance] brings people to us,” says Novice Sister Tasha myFUPA. “The public wants to know: What’s this all about?”

A branch of the San Francisco-based Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the DFW Sisters have been doing fundraising, charity and service work in the DFW area for more than a year.
Originally founded as the Sisters of the Yellow Rose in February 2010, the DFW Sisters formed when the STYR regrouped the following September. In January, the main — or “mother” — SPI house in San Francisco recognized the Sisters as an SPI mission.

“We [now] have to do six fundraisers [to] prove ourselves to San Francisco and the United Nuns Privy Council,” Novice Sister Bertha Sinn explains. “Then we become a fully professed house.”

The United Nuns Privy Council is comprised of delegates from all missions and houses around the country. If all goes as planned, the Dallas Sisters will become the Dallas Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in early 2012.

The beginning

The impetus to start a Sisterhood in the DFW area came from members who had contact with other SPI houses. Says Sister Eve Angelica, “We felt that Dallas was lacking an organization … that provides an outlet for us to be out there … sharing [our stories and] teaching people about safer sex and community safety.”

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence itself — now an international organization with 1,200 past and present members — came into existence in 1980. However, the three original founders had begun appearing (or manifesting, as the Sisters would say) in public the previous year.

Their first manifestation occurred on Easter Weekend 1979. The trio donned nun habits from an Iowa convent and went for a stroll through the Castro, home to San Francisco’s gay community.

The men were members of the Radical Faeries, an alternative gay male spirituality group. Part of their intent was to protest the too-slick “Castro Clones” image that they believed inhibited freer expressions of male homosexual identity. But, as Sister Bertha remarks, “[They also just wanted to] go out and have fun.”

Irreverent gender play was not new to either the SPI founders or the Castro District gay community. In fact, the Sisterhood was a direct heir to the legacy of two theater performance groups that emerged in San Francisco in the late 1960s: the Cockettes and the Angels of Light.

These groups became known for the way they would use high camp and drag to satirize all aspects of popular culture: no topic — including religion — was ever deemed too sacred to be mocked.

From the start, however, SPI playfulness was also imbued with a sense of activist purpose. Soon after the Sisters formed in 1980, they began campaigns to stop fundamentalist Christians from preaching anti-gay rhetoric in the Castro. And when the AIDS crisis began to take shape in the early 1980s, the Sisters responded by holding the first-ever AIDS fundraiser and writing a safer sex pamphlet that they distributed to the gay community.

Today’s mission

That sense of community responsibility abides 30 years later. Says Sister Bertha, “One of our main ministries, our bar ministry, is safe sex outreach. [We always have] our bliss kits [on hand], which [include] a condom, a little packet of lube and instructions on how to use it.”

Disseminating this kind of information has become an especially important part of the DFW Sisters’ work in the aftermath of cuts the Dallas City Council made in September 2009 to HIV/AIDS education programs.

The religion-inflected language the Sisters use in referring to themselves and their work belies the non-denominational nature of the Sisterhood.

“We’ve got people of all faiths. And no faiths. It runs the gamut,” Sister Bertha notes.

Diversity also defines the personal backgrounds of individual DFW sister members. The SPI began as a male-only organization; but now “[i]t doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, [male, female], blue, white, black [or] green,” says Sister Tasha. “[What does matter is that] you feel the calling.”

As would be the case in a regular religious order, commitment to the organization and its mission is paramount, as is a strong social and moral conscience. Novice Sister Edina T. Krisis’ decision to join the group arose after the devastating loss of her partner to AIDS. “Dallas was amazing to me,” she said. “I had to give back because [others] gave me back the rest of my life.”

At the same time, the commitment required to be a sister can, as Novice Sister Angelica remarks, “almost make [the whole enterprise] feel like a part-time job.” Moreover, sister-status is not for the faint-hearted. Only after one year of rising through three levels of membership — aspirant, postulant and novice — can an individual have the chance to become a fully professed Sister. After that, the person is a member for life.

Since the Dallas Sisters are an SPI mission rather than an SPI house, those designated as Sisters are still at novice level. Only after they are approved as an autonomous house will those who have been novices for at least six months be considered for elevation to full Sisterhood.

While the Dallas Sisters now work primarily in the Metroplex’s LGBT communities, with such groups as Resource Center Dallas and the Texas Gay Rodeo Association, long-term the Sisters see themselves as also working in the mainstream, too.

“So long as the mission [of a group] is in keeping with our mission and goals,” says Sister Bertha, “then [we’ll help anyone].”

For all their good works in the community, the Dallas Sisters have not been without their critics, not all of whom have been affiliated with conservative religious organizations.

Novice Sister Polly von Acocker recalls an incident when a gay man from Dallas posted pictures of the Sisters on his Facebook account along with derogatory comments about the Sisterhood itself.

“We ruffled his feathers,” Sister Polly recalls. “He didn’t like the way the Sisters portrayed the gay community.”

Undaunted, Sister Polly used this incident to educate this detractor about the SPI: “[After] opening up a dialogue with him, [the man] became one of my biggest supporters. I know now that if I need a donation, I can go straight to him.”

The ability to attract attention, stir up controversy and change minds is part of what Sister Tasha calls “the power of whiteface.” But behind the makeup are just ordinary — and in many cases, surprisingly shy — people just trying to make a difference in the community. Their Sister alter-egos, with the outsized personalities, are what make the group successful.

Having an organizational strategy that works also helps. The DFW Sisters run primarily on consensus, Sister Polly explains. Any voting that takes place is done to lend an official stamp to any agreements reached among group members.

Where the real challenge lies, says Sister Polly, “is in making sure everyone has a role in running the [group].”

The Sisters run their organization a bit like a family, but with Roberts Rules of Order in hand. Their “kinship” ties run much deeper, however: their shared vision has become a kind of “blood bond” that unites them beyond structure.

“We bicker like family,” says Sister Bertha. “But there’s a lot of love there, too.”

HELPING HANDS | The DFW Sisters help welcome participants in the Texas Bear Round Up to Dallas. (Courtesy DFW Sisters)

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 1, 2011.

—  John Wright