From The Flying Nun to The Sound of Music, nuns always had a sort of magical cachet for me as a child. Maybe it was the singing or the big aerodynamic hats that let Sally Field fly through the air, or perhaps it was just the idea of living a quiet, serene life of reflection and solitude.
Of course, as one grows up, it becomes clear that the religious structure behind these Sisters isn’t terribly supportive of things like equal rights for women, other faiths or LGBT folks. It’s sad, because so many of us have been touched and inspired by these women’s kindly blend of mothering and service.
“A lot of people grew up in the Catholic Church and have an affinity with nuns,” says Novice Sister Marrygold Le Beaujolais, a volunteer with the Toronto chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. “Personally, I’ve always had a great regard towards the idea of grace and service that was inspired by some really great nuns I knew as a kid.”
As you may have guessed, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are not an officially recognized sect of the Roman Catholic Church. As relatively progressive as the newest pope is, I’m guessing he’d shy away from men dressing up in nuns’ habits and whiteface, handing out condoms and lube at gay bars and Pride parades. God only knows how John Paul the Second felt back in 1979 when a group of gay men started the first chapter in San Francisco to confront religious nutjobs proselytizing in their community.
Since then, the San Francisco chapter alone has raised more than $1 million in support of various LGBT causes, as well as providing advice, literature and accoutrements for a safer-sex lifestyle. Now, more than 30 years later, there are chapters all over the world, all devoted to spreading the group’s message of love, joy and slightly naughty fun.
“We expiate stigmatic guilt and promulgate universal joy,” Le Beaujolais says, quoting the group’s motto. “We manifest in public and with community groups to do fundraising, share information and just have a really fun time.
“Some people came out of Catholicism with a very negative experience. The gay men that started this movement wanted to take the best parts of something that was not great and share them with others. It’s not meant to be disrespectful; it’s mean to be inspirational and fun.”
Le Beaujolais has always felt an affinity with nuns and was excited to be part of the Toronto chapter’s immaculate conception. He describes himself as a little less outrageous than some of the other Sisters — a quality that can be helpful when doing community outreach.
“I personally lean to being a less-exuberant Sister,” he says. “So I often get a lot of quiet moments when we’re out that are really very rewarding. People tell you bits about their lives and any struggle they may be experiencing. Having that interaction is really inspirational for me.”
The sisters will be marching in the parade this year for WorldPride and look forward to sharing their chapter’s interest in Canadian queer history with fellow revellers. As always, they’ll be armed with their “bliss kits,” a gift bag containing condoms, lubricant and information about safer-sex practices. For Beaujolais and her five Toronto Sisters, it’s a way to take part in the colourful craziness of it all while also reaching out to those in need.
“The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have been on the front lines of some of the great activist movements over the years,” Le Beaujolais says. “Drawing on that history and the ideas of comfort, compassion and service in a fun sort of genderbending whimsical kind of way is really wonderful.”