QUEER NUNS AND GENDERBENDING SAINTS: Genderf*cking Notions of Normativity.

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Author: Jessi Knippel
Date: Dec. 2019
From: Cross Currents(Vol. 69, Issue 4)
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,556 words
Lexile Measure: 1650L

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What connections are there between the international queer activist group called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (hereafter the Sisters) and the female saints of the early Christian Church? The bearded yet bedazzled, glittery contemporary queer activists dress as nuns to advocate for "the promulgation of universal joy" and "expiation of stigmatic guilt." (1) Conversely, early Christian female martyrs and saints once donned male dress and assumed male personae as a means to remain faithful and unencumbered by the expectations and obligations of femininity within their cultural context. Certainly, both groups have adopted the dress and aspect of the opposite gender for very different purposes: The drag nuns seek to parody the Church as outsiders, whereas the cross-dressing saints sought to assimilate into it as insiders. But by taking their parody seriously, this paper locates the Sisters within a long lineage of genderbending saints.

This paper builds upon the recent ethnographic research of Melissa Wilcox in her book Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism and Serious Parody. (2) It seeks to explore the connections between the Sisters' use of serious parody and their performativity of gender and fruitfully compare it with the historic female saints' presentation of "masculine" identities. How does the performativity of gender in each cultural context challenge and potentially uphold the assumed notions of normative gender? Is it possible to understand the Sisters' actions and presentation as a part of a history of religious "genderf*ck" performativity within the Christian tradition that originated with the genderbending or cross-dressing saints of the early church? Might a similar action be present, for example, in Sister Soami Deluxe's (formerly Sister Missionary Position or Mish) donning a full nun's habit with customary bushy beard, and the fourteenth-century Saint Wilgefortis, with her flowing hair and full, bushy beard?

To engage in this conversation, we will begin with an overview of the Sisters, their history, and the key element of parody that they are incorporating into their activism. From there, we will move into the historical narratives of the genderbending or cross-dressing saints, focusing on the ways in which gender is contextualized in the narratives of Perpetua (d. 202/3 CE), Marinus (Marina) in the fifth (alt. eighth) century, Pelagius (Pelagia) in the fourth to fifth century, and Wilgefortis in the fourteenth century. (3) It will conclude by discussing how the Sisters both live into and counter the tradition of the genderbending saints.

Oriqins of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

The origin story of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence starts on a high holy day filled with boredom. As it has been told both in the history of the order and to Dr. Wilcox, a professor of Religion and Queer/Transgender studies at University of California-Riverside, (4) the first manifestation of the queer nuns was on Holy Saturday of Easter weekend in 1979. Ken Bunch (Sister Adhanarisvara, later renamed Vicious Power Hungry Bitch), Fred Brungard (Sister Missionary Position, later known as Somai), and friend Baruch Golden donned habits with whiteface makeup, props (most notably a toy machine gun), and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A611172725