Melissa M. Wilcox
Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody is about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a nearly forty-year-old, religiously-unaffiliated order of part-time, non-celibate nuns of all genders and sexualities who are active on four continents around the world. It considers serious parody, “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.” Whether you want to know more about performative, parodic, playful options for activism in the often dour and even frightening political climate we face today, or whether you just want to read more about non-celibate nuns who dress in drag, pick up the book.
NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic, and what are the questions do you still have?
Wilcox: I’ve actually been interested in the Sisters for a long time, but I wasn’t sure how to articulate my interest as a research project specifically in religious studies. I believe very strongly that our “instincts,” our “gut,” our “hunches” – whatever you want to call it – reflect insights that we aren’t yet ready to articulate. I had a hunch that the Sisters would be a fascinating research topic within queer studies in religion, but I had to trust the hunch and do the research in order to figure out how it all fit together. What confirmed my hunch (but didn’t yet allow me to fully articulate it) was the insight that a member of the order offered to me during my research for a previous book, Queer Women and Religious Individualism when she told me that many Sisters consider their work with the order to be a part of their spiritual practice. That was the hook I needed to start the project, and once I began really spending time with members of the order I quickly realized that what’s going on with religion there is far more complex than I had anticipated – likely a big part of why I hadn’t been able to precisely articulate my initial insights.
And there are so many ongoing questions! I’m following up on the questions that I think the Sisters pose to both queer studies and religious studies about taking queer forms of religion seriously. There is a great deal more research to be done on the Sisters, and several scholars are beginning to pick up those threads as well. The order has overall been quite diligent about maintaining their archives, and they are interwoven with the history of queer and sometimes transgender activism in a number of regions of the world, so there are many more stories for academics to learn and re-tell in the future.
NOTCHES: This book is clearly about the history of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?
Wilcox: Activism is a key theme, and in particular the complex intersections of religion, queerness, and activism. There have been a number of studies of queer activism in recent years, particularly in the U.S., and they tend to focus either on apparently secular activism (from the Lesbian Avengers to ACT UP, and many groups in between) or on activism by heterosexual allies in religious organizations. Until recently there’s been little attention to queer religious activism save for occasional references to the usual suspects like Metropolitan Community Church founder Troy Perry (but scholars such as Heather White, Anthony Petro, and Lynne Gerber, among others, are beginning to change that). But interestingly, the Sisters almost always have a cameo role in studies of queer activism in the 1980s! Few scholars (the exceptions are those who were or are themselves members of the order) have understood the religious elements of their activism, dismissing them as an odd street theater group that dressed as nuns. They are much more, and in that they can teach a wide audience about queer activism, about playful, performative activism, and about serious parody as an activist tool.
NOTCHES: How did you research the book? (What sources did you use, were there any especially exciting discoveries, or any particular challenges, etc.?)
Wilcox: My research combines ethnographic, interview, oral history, and archival methods. I found the Sisters’ collection in the ONE Archives a bit by accident, having booked a trip to Los Angeles to interview members of that house but having never heard back from anyone about scheduling an interview. I also benefited from the archives kept by the San Francisco house, by the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, by founding members Sister Soami and Sister Hysterectoria, and right at the end, from the extensive collections of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Melbourne. One of the two most exciting elements of the historical research was holding in my hands an original copy of the Sisters’ 1982 Play Fair! pamphlet – the first sex-positive safer sex guide written by and for gay men. The second was discovering during a casual conversation at a conference that the “missing link” between the Australian order and the British houses of the Sisters, the Sister who traveled from Australia and founded a house in London, was alive and well-known to my conversation partner. Putting living puzzle pieces back together after thirty or forty years is one of the most exciting things I do.
NOTCHES: Whose stories or what topics were left out of your book and why? What would you include had you been able to?
Wilcox: The first draft of the history chapter of the book (Ch. 1) was 70 manuscript pages long, and that was before I found the materials in the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives or interviewed the Sister who founded the first long-lived London house! Many of the stories left out of the book are historical ones, and there is an entire book to be written solely on the development of the Sisters as a global order. And there are so many others – heart-wrenching stories that I remember but that weren’t recorded because my recorder battery died when I wasn’t looking, inspiring stories that simply didn’t fit in the book and ended up on the cutting room floor, funny stories that simply didn’t have the right place to go in the book. It’s a hard task to take mountains of archival material, over 100 pages of fieldnotes, and close to 1,700 pages of single-spaced interview transcripts, and reduce them down to less than 300 pages of a printed book.
NOTCHES: Did the book shift significantly from the time you first conceptualized it?
Not really, but that’s because my initial research methods basically consist of running after shiny objects. I didn’t have a concept of the book until near the end of my fieldwork, because I didn’t yet know what I had to work with.
NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?
Wilcox: This is a funny story. I got hooked on religious studies as an undergrad because I became fascinated by the idea (completely counter-intuitive to me at the time) that women were reclaiming traditional religions through a feminist lens. I went to grad school intending to study gender in Gnostic texts, but along the way I got interested in more recent religious movements around power and justice. As my interests shifted, I decided to take a course on ethnographic methods, and I had to choose a field site that I could visit weekly for my assignments. I tried all kinds of feminist religious and spiritual groups – none were available nearby that met weekly. The night before I had to turn in a paper describing the group I’d chosen found me sitting on my dining room floor with a phone book (remember those?!) open to the “C” section because all religious organizations, regardless of the religion, were listed under “churches.” I realized, a bit to my dismay, that there was a congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church just a few miles from me. My two best friends had joined this church not long before, and I’d responded with the typical queer incredulity, wondering why queer folks would want any part of a religion that so clearly disliked them. (This was at the height of “religious right” prominence in the U.S., but MCC was founded by an openly gay man and serves LGBT Christians around the world.) Reluctantly, I accepted that I would be going to church for the next fourteen Sundays – but watching a minister pray over a same-sex couple that Sunday moved me to tears. I spent three hours a few weeks later learning about queer and transgender Christian ministry and theology from the pastor of that church, and by the end of that semester I’d decided to write my dissertation on MCC. At that point, I’d say my fate as a scholar of queer and transgender studies in religion was sealed.
NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?
Wilcox: The Sisters are both entertaining and eminently teachable – I hope the same can be said about the book. I like to include videos when teaching about the Sisters, and there are a number of them cited in the book that can be accessed easily on YouTube and Vimeo. My long-time favorite is Altered Habits, a 1981 short that has early members of the order performing to Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag.” The book could be used for a variety of classes, ranging from gender and sexuality studies to activism to religious studies to performance studies, and what one would pair it with in terms of other readings would depend on what the goals of the course were.
NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?
Wilcox: I’ve been thinking a lot about this, especially in recent years. I’m struck by the Sisters’ emphasis on ludic (playful) activism, and on joy. There are other activist groups who have this emphasis on joyous, playful approaches to deadly serious issues, and I think there’s something very persuasive about this approach. Not to the exclusion of other approaches – I think rage is a critically important part of much activism. But many people who started their activism in ACT UP, for example, and later moved their focus to the Sisters told me that they burned out on rage, that joy is a sustainable form of activism that’s life-giving in the face of death-dealing regimes of power. That, to me, is an important insight that more of us may need to be attending to today.
NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?
Wilcox: Right now I have two textbook projects in the works. Queer Religiosities: An Introduction to Queer and Transgender Studies in Religion is with Rowman and Littlefield, and publication is anticipated in early 2020. Religion, the Body, and Sexuality is co-authored with Nina Hoel and Liz Wilson, and Routledge will publish it probably in 2021. When those projects and my many other commitments allow me to breathe, I’m at the very beginning stages of moving into two new research projects. Both build on my work with the Sisters, but in different directions. One project, tentatively entitled Queering/Religioning (a title I envision printed in a circle, so that it repeats endlessly), follows up on the questions raised by all of my work, but the Sisters book especially, about what queer theory and religious studies could learn from a deep and multidirectional engagement with one another. The other project, tentatively entitled Ecstasies, will be a multi-methodological exploration of leather spirituality, most likely in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Don’t expect either book out for a good ten years, though!
Melissa M. Wilcox is Professor and Holstein Family and Community Chair of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Her transdisciplinary research program focuses on queer and transgender studies in religion. Her books include Coming Out in Christianity: Religion, Identity, and Community; Sexuality and the World’s Religions; Queer Women and Religious Individualism; Religion in Today’s World: Global Issues, Sociological Perspectives; and, most recently, Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody.
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