Random Acts of Nunsense

By Sister Aura Fister

It’s a constant evolution, honing one’s craft of sacred absurdity. Finding new ways of engaging in whimsical connection with other queer people. When I started giving blessings as a Sister (18 months ago tomorrow!) I had a simple glitter on the forehead and offer a few words format that I still use sometimes but it’s part of a wider and more obscure repertoire.

Last December we tried out using flying saucer sweets as parody communion wafers. If I’m lucky enough to be offering a blessing to a gay man over 40 I’ll default to a Golden Girls shtick with it (“Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, Soph-i-a”) before popping it in their mouth. Or maybe I’ll do a pentagram as I say “in the name of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and all the Nuns of the Above”.

At Exeter Pride this year I had my first experience painting toenails as a blessing. This echoes the act of service of washing the feet, but with a touch of glamour.

Also at that same event was the first trial of a “tied and tickled” blessing, where any available nuns at hand circle up and tickle the recipient who is bound in an act of giving oneself up to joy and laughter. As with any blessing, this is only done with consent. We also stroke and offer soothing presence after to help acclimate the receiver back to the world again.

Our bank of blessing options will grow and develop, individual Sisters adding their own quirks as time goes on.

Most recently at Bristol Pride I utilised a rainbow garden windmill that has different blessings for each colour and the recipient spins (a couple of times if need be) to determine whether it’ll be a kiss, a sweet or a hog-tying. If nothing else it helps start conversations, gives a story for them to take away and is a silly giving of joy as well as a lifting of shame for a few minutes.

But always with consent, with full discussion if desired and care for all who participate.

What blessings would you create? To bestow or to receive?

Hidden Vagendas

By Sister Aura Fister

Our first protest as a new Mission House. We caught wind a couple of weeks ago that a TERF group were planning an event in Glastonbury.

For the uninitiated, TERF stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists. Though they rarely refer to themselves as such. The transphobia spouted at their talks and on their social media is wrapped in a layer of pseudo-feminism and dread that some plot device of a sexual abuse victim would be traumatised by the proximity to a trans female body. That the world is full of slavering plotting sexual predators desperate to pop on a dress and call themselves Susan so they can practice paedophilia with impunity.

Jimmy Saville at least had the decency to wear a tracksuit, right?

The awful bullshit spouted by the panel consisting of, among others, a fired girl guide leader and “toilet expert” is too reminiscent of the anti-gay rhetoric spouted in the 80s and 90s. The smell of the fields being mucked on the outskirts of town was a definite whiff of things to come.

How could we not set up some protest? Some meams of showing the Trans people of Glastonbury that they have support in their community?

One of the hardest things to do was to convince Trans people to come. The reason for this became apparent at the proteat itself. Every few minutes another of the Monstrous Regiment that had taken over the Town Hall for the night would scuttle out from the door, camera phone first. I was told by a friend that this is a common tactic, take multiple pictures of any protesters to shame and intimidate them. They must not have met a Sister before. Pose! Snap! Pose! Yes! But of course for a person dealing with the upheaval and intense emotions of transitioning, this would be a traumatic ordeal.

We protesters numbered just shy of 20 overall generally most people knew someone there. We made new friends and strengthed connections. We had several people come and ask why we were protesting and who stayed to chat or to show outrage at the event taking place.

Our group consisted of members of our local community, allies and more importantly accomplices!

We kept things quite civil with the hi-vis band of stewards. We joked about being led a merry dance by organisers who had mis-fed information about the event being moved to nearby Wells. It could bring a chill to the neck of the most hardened protester to consider these virtual ogres living under a bridge in some mumsnet kingdom of cyber stepford utopia knew who to target specifically with wrong info.

But the focus for the protest was to make sure local Trans people knew they had support and love and the vile hate-peddlers knew they would not go unopposed here.

We will learn better methods and be more prepared next time. Cause they will no doubt be back. But we will be here and we learn well.

The Quiet Passing of Mother Molly’s Auxiliary Handbag (or 4 nuns go to Croydon).

By Sister Aura Fister

Once upon a nuncheon a particularly earnest and considerate nunling suggested that we might embark upon a pilgrimage far to the East of our territories in order to view a most holy relic. Postulant Niche Whimsy explained how in an exhibit at the Museum of Croydon there lay several objects of local queer significance and that a friend was creating a piece about how visitors react to these items.

He thoroughly sold us on the idea that among such objects as a copy of the Wolfenden Report there is an encased handbag used by a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence in the 90s, along with its contents. He informed us that he and his friend Mark would like to record and document our encounter with the blessed artefact.

We were very excited because with the London Sisters having been virtually lost to us, there is an inate desire to better understand and relate to those who trolled the troll before us. The chance to gaze upon such a wonder and compare it to our own tools of shame-fighting and joy-spreading was too good to pass up. Our spirits soared when we learned later that we could actually meet with the Sister himself.

A few weeks later schedules aligned and we set off for Croydon. Getting up early is one of the ways we tend to differ from more orthodox nuns, but needs must and so after some minor difficulty we hit the road. Several hours and a panicked search for parking later, we arrived fashionably late and were met by staff from the Museum and Ray, aka Mother Molly as well as the lovely Mark Goldby.

Mark is an artist in residence at the Museum for a showcase entitled Bold, which seeks to re-examine the LGBTQ exhibits in fresh light, not just as historical notations but to look at how queer people encounter them and to record those experiences, with our little meeting as part of the narrative. There was such a juxtaposition between that title, Bold, and Mark himself, whose presence was that of a quiet facilitator, a chronicler of our meeting and a warm, unobtrusive photographer. His gentle presence throughout, guiding but never forceful, was very reassuring for a plucky band of queer drag clown nuns out of their comfort zone.

We sat together nestled on sofas in a quiet corner of an extensive archival room while Niche set up his microphone. Plain brown boxes with neatly scripted explanations of their contents surrounded us.

We spoke of the role of Sisters, the challenges and inequalities within our community and Ray spoke of his own journey and experiences not only within Sisters but as part of Pride as well. The experience was somewhere between meeting long-lost relatives and a really good visit from Corporate, where common ground and shared values were in plentiful supply. As kindred spirits we talked about the need to protect and support our trans and non-binary community as well as queer migrants.

The time came for us to manifest (with a polite but firm request that we not unleash a tsunami of glitter as this was part of the archives). Of course the London Sisters would always be mish faced, that being without makeup or at least no whiteface. This is due to the tradition of Sisters coming to the UK via Australia back in the 80s. Since Bristol and the South West Sisters have a shared lineage from Edinburgh, where whiteface became established as the standard about a decade ago, this was one of the differences we chatted about.

Ray was very complimentary about our flamboyant modern nun garb, also showing his own traditional habit and dress. Another difference between us that actually didn’t divide but sparked curiosity and appreciation. It was easy to feel like amateurs in comparison, though he never once made us feel less than.

At one point I realised Ray was not manifesting alongside us, which I had assumed would have been part of the proceedings. After offering his stunning lace-trimmed scapular to Sister Naomi Shambles, he quietly and neatly packed the remainder of his old habit and carefully wrapped it in a rainbow flag.

Always one to put my foot directly in my fat piehole, i half-joked “it’s like she’s being laid in state”. Ray simply looked at me and the penny dropped. Here was this 84 year old elder nun, without a current group of his peers, who had found kinship and perhaps some Sisters in whom he could have confidence to take up the fight. This was his chance to say goodbye to someone he had been, among a group who could most closely understand what that meant.

He handed out print-outs of Amazing Pride, which we sang as we processed through the back passages (you didn’t think this would be free of double entendres, did you?) and on a short lift journey with a very confused porter, until we reached the main exhibit. There Ray set the vestiges of Mother Molly atop the perspex case where her handbag sat, with (by now) vintage white satin gloves, condoms and information on services perhaps no longer in existence.

A Queer Elder is a rare and stunning creature to behold. Funny how Ray’s handshake when we met immediately reminded me of another retired Sister from Edinburgh, Athletica de la Bain, whom I have known for almost 2 decades, whose vice-like grip on an arm as they deliver a story about people long gone is legendary. The same strength, necessity and yearning for connection, the grip of a survivor. Take Ray as an example, born a few years before WWII, a teenager in the early 50s, a young gay man long before partial decriminalisation, when our kind were not tolerated, were still entrapped by police, chemically castrated, who in middle age watched the queer community he had found be decimated by the great plague, saw beautiful vibrant gay men like him and a generation younger just waste away and disappear. Against the odds this octogenarian has survived and maintained his courage and dignity and sought to enrich the lives of others through his work as a Sister and as a founding member of Croydon Pride.

His story is the antithesis of the corporate Pride narrative we see playing out in big cities. It is the story of individual queer resilience. His tales of lost loves, of catty queeny feuds, community firsts and insights into the heart of who we are should be collated, collected and shared. The exhibit includes some of his badges from activist groups and marches, the old Switchboard badge (of which i have the recreated enamel pin version of on my wall), mementos of a million steps taken as part of his, of our, community. Badges are strong symbols of queerness through time. Bold clever slogans and tribal identities proudly displayed but which could also be unpinned, boxed and hidden away in closets, physical and metaphorical, as an act of personal safety.

How does my story differ, born 40 years later? What will my legacy be? Who will want to hear my tales of lost loves, of names no longer spoken, of delightful sexual romps? I also think of the my two gay great uncles whom i only learned about this year. Men of Ray’s generation or a little older, unconnected other than through my perspective. I am lacking in the knowledge or opportunity to speak of them or to them, but i honour them in my queer heart.

I think of one of my cultural queer elders, Harry Hay and how he spoke of a Brotherhood of Loving Companions, of queer tribe, of belonging and determining our words for ourselves. And i acknowledge the problematic aspects of that elder as I see the words I have uttered in haste and ignorance before, as I hear the words of those younger than me and i have to unroll my eyes from the back of my head. Because we are all just trying to make it through, to reach out and be part of this life and we make mistakes as we go along.

Forgive my digression. The words above are few compared to the emotions, memories and ideas as Mother Molly was laid to rest by the man who created and carried her since 1991 when he joined the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

After a few moments the ennui lifted and we made time for a few portrait shots with Mark (Sisters do so adore having their pictures taken) and to flirt with boys asking for signatures for Extinction Rebellion petitions (with Ray forlornly saying he wouldn’t be around for the changes they hoped to bring about).

Eventually we said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch. Ray handed Sister Sadie his old auxillary back-up handbag and quietly said “this is for you dear” along with a proposition that she might become Mother Sadie. We left with smiles all round, glad to have made the 8 hour round trip, to have met and felt part of our wider Sistory.

We have a tradition in Sisters of exchanging gifts, trinkets, “mindings” as my mother (and i guess I) would call them. Vials of glitter, handbags, badges and brooches, secondhand frocks. It helps us feel like part of us goes with the others, our energy and love is carried away on the tide, honoured by them in the works they do. We are part of a vast network of love and joy, even when we cannot see or feel it.

There has been a poignancy to this experience and that’s ok. Sacred clowning sometimes makes us examine our own fears, in this case fears of losing connections, of difference leading to isolation, of the cost of surviving.

But through the vulnerability of being in that state, empathy is discovered, which is one of the most vital tools for a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence (it’s right up there alongside a rubber chicken). Empathy helps us to keep reaching out, finding each other in an increasingly divisive world. Through empathy we find healing and just past healing sits love, patiently waiting.

May the Great Queer Spirit hold you close and gently.

Sister Aura Fister of the Blessed Rosebud, Summer Solstice 2019

Finding Dory

My first encounter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

Last year I attended a drag show that would change my life. I had travelled to Bristol to see Sasha Velour It was my first time in Bristol and at an Eat Sleep Drag Repeat show, I was excited and did not know what to expect.
As I was queuing outside the venue in the cold January weather, I saw a bearded man in a massive hoop skirt cross the road to join the queue. I thought to myself “Well it is a drag show, so anything goes!”

Little did I know that this curious being would become and important part of my life.
At the afterparty I was sat on my own, waiting for a chance to talk to my friend Alfie. I’m not one to disturb a performer when they are surrounded by adoring fans wanting selfies, so I sat and people watched.
As i watched i could feel myself getting sad about being on my own.

*BING* like a ghoulish fairy godmother the bearded man with the painted face was beside me. I asked them “Are you a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence by any chance?” “why yes! How could you tell?” they replied coyly.
We talked about the sisters and the work they do all over the world. Expiating stigmatic guilt, promulgating universal joy and showing the world that if there is room for a queer drag nun, then theres room for you.
Novice Sister Carmen Myanus blessed me with sacred glitter and actually made me cry a little with their beautiful words.

My first glitter blessing from Carmen Myanus

I was so moved by the experience that I messaged the Bristol Sisters Facebook page to thank them as soon as i got back to my hostel. I knew I had been part of something special and I wanted more.

Fast forward a few months and Carmen invited me to watch her get her black veil.
Bristols Exequatur is a night i will always remember. I met sisters from all over the UK and two inspiring sisters from the US.
During the beautiful ritual, watching the new veils being given and hearing the vows being spoken, I knew I wanted to be a Sister.

This was my calling.
I asked the question the very next day.
I have never looked back.

I have taken part in a queer shame ritual that involved a beautiful trans body and lipstick words of shame.
I’ve spoken on behalf of my sisters at a World AIDS day vigil and lead the room into a minute of noise after the minutes silence with my trusty rubber chicken Phil.

World AIDS day 2018

This is only two of the many things I have done as a sister. But each of them were special to me. Because in that moment I made a difference

Where Have You Been?

With Sister Aura Fister of the Blessed Rosebud

My first encounter with a Sister was January 1996 on my 21st birthday in Edinburgh. To mark the occassion she thrust an inflatable dildo in my mouth and pumped it up 21 times. It would take 20 years for me to hear the call of the veil.

That same year I began volunteering as a steward with Pride Scotland and through that I joined the World AIDS Day Vigil organising committee, where I worked alongside Sisters like Athletica de la Bain and Pastor Best. They invited me to get involved in 2003 when Pride Scotia was launched out of the ashes of Pride Scotland.

A number of years later I came to write for ScotsGay Magazine, for which Pastor Best is Editor.

But it was my journey with the Radical Faeries that brought me to the convent doors in the end.

In June 2016 in the aftermath of the Pulse Massacre I was attending a Faerie gathering in Glastonbury. Everyone was reeling from that act of violence against our community. We held a heart circle and I worked with a dear Faerie sibling to put together a memorial ritual at the White Spring, with a very visual Queers Against Fear march through town.

About a week later I was henching for the Sisters at Pride Edinburgh and I was asked the question as to why I wanted to join. “To queer shit up” was my reply.

Turned out it wasn’t an easy task for a Radical Faerie to be a Postulant in an established and orderly House. So I didn’t always gel with the ways of my dear Sisters and that was tough.

A year later and I was on the run from a broken heart. A homing instinct kicked in and I headed for Glastonbury. The inimitable Sister Ann Tici….Pation, whom I had known through Pride and Beltane Fire Festival for several years was also relocating nearby and provided succour in her parents home and also in the Bristol Mission House, as it was at the time.

And there I found the opportunity to explore a different way of working, found myself living as a rural queer person and started to find my own drum (tambourine) beat.

Over the course of 2 years I grew in ministry and waistline and had made connections with other queer communities around Somerset with even the occassional London visit. Cabaret-based ministry, smaller outlying Prides and transformative queer ritual have become my Modus Operandi.

So now we have a chance to build on the work myself and fellow Bristol Sisters have begun and we are launching a brand new Mission House, the South West Sisters, Abbey of the Windy Passages.

We seek to build a network of queer joy, to ease the hardships or rural queer people and to combat oppression and intolerance. To comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.