When a bearded nun in whiteface wearing glitter makeup puts a condom in your pocket, you notice. And that’s the point.
“When I walk in somewhere as Rick Westbrook, gay activist, nobody pays much attention. But when we walk in as Rapture or Fiddle D. Dee, people pay attention. It’s an interesting little culture shock,” says Westbrook, a.k.a Rapture Divine Cox. “I tell everyone we’re the gay Shriners.”
Atlanta’s fledgling order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — fittingly known as the Flaming Sugarbakers in a nod to “Designing Women” and their Georgia heritage — is living up to the mission of the Sisters to give back to the community in a way that is entertaining and interesting.
The mission of the Sisters is to “promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt,” explains Gunza Blazin, who declined to give his real name. “We want to banish the guilt churches have put on you in the past.”
Formed in 1979 by a small group of men in San Francisco, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence intentionally flew in the face of Catholicism to fight against the tyranny the church tried to impose against the surge of gay people living in the Castro.
Soon after the San Francisco Order was formed, houses started popping up across the U.S. and around the globe, in countries including Colombia, Germany and Scotland. And while the San Francisco House is considered the “Mother House,” each Order is autonomous and comes up with its own look, culture and rules based on the environment they live in.
But all Houses must do one thing: give back to their community.
Recently, the Atlanta Sisters — they are considered Novice Sisters right now — helped raise $4,200 for the Susan G. Komen Foundation by playing in the Bats-n-Rouge softball fundraiser at Piedmont Park. They also made quite an impression at the April 24 Wig Out party at the Atlanta Eagle, a fundraiser for queer arts and music fest MondoHomo.
“We go wherever help is needed,” says Fiddle D. Dee, otherwise known as Eddie Townson.
They’re just like super heroes, except instead of capes they’re wearing a wimple (those would be the bonnets on their heads), glittery makeup and rhinestones glued to their foreheads and cheeks.
“Martha Stewart has fabulous glitter … she probably never thought it’d be used for this,” says Fiddle D. Dee with a laugh.
“The glitter isn’t supposed to be used on your face, but whatever works,” adds Gunza Blazin.
But don’t confuse them with drag queens.
“What we do is more of a service rather than a performance,” says Ivanna Pokeahotass, a.k.a. Wesley Sumpter.
Steps to sisterhood
The Atlanta Sisters were formed in late 2009 by Gunza Blazin, Ivana Pocahotass and Fiddle D. Dee. Atlanta Pride in October was their coming out party. When Westbrook, a longtime performer in the popular East Point Possums drag show, saw them marching in the parade, he says he almost fell to the ground he was so thrilled. He joined in January as a founding member.
Four specific steps must be taken to become a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence and the process typically takes about one year. And anyone — man, woman, transgender or gender-bender — can become a Sister, although most across the world are men.
The first step is Aspirant, a time when a person declares in a general membership meeting their intention to join. As an Aspirant, one is required to take time to get to know the Sisters, participate in events and watch to see how community work is done. No whiteface or wimple is allowed at this stage.
If it’s agreed upon by the Sisters that enough work has been done as an Aspirant, a person is elevated to Postulant.
In Atlanta, Postulants are members of the Order and can begin “manifesting” — painting their faces and also wearing a grey veil. However, they can only paint their eyes and not their lips.
The next step is Novice Sister, when a Sister can paint her lips and speak out about who and what the Sisters are. They also can wear the signature wimple with a white veil. The Atlanta wimple, a tribute to Civil War bonnets, was designed by Gunza Blazin, who also sewed them for the others.
After about six months of being Novice Sisters, a ceremony called an “exequator” is held and the Novice Sisters trade in their white veils and are “black veiled.” Atlanta’s exequator is set to be held sometime this fall.
The Flaming Sugarbakers currently includes four Novice Sisters, four Postulants and four Aspirants. The group also includes guards — those who protect the Sisters, take care of the money at events and do whatever else the Sisters ask.
“I wanted to give back to my community. I used to live in Seattle and saw the joy and good the Sisters did there and thought it was time for Atlanta to have its own Sisters,” Gunza Blazin says.
Meet Atlanta’s Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence:
Photo: The Atlanta Sisters known as the Order of the Flaming Sugarbakers are, from left, Ivanna Pokeahotass, Gunza Blazin, Fiddle D. Dee and Rapture Divine Cox. (by Dyana Bagby)