Pittsburgh’s Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are Here to Wash Away Your Queer Guilt

Should You Need Us

The Nuns of Steel. Photo by Mara Rago.

If you’ve been to a Pride event, you may have found yourself wondering why you saw a white-faced, possibly fully-bearded nun in a colorful ensemble. If you have, consider yourself blessed, because that means you crossed paths with one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — an order of 21st-century queer nuns whose mission is to “promulgate universal joy, expiate stigmatic guilt, and look goddamned fabulous while doing it.”

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is a charitable organization that started as a social movement in San Francisco in 1979. The organization was founded by a group of gay men who were looking to express their sexuality, creativity, and spirituality in a time when the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the LGBTQ+ community.

The group’s name was inspired by the Catholic Church’s concept of the “indulgence,” a sort of “get out of jail free” card that you could purchase to reduce the punishment you received for sinning. Convenient, right? The Sisters adopted this concept as a way to challenge the Church’s authority and create a new kind of spiritual practice that was inclusive of LGBTQ+ people.

Over the years, the Sisters have become known not only for their elaborate drag performances, which often involve religious and cultural iconography reinterpreted through a queer lens, but also their involvement in activism and community outreach, supporting HIV/AIDS education and prevention, LGBTQ+ rights, gender equality, and more.

Today, there are Houses of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in cities all over the world, including right here in Pittsburgh! The Abbey of Trinity Rivers is home to the Nuns of Steel and was founded in the summer of 2016 in response to the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Our hometown Sisters partner with local organizations like the Equality Center to support members of the community in a variety of ways.

Sister Facts:

  • The Sisters of Steel’s cornette (nun headwear) honors the three “sister” bridges of Pittsburgh and the saint-like individuals for whom they were named: Roberto Clemente, Rachel Carson, and Andy Warhol.
  • The Sisters refer to those their fellow nuns who have passed as “Nun(s) of the Above.”
  • The Sisters of Steel’s patron saint is David Bowie’s character from Labyrinth: Jareth, the Goblin King.
  • The white face creates a sense of anonymity which helps members of the community feel comfortable opening up to Sisters and practicing difficult conversations, like revealing HIV status or coming out to a loved one.
  • The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence first manifest on Easter Saturday 1979 in the Castro and Lands End in San Francisco.

One of the founding Sisters, Petra Pyper Pictapekhov Pickled Peckers, says that a huge impediment to health and wellness in our community is guilt and shame that isn’t their own, but a stigmatic mark that was laid upon them by others. Those feelings can lead to unsafe sex practices, a reluctance to receive STI testing, or shame in seeking counseling, transition support or other necessary services.

“We have our own variations of blessings, confessions, and penance to help wash away the guilt of things that people don’t need to carry around,” Sister Petra says. For some who have been rejected by their faith, having such structure and rituals can be incredibly powerful. “Many people don’t have access to rites of passage, life markers and such,” she added.

The Sisters not only co-opt the religious iconography for its power, but also to bring awareness to the abuse of that power, especially the things that have been done by the Catholic Church.

A recreation of the Sisters’ first manifestation. Photo by Mara Rago.

Exactly what types of services can one expect? Well, the Sisters will bless people with bubbles and kazoos at Pride events, help officiate weddings or naming ceremonies, and even hold funerals for dead names. “The person can do something as simple as thanking their dead name and the mask they wore as the thing that kept them safe until they were ready,” says Sister P. “And then letting it go.”

Such services can also be helpful for families to let go of the illusion and expectations they had as they learn to accept their loved one. “All change is trauma and all trauma has grief, so this is giving them a chance to say goodbye to what they thought they had,” Sister Petra says.

The Sisters are very sex-positive, pro-living life with joy, and all about indulging in life and helping you do so without guilt or shame.

“We are sacred clowns,” says Sister P. “Like the jesters of old, we can speak truth to power and we’re like rodeo clowns.”

Sisters will often set themselves up between protesters and Pride events to draw the attention away from those who cannot handle the hatred coming their way.

Sister Petra Pyper Pictapekhov Pickled Peckers. Photo by Mara Rago.

“You can’t take our joy, you won’t take our joy.”

Sister Petra Pyper Pictapekhov Pickled Peckers

As such hatred spreads and inspires hate-fueled laws, the Sisters feel it is more important than ever to keep the community’s spirits up and to continue to spread joy just as they did during the AIDS epidemic.

“Anger is useful, anger is powerful,” says Sister P. “But joy is the reason that we have something to be angry about. You can’t take our joy, you won’t take our joy.”

If you want to have your own religious experience with the Sisters of Steel, be sure to grab tickets to Outrageous Bingo at Rodef Shalom, where the Sisters are regularly seen helping out with the 50/50 raffle that benefits the Shepherd Wellness Community and the Pittsburgh Equality Center.

And as the Sisters love to say, “Go and sin some more!”

Do you feel the call to be a holy fool? Contact the sisters via email at trinityrivers412@gmail.com.

Roy Gloeckl resides in the southern hills of Pittsburgh, performing communications specialties for a local university. He is a lifelong gaymer who has yet to “catch ‘em all.” He is an actor who wants to be a cartoon. And yeah, he totally has a favorite dinosaur. Follow him on Instagram and tell him yours.