“Thirty years ago, I wouldn’t be allowed in this building,” says Sister Sparkle Plenty, an out, gay drag queen, who wears a basic tank top and jeans as she delivers four plastic grocery bags stuffed with backpacks, binders, paper and crayons to Guerneville Elementary School. Sister Sparkle, who asked to be identified by only her drag name in this article, has filled her Honda Civic full of school supplies twenty-seven times to deliver them to local elementary students — all donations gathered by the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a band of queer nuns who live in Guerneville, a town with a population of 4,534 located on the Russian River, seventy-five miles north of San Francisco.

Sister Sparkle Plenty's necklace and earrings in her bedroom. She made the earrings from fabric lace that she cut apart into teardrop shapes and glued together.

Sister Sparkle Plenty’s necklace and earrings in her bedroom. She made the earrings from fabric lace that she cut apart into teardrop shapes and glued together.
Sister Sparkle Plenty out of drag and walking though the garden at her friends' and fellow sisters' Honey Rock Ranch property in Healdsburg, California.

Sister Sparkle Plenty out of drag and walking though the garden at her friends’ and fellow sisters’ Honey Rock Ranch property in Healdsburg, California.
Sister Sparkle Plenty delivering bags of school supplies to Guerneville School. She has brought twenty-seven carloads of school supplies over the past two years with donations gathered by the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for their Pencil and Paper Project.

Sister Sparkle Plenty delivering bags of school supplies to Guerneville School. She has brought twenty-seven carloads of school supplies over the past two years with donations gathered by the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for their Pencil and Paper Project.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence started in 1979 in San Francisco as a few gay men in nuns’ habits promoting safer sex in bars, standing up against hate crimes in the streets and advocating for the LGBT community in the face of constant discrimination – and in the coming years, a rising death toll due to the AIDS epidemic. The nonprofit group has evolved into an international volunteer network made up of orders of drag queen nuns from Canada to Colombia and Germany to Australia, each one dedicated to serving their local community with compassion and flair.

Sister Sparkle Plenty fans herself at the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence's "Jungle Book Bingo!" held at the community Veterans Memorial Hall in Guerneville.

Sister Sparkle Plenty fans herself at the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’s “Jungle Book Bingo!” held at the community Veterans Memorial Hall in Guerneville.
A disco ball and American flag hang at Honey Rock Ranch in Healdsburg.

A disco ball and American flag hang at Honey Rock Ranch in Healdsburg.

In heels, Sister Sparkle stands about seven feet tall. It takes her up to three hours to manifest. A painstaking glitter application process, incorporating up to six shades out of the forty-five in her collection, creates the inimitable face that has made Sparkle Plenty a sister-celebrity. But when she’s delivering school supplies to the local elementary schools, she wears a tank top and jeans.

“Sometimes I don’t feel like putting it on,” she says. “But whether I’m in face as Sparkle or I’m just at work, I’m still ‘Sparkle’ and people hold me to a higher standard. They expect more from me.”

The origin of the divine Sister Sparkle Plenty lies in a story laden with pain. After a particularly difficult breakup, Sparkle describes, “I was cocooning. I had become a hermit. I knew I needed to get out and meet people. So I became a Sister.”

Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, located less than 2.5 miles from downtown Guerneville.

Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, located less than 2.5 miles from downtown Guerneville.
The exterior of the Rainbow Cattle Co., a gay bar that opened in 1979 in Guerneville.

The exterior of the Rainbow Cattle Co., a gay bar that opened in 1979 in Guerneville.
Sister Sparkle Plenty and bingo players wait for a "dobber boy" to come their way. A dobber boy is someone who is paraded around the bingo hall while showing as much skin as possible while participants give money for the chance to put their inky bingo dobbers on the dobber boy's or girl's exposed skin.

Sister Sparkle Plenty and bingo players wait for a “dobber boy” to come their way. A dobber boy is someone who is paraded around the bingo hall while showing as much skin as possible while participants give money for the chance to put their inky bingo dobbers on the dobber boy’s or girl’s exposed skin.

Channeling loneliness into a passion for community service, Sister Sparkle co-founded an order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in 2000 with Sister Mary Margaret Explosion in the small town of Guerneville.

Founded as a logging town in the 1850s, Guerneville is home to an ancient grove of towering Redwoods standing 300 feet tall, creating a magical enclave of florescent lichen, wild mushrooms and banana slugs. The town now relies heavily on summer tourism, and several businesses shut down between November and April. A shelter in the Veterans Hall houses homeless folks through the coldest and wettest months, and the river sometimes floods so badly that entire neighborhoods have to be evacuated and many homes have been destroyed.

Sister Sparkle Plenty hugs a bingo player goodbye at the "Green Eggs and Bingo" bingo event.

Sister Sparkle Plenty hugs a bingo player goodbye at the “Green Eggs and Bingo” bingo event.
Sister Sparkle Plenty poses for a portrait.

Sister Sparkle Plenty poses for a portrait.

Sister Sparkle describes the early days of the order: “When we showed up in town, it was gay people on one side of the street, and the country people…They were on the other side of the street. They just gave each other the evil eye back and forth, because they really didn’t understand each other.”

Back in 2000, Sparkle and her fellow fearless queens began to break down the dangerous divide by throwing naughty bingo games once a month and donating the proceeds to local charities. When they saved the local senior center from shutting down, a man who once threw rocks at the gay bar became a devout fan of the Sisters (his mother was a regular at that senior center) — and a town that once had to beg the county for a heater in the elementary school now reaps the benefits of $1.5 million raised by the Sisters for local grassroots charities.

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This is the debut of Queer Habits, a longform multimedia documentary project co-founded by Talia Herman and Drew Denny in 2014. More at www.queerhabits.com.

Talia Herman is a freelance photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is photographing Queer Habits, and will release a comprehensive documentary project in 2016.

Drew Denny is a filmmaker, performer and artist based in LA and NY. She is director and cinematographer of Queer Habits, the feature-length documentary film. Instagram: @dangitdrewdenny