“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.
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.
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.”
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 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.