Queer Nuns: Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Are ‘Serious Parody,’ Forcing us to Redefine Nuns

The Last Supper, by Max Koo, from the cover of Queer Nuns.

What inspired you to write Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody?

In addition to knowing about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for longer than I can remember, I’ve been fascinated for decades by their repurposing of religious symbolism. But I couldn’t quite work out how to frame a book project on them from a religious studies lens until a member of the order took part in an earlier project (Queer Women and Religious Individualism, Indiana University Press, 2009). She told me that many members consider their work with the order to be a part of their spiritual practice. That became my route into conceptualizing the project, though in the end that wasn’t really the heart of what I thought or wrote about.

Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody
Melissa M. Wilcox
NYU Press
May 22, 2018

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

It probably depends on the reader. I’m pretty intrigued by what I call “serious parody,” which I think is a striking and unusual, perhaps even novel approach to activism. In essence, this approach involves a non-dominant group both parodying a culturally dominant, oppressive group, and at the same time claiming for itself what it considers to be the most valuable aspects of that group.

The Sisters are an order of self-named queer nuns who parody Roman Catholicism, and at the same time make an earnest and very serious claim to be nuns—just not Roman Catholic ones. More subtle in the book, and a ramification I’m still developing in my current work, is the implication that taking marginalized groups (here, queer and trans folks) seriously forces us to reconsider at profound levels many of our taken-for-granted assumptions about religion. If we take the Sisters seriously, we’re forced to redefine the category of “nun” rather than to refuse the Sisters membership to that category.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

TONS! The first draft of the chapter on the history of the order was 70 pages. In fact, the history of the worldwide order could easily be a book in itself, especially when placed into conversation with other forms of queer activism from the 1960s to the present.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

Oh, where do I begin? Religious studies scholars outside of queer and transgender studies in religion often dismiss our subfield as too narrow; underlying this is an assumption—conscious or not—that not very many queer and trans folks are religious, or that the most important thing to know about religion and LGBTQ communities is what the straight and cisgender people think about us. Also connected to this assumption is the idea that one can work in this subfield without any significant preparation, despite the existence of decades of scholarship by highly trained and experienced scholars who have dedicated their careers to doing this work.

On the other side of the coin, many queer and transgender studies scholars are still under the impression that religion is simply, always and everywhere, the opiate of the people and deserves little to no serious attention. More specifically to the Sisters, few people who don’t know the order well are aware that they actually do consider themselves, in all seriousness, to be nuns. Many think they’re mocking nuns, but parody or camp and mockery are often very different things. In fact, one of the easiest ways to move a Sister to tears is to tell her that nuns from other orders (Roman Catholic, Buddhist, etc.) recognize and respect her work.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I always try to write for both scholarly and general audiences, and for both religious studies and gender/sexuality/queer/transgender studies. In this case, I was also aware that many members of the order would be eager to buy the book—despite how sizeable, widespread, long-lived, influential, and intriguing this order is, no academic book has ever been published about them in English (and only one has ever been published at all—in French).

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

I actually don’t like pissing people off. I know some scholars rise to fame that way, but I’ve always thought quite poorly of that approach and wondered why it was necessary. I’d simply like my readers to come away more informed and more intrigued. I became a religious studies scholar because I was fascinated by religion doing the (to me) unexpected; and a seriously parodic order of queer nuns is unexpected to almost everyone who doesn’t already know about it.

I hope readers absorb some of my enthusiastic fascination with queer and transgender studies in religion. I hope religious studies readers come to think more carefully about the enormous diversity of religious practices and perspectives in queer and trans communities and the force of performative religious activism. I hope queer and transgender studies readers come to think more carefully about religion beyond their immediate association of the word with Jerry Falwell. I hope my colleagues in queer and transgender studies in religion find something in the book to be of use to their own work. And I hope the Sisters, Brothers, Fathers, Guards, and other members of the worldwide order of Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence feel that the book has done them justice.

What alternative title would you give the book?

Ha! That is a great question, as anyone who’s gone through the publication process will know. It was originally titled Serious Parody: Religion, Queer Activism, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Getting to the current title was quite a process—unpleasant at times—but I’m very happy with it.

How do you feel about the cover? 

I love it! I have an enormous fondness for activist art, especially queer and feminist art, and in particular queer and feminist reimaginings of traditional religious images. So when I first saw Max Koo’s art I knew I wanted it on the cover of the book. I sent NYU two of his works, hoping that way they’d be more likely to choose Max’s art for the cover, and I was stunned and delighted when they put both images on the cover. I couldn’t be happier—it’s eyecatching and stunning. Huge shout-out to adam b. bohannon, who designed it.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

There are many authors whose abilities I deeply admire, some of whom I continually stand in awe of. I definitely aspire to write more like those folks, and they inspire me regularly. But the only books I wish I had written are the ones in my head that remain unwritten.

What’s your next book?

That’s still nascent, so I’m a little hesitant to say too much. I’m in the very early exploratory stages of a book on spiritually-oriented leather culture and the use of religious tools, themes, and images in BDSM; I’m also considering continuing to pursue my current musings about how attending to queer and transgender communities (among others/other Others) challenges accepted understandings of religion and the various categories we use to study it. Since the concept itself is constructed anyway, it seems to me that any possibilities for rethinking/unthinking its construction can have important ramifications for the field. So there may be a theory book taking shape as well. But I’m the kind of author who lets the book tell me what to write, and as of yet the new book or books are still just whispering at the back of my head. 

Bonus: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your book?  

If you’re considering teaching all or part of the book, you might be interested to know that the Sisters have houses (non-residential chapters) in many large cities in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia. They are often happy to visit classrooms, and they will come in habit to discuss their own perspectives on the order. Because they’re a non-profit organization that gives all of its monies back to the community, some will ask only for the cost of travel; honoraria generally go to the Sister’s house rather than to the individual member.