On January 11, San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced legislation to name a city street after Sister Vish-Knew, an LGBTQ+ activist and founder of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The street name would be added to the 000 Block of Alert Alley in San Francisco’s Mission District, Sister Vish-Knew’s longtime stomping grounds and the birthplace of her activism. The resolution will be heard by a Board of Supervisors committee in February. If approved, will allow for the unveiling of “Sister Vish-Knew Way” on Easter weekend in April.
Easter weekend would be a significant time for the unveiling, as Sister Vish-Knew first donned a nun’s habit on Easter Weekend in 1979. When she and two friends took to the street in nun-drag that weekend, she probably couldn’t have foreseen the movement growing over time into an LGBTQ+ organization with a global reach.
A History of ‘Sistery’
Since the group first took to the streets in 1979, it has since grown into a charity, protest, and street performance organization that utilizes drag to promote the LGBTQ+ community. Now with a global presence with organizations in Canada, Australia, Europe, and South America, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence raise money through activism to support LGBTQ+ and AIDS-related causes.
In fact, according to Winston Leyland, author of Out in the Castro: Desire, Promise, Activism, the Sisters were some of the first to try to bring public attention to AIDS when they created pamphlets in 1982 that used simple language and humor to deliver advice and safe sex tips. One of the founders of the Sisters believes this to be one of the greatest achievements of the organization. To this day, the Sisters continue to promote safe sex and regularly pass out condoms at events and demonstrations.
The Sisters are politically active too, participating in protests with notable demonstrations like an exorcism of Pope John Paul II in 1987 in response to the Vatican’s position on gay rights and those suffering from AIDS, or selling “Stop LaRouche” buttons to crowds to protest Lyndon LaRouche, a Californian politician who wanted people living with AIDS to be placed in quarantines. The money they raised was used for San Francisco General Hospital’s AIDS ward.
Their missions statement says they will: “[…] devote ourselves to community service, ministry, and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity, and spiritual enlightenment. The Sisters believe all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty. They use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency, and guilt that chain the human spirit.”
Their activism has continued to this day. In 2016, the Sisters’ donations helped replenish the rose quartz for the Pink Triangle Memorial Park. Sisters Vish-Knew and Roma even served as Grand Marshalls in the LGBT Pride Parade in Prague, Czech Republic that same year. Sister Vish-Knew has represented the Sisters across the globe, participating in events like the LifeBall in Vienna, Austria, and leading an international contingent of Sisters to Shanghai, China for Shanghai’s 6th annual Pride celebration.
Since its inception, the Sisters have raised over $1 million in the San Francisco organization alone.
A Life of Activism
Sister Roma, one of the founders of the Sisters, spoke of Sister Vish-Knew’s impact: “Sister Vish-Knew created and nurtured a worldwide volunteer human rights activist and fundraising organization. I am thrilled to see her being honored for her decades of dedication and service as well as being recognized as a hero in LGBTQ history.”
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently passed resolutions adding commemorative street names in honor of Tony Bennett, Vick Marlane, and the Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Riot. Mandelman recognizes Sister Vish-Knew’s impact, too: “When Sister Vish-Knew donned a nun’s habit in San Francisco on Easter weekend in 1979, she launched a spiritual movement dedicated to queer community service, activism, and art that has spread across the globe. As the co-founder of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and through her decades of service to the organization and to San Francisco, Sister Vish-Knew has made a huge impact on the lives of countless LGBTQ+ people. I am glad we have the opportunity to honor her by adding ‘Sister Vish-Knew Way’ to a street in her longtime neighborhood.”
The commemorative street is close to Sister Vish-Knew’s longtime home in the Mission Dolores Neighborhood. The neighborhood is also home to an operation of a residential program for people living with HIV/AIDS.
The organization’s website teases an event coming on Easter weekend 2022 (details coming soon). In the past, this event has drawn thousands to celebrate the continuing success and achievements of the Sisters. For Sister Vish-Knew, the work continues. “Being a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence has been my life-work.”
All photos courtesy of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence