Nun Of Your Business

It's 10am on a warm May morning and I'm walking into Aberdeen city centre with my friend. A man's jaw has just fallen open, and he's walked several feet into the road to avoid being near me. A woman in a Range Rover has nearly crashed because she's staring so much. It's almost as if the north of Scotland has never seen a drag nun before.

We're used to seeing nuns portrayed as sprightly, twinkly eyed singing Marias or austere, disapproving matrons in grim convent dramas, but queer ones covered in greasepaint and glitter don't spring instantly to mind. Once they do, it's somewhat hard to shake the image.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were rebels at a time of devastation in the gay community of seventies San Francisco. The Catholic Church had turned their backs on the suffering of AIDS victims, and there was nowhere else for them to seek comfort. So, on the pretence of staging a performance of The Sound of Music, three gay men borrowed some nun's habits and toured the bars of the Castro District, drawing attention to the social conflicts there. This small act of rebellion spread like sparkly rainbow wildfire, and now there's Sisters all over the world, ministering to the queer masses.

That's why I'm standing on Aberdeen's main street, with a growing crowd cooing over my glitter makeup and jewellery so copious it would put Lily Savage to shame. Because there's no better way to draw attention to the crimes still committed against the LGBTQ+ community than to turn up to Grampian's first Pride as a Sister.

At a time when homosexuality was still taboo, the Sisters appearing in the streets was the ultimate act of defiance. So great was the Sisters' reach, that by the late eighties one ran for office in San Francisco, listing her occupation as 'Nun of the above'. A law was swiftly passed requiring candidates to use their legal name. The Sisters elegantly stuck the boot (or stiletto) into the establishment, and they continue their colourful activism to this day.

I've made it several yards into the Pride march, and I've already been photographed for a newspaper. Some awestruck teenage girls have asked me how long it took to do my makeup (an hour and a half, most of that clearing up glitter). They tell me my rainbow eyelashes are beautiful (I'm glad, because they took up the rest of that getting ready time).

But being a rebel involves more hard work than putting on makeup. Sisters take vows like any nuns, to spread universal joy and banish guilt. You might see them handing out safe sex packs or shaking buckets for LGBTQ+ charities. Sometimes, they're just there for people who have recently come out, who might face being disowned by loved ones. The veils and fancy dresses look happy, but there's an anger bubbling beneath the surface of many of my fellow activists.

I'm eating a 99 on the beach in glorious weather, with hindsight a foolish thing in pristine white makeup. My friend's sticking to me like glue in case we get any trouble from locals, but our worries melt faster than the ice cream when a young boy gives me a bashful wave. His parents smile and say 'isn't that nice, those two men in love?' Like many others, they assume I'm a man in drag. Nobody needs to know what's really under the greasepaint. Gender doesn't matter, anyway.

No organisation's perfect, and Sisters squabble like any family. But having a worldwide bunch of glamorous siblings, choosing to be angry, deciding to be visible for those who can't, makes me feel like the rebellion might just win the day. And look fabulous while doing it.

LGBTQ+ community, activism, drag, defiance