Recent Comments

    Drag Activism

    By Sister Roma–

    (Editor’s Note: On Thursday, April 7, Sister Roma, along with Kochina Rude and Afrika America, were panelists at a forum entitled Drag Activism at The Academy SF in the Castro. It was moderated by Dr. Ish Ruiz. They discussed queer activism past, present, and future, and how drag is a form of activism. We asked Sister Roma to address this subject for the San Francisco Bay Times, and thank her for doing so during this very busy month for her and the other Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.)

    Sitting on a panel to talk about Drag Activism comes very naturally to me, so when The Academy SF reached out with this opportunity I jumped at the chance. As I am a 35-year member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, my drag was born out of activism and has always been used as a platform to fight for social justice, equality, and to be of service to my community. That is who the Sisters are; at our core we are all activists.

    In just two short years after the Sisters’ first manifestation on Easter weekend in 1979, a deadly plague started to ravage our community. The mystery surrounding the origins and transmission of the disease created fear, stigma, and shame in our community and the Sisters found our true calling. We were one of the first groups to hold a fundraiser for people in our community who were sick and needed money to cover rent and essentials. Realizing that education was key to prevention, the Sisters wrote and distributed Playfair, the world’s first-ever “safer sex” pamphlet to use real language and humor to educate the community on ways to avoid sexually transmitted infections.

    As the disease spread to epidemic proportions, seemingly overnight men become visibly ill, suffering dramatic weight loss, often covered in cancerous purple patches of Kaposi sarcoma. Many of them lost their jobs, their homes; even their friends and families were afraid to breathe the same air, drink from the same glass, or even touch them. Alone and dying, many of these men retreated to the most remote corners of a dark bar where the Sisters would seek them out and engage them in conversation. Often at the end of their visit, the men would ask if they could have a hug and the Sisters always said yes. It was this pragmatic yet compassionate response to a plague in a time of hysteria that most attracted me to the Sisters when I joined in 1987. Their fearlessness was intoxicating and inspiring.

    I think all drag is fearless, intoxicating, and inspiring. I think that all drag is activism.

    I didn’t always realize I felt that way. When I moved to San Francisco fresh out of college in 1985, drag was the last thing on my mind. In fact, I had never considered doing drag in my life—until I met the Sisters. I always find it interesting that, despite the fact that I went to a Catholic college, I was never spiritually motivated. I never volunteered to be of service, and I never got involved in anything political—until I met the Sisters. It’s still kind of crazy to me that this outrageous group of drag nun clowns would change my life, but they did. When I met the Sisters, my head and heart exploded. I realized that I sincerely cared about people. I learned that I didn’t have to ask for my civil rights; they’re mine, and I was ready and willing to fight for equality. I became determined to try, in some way, to make the world a better place for my having been here.

    One of my first major acts of Drag Activism was creating the Sisters’ “Stop The Violence” campaign in 1989. Hate crimes were on the rise. Gay men were being viciously attacked, robbed, and beaten in and around Dolores Park. I sat down at my little Mac SE/30 and designed a poster with a giant pink triangle in the center with the words STOP THE VIOLENCE. My idea was that these posters would raise awareness to the hate crimes, but we would also hand them out to people and businesses to put in their windows to serve as a “safe place” for anyone who was being attacked or needed help. We soon added a whistle distribution and partnered with the Castro Community ln Patrol. Now, decades later, you’ll still see these posters on display in and around the Castro.

    One of the most sensational and unexpected examples of Drag Activism has to be the #MyNameIs campaign. Without going into too much detail, around 2014 drag queens and others on Facebook were being disproportionately reported for using a “fake” name and their accounts were suspended until they could provide a legal form of ID. When it finally happened to me, I grew frustrated at my inability to contact a living human at Facebook, so I went to Twitter and tweeted “Tell @Facebook that their ‘real’ name policy is unfair and discriminatory. #MyNameIsRoma.” Well, that tweet went viral. CBS Bay Area came to my office to hear my story, and Facebook called me! Before you knew it, Alex U. Inn, BeBe Sweetbriar, Dottie Lux, Heklina, Lil Miss Hot Mess, and a group of activists (drag and otherwise) formed and started a nearly three-year discourse with execs at Facebook to get them to realize how different communities identify.

    Over the years I’ve been a familiar face at almost every protest, rally, fundraiser, gala, street fair, and major LGBTQ event in San Francisco. I have been honored to host fundraisers supporting PRC, SFAF, REAF, Art for AIDS, Maitri, Tenderloin Tessie’s Holiday Dinners, San Francisco Pride, the SFLGBT Center, ORAM, TDOV, and TDOR, to name a few. One of the keys to being a drag activist is showing up. We all know the armchair warriors with a keyboard and a computer screen who talk the talk, but a drag activist walks the walk, in heels!

    I was so happy to share the panel with Afrika America and Kochina Rude. Afrika and I have been friends for many years. She has deep roots in the Bay Area queer community and I love the way she has embraced her inner queen to use her platform to encourage people to vote. Kochina and I are relatively new friends. I continue to be impressed and inspired by her commitment to harm reduction and fearless approach to providing Narcan to the audience during her party Princess at Oasis every weekend.

    When we were asked about our hope for the future, I thought of something Afrika said about the disgusting, vicious attacks made by a bunch of white men against a Black female appointee for the Supreme Court. It is clear to me that these white men were baring their teeth and puffing their chests out of fear. They are afraid of everything that Kentanji Brown Jackson represents. They are afraid of losing their centuries-long grip on the throats of the poor, on women, on people of color, on queer and trans people, on everyone who challenges their outdated, bigoted, and hypocritically sanctimonious reign of terror.

    Our country is divided because of fear. Some people are afraid of anything or anyone they don’t understand, who looks different, or who challenges them to consider a different point of view. Homophobia, transphobia, racism; it’s all fear. All hate is based in fear.

    Drag is the exact opposite of fear. It takes courage to present yourself in a way that challenges society’s preconceived ideas of gender. Being a drag nun takes it to the next level, adding religious iconography, which can make people uncomfortable or angry. I love doing drag for the joy it brings, but between you and me, sometimes the drag activist in me takes as much pleasure in shaking to the core those people with their misconceptions, prejudices, and phobias. Sometimes a good dose of drag is all it takes to get people talking, laughing, and thinking. My hope for the future is less fear and more curiosity, more acceptance, more respect, and more love.

    Sister Roma, ‘The Most Photographed Nun in the World,’ is an activist, fundraiser, and icon. Follow Roma on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/SisterRoma), Twitter @SisterRoma, and Instagram @Sister_Roma. Learn more about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at https://www.thesisters.org/

    Published on April 21, 2022