The Dodgers booted the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Then came a big-league backlash
With their kabuki white face paint, electric blue humor and black medieval garb, the satirical nuns of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have long been California's most recognizable drag outfit, and among its oldest queer service groups.
Since 1979, tricksters in habits have ministered at gay bars, passed the plate for AIDS and cancer, officiated same-sex marriages and given succor to queer homeless youth.
Yet, until this week, the order had remained largely cloistered from the national anti-drag culture wars.
All that changed Wednesday, after the Dodgers dumped the Sisters from the team's popular Pride Night under pressure from conservative Catholic groups — only to hint late Thursday that they could soon reverse course, amid backlash from elected officials, activists and rank-and-file Dodger fans.
"[I reject] the narrative that this is offensive to Catholics," said Sister Bearoncé, a Los Angeles Sister and lifelong Dodger fan. "Religion is being used as a weapon ... to exclude a group of people."
About a third of Angelenos are Catholic, and many within the Dodgers franchise and its fandom are devout.
But outcry over the "drag nuns" began in the Midwest, with a call-in campaign led by the conservative advocacy organization CatholicVote. At the urging of the organization's president, Brian Burch, followers flooded the ball club with outraged messages over plans to honor the Los Angeles Sisters with the Community Heroes Award at the team's 10th annual Pride Night on June 16.
"The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are an anti-Catholic hate group which exists to desecrate and degrade the Catholic faith," Burch wrote in an open letter to the baseball commissioner on Tuesday. "For a revered, all-American institution like the Dodgers to bring the [Sisters] into the mainstream and honor them is reprehensible."
He went on to accuse the Sisters of "taunting the women religious who serve the poor in Southern California and around the world" — a charge the group rejects in the strongest terms.
"We are not anti-Catholic," said Sister Unity, a founding member of the Los Angeles Order, who was to be honored at Dodger Stadium. "Being anti-Catholic would be anti-people, and that's not what we do."
Rather, the order draws inspiration from Catholic nuns — alongside religious sisters of many other faiths — serving the needy who are neglected by others because of their sexuality or gender expression, according to the Sisters and scholars and acolytes of the group.
"Many Sisters feel there’s a difference between what they’re doing and what drag performers do," said Melissa M. Wilcox, a professor of religious studies at UC Riverside and author of "Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody." "The Sisters are actually emulating nuns. They’ll say, 'We’re nuns because we do the work that nuns do.'"
That work includes decades of charity, outreach, education and "bar ministry" in gay communities around the world. It also includes provocative monikers, such as Sister Porn Again and Sister Mary F— Poppins, as well as outlandish garb, chaotic pronouns and flip exhortations to "go forth and sin some more."
"I like to think of [the habit] as a bonfire or a lighthouse, so that light can shine out into places where there are no resources and there isn’t a strong community," Sister Unity said.
Indeed, even in California's kaleidoscope of queer expression, neon-bearded prankster nuns can seem like Drag Queen Story Hour on acid, a Catholic-school fever dream that Ron DeSantis whispered into ChatGPT.
"They’re the tricksters of the movement — they make us laugh, and laughing is powerful," said Catholic activist Rosa Manriquez, who lives near Dodger Stadium. "I doubt there's any nun worth her ruler and her rosary who’s upset about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence."
To be sure, the order has a long history of provoking the church — most recently in 2009, when two Sisters in habit took communion from the archbishop of San Francisco.
But the Community Heroes Award came as a surprise. The Sisters had no inkling it would court controversy until Midwestern activists and Florida elected officials got involved.
"Do you believe that the Los Angeles Dodgers are being 'inclusive and welcoming to everyone' by giving an award to a group of gay and transgender drag performers that intentionally mocks and degrades Christians?" Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote in an open letter to Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred.
As the outrage gained steam on social media, the talking points quickly coalesced around the DeSantis-versus-Disney-style rhetoric of "unchecked woke corporations."
"Crazy idea: all @MLB teams should cancel 'pride nights' and just play baseball," CatholicVote tweeted in the wake of the Dodgers' concession, recalling Fox News Laura Ingraham's infamous "Shut up and dribble."
But what could have been the ball club's Bud Light moment transformed instead into an impassioned defense of one of the world's most outré drag communities.
“This feels personal for me both as a queer person but also as someone from East L.A., as an Angeleno,” said Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist, public intellectual and "multigenerational Dodger fan" who protested the team's action. “It feels humiliating to be a Dodger fan right now.”
Other power players quickly got involved. The American Civil Liberties Union blasted the Dodgers on Twitter, saying it would pull out of Pride Night if the club did not reverse course. L.A. County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath vowed to do the same, while L.A. City Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez, whose district includes Dodger Stadium, condemned the move.
On Thursday, the Los Angeles LGBT Center issued an ultimatum: Readmit the Sisters or cancel Pride Night altogether. That evening, as the Dodgers lost 16-8 to the St. Louis Cardinals, the club seemed poised to reverse course.
For the Los Angeles Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the support came as the biggest shock of all.
"We’re not used to people going to bat for drag queens," Sister Unity said. "The reason [people did] is not because of our prominence in the community in terms of our spectacle but because of the work that we do."
Some, like Manriquez, the Catholic activist, see the skirmish as an early conflict in a larger war to come.
"The population that I work with all supported the Dodgers," she said. "Progressive Catholic organizations are allowing extremist conservative organizations to be the official voice of Catholicism, when that is not true."
Others, like Prescod-Weinstein, had more sporting concerns.
"I saw someone tweeting that they hoped that the Giants would invite [the Sisters] to throw the [first] pitch," the physicist said. “You can’t let the Giants upstage you.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.