Her full name, of course, is Sister There’s No Place Like Rome.
The inspiration for the name she donned when she joined the San Francisco Order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in 1987 was “The Wizard of Oz meets the Pope.” The reference to Judy Garland is obvious. “And when you think about it, the Pope is the ultimate ‘man behind the curtain,’ orchestrating the pomp and circumstance of organized religion, which is all just smoke and mirrors.” But why “Sister Roma” instead of her full name?
The shortened version of my name happened quickly in 1988,” Sister Roma told A&U. “I had been a fully professed sister for only about one year when the controversial film The Last Temptation of a Christ came out. Christian extremists were infuriated over the movie’s depiction of Christ and were protesting theaters that showed it.” The Sisters showed up to counter-protest. And “To promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt.”
“We went in full nun drag, sending Bible-wielding Christians into a rage and creating a media blitz,” Sister Roma recalled. “This was my first real demonstration and I had never come face-to-face with an angry mob before.” In the middle of the chaotic demonstration, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times “shoved a mic in my face and asked me ‘How does it feel to know that the way you are dressed, mocking nuns, and the very fact that you are here, is an insult to these people and a desecration to the Catholic Church?’ And I replied, ‘Nothing I can do in my short lifetime can compare to the oppression and pain caused by the Catholic Church.’”
That quotation made its way into the next edition of the Times, but the reporter shortened “Sister There’s No Place Like Rome” to “Sister No Place.”
“The Sisters and I were proud I made the L.A. Times my first time out, but ‘Sister No Place?’ Dana [aka Sister Dana Van Iquity] said ‘Oh no, honey. We’re gonna have to work on that name. We’ll call you Roma.’”
We’ll call her Roma. Sister Roma, one of the of most outspoken and dearly beloved members of the infamous Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence, “the most photographed nun in the world,” is recognized around the globe as an activist, fundraiser, public speaker, Master of Ceremonies, and glamorous icon. Since taking her vows she has been on the front lines in the war against HIV and AIDS as an educator, activist and fundraiser, helping to raise over $1 million for the LGBTQ global community. Sister Roma was elected San Francisco Pride Community Grand Marshal in 2012 and was voted both San Francisco’s Most Notable Drag Queen and Best Activist in the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s 2016 Best of the Bay issue. Known not only for her outrageously glamorous makeup but her raucous humor, she has served as Master of Ceremonies on the main stages of SF Pride, Folsom Street Fair, Castro Street Fair, and Easter in the Park, where she hosts the infamous Hunky Jesus Contest. Before COVID-19, she traveled the U.S. speaking at rallies and hosting events. She has hosted similar events in Berlin, Vienna, and Paris, and was an honored guest of Pride in Shanghai, China, and Grand Marshal of Prague Pride in the Czech Republic.
Not bad for a young gay kid born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in late 1962, whose birth parents surrendered her at birth to the nuns at a Catholic adoption agency (“The irony,” she said, “is not lost on me.”). “One of my very first memories is crawling on my hands and knees to stare into the revolving wheel that changed the color of our silver tinsel Christmas tree——don’t judge——it was the sixties and tinsel trees were all the rage.” She also remembers “crying in my highchair watching my mother cower in fear, backed up against the wall in our kitchen, suffering abuse at the hands of my father.” Her mother fled her physically abusive husband, “escaped with nothing except me in her arms and the clothes on her back,” and began relying on her grandparents and family. Still, Sister Roma said, “I recall a wonderful childhood. Growing up I had a vivid imagination, I loved to read, and watch Saturday morning cartoons. I liked school, listening to music and playing with dolls and spent summers camping in the beautiful state parks of Western Michigan. We didn’t have a lot of money, but I always thought we were rich. I never wanted for anything, least of all love.”
Like all young gay kids, Sister Roma felt… different. “I knew I was a boy and born male but at the same time I always had this subconscious realization that I was also female. Today they call you gender fluid; back then they called you fairy, fruit, or queer. However, I was never ‘bullied,’ especially by today’s standards.” There were behind-the-back snickers and laughs, of course, but “I honestly did not give a damn.” When Roma was twenty, her mother surreptitiously read her diary (“which was really more of a journal of my sexploits”). The shock and her mother’s reaction nearly broke the relationship, but they have since mended it. “When I announced I was moving to San Francisco [in 1985] she was devastated but also 100% supportive. She always told me she would love me forever, no matter what, she just didn’t want me to wear women’s clothes or die alone. So far we are 0 for 2.”
The year 1985 was as auspicious for the San Francisco drag scene as it was for Roma. Shortly after moving here, she and three friends formed “The Cheerleaders from Hell” and showed up at softball games to cheer on the team sponsored by the Eagle, San Francisco’s renowned leather bar, “when the Eagle was still very ‘Old Guard,’ so not all of them were thrilled with these preppy Castro Queens coming to cheer them on, but the crowd loved us.” One of the “Cheerleaders,” Norman (aka Sister Luscious Lashes), prodded the reluctant newcomer, “‘Why don’t you just try the makeup?’ I never had any desire to drag in my life, and imitating a Sister was totally against the rules, but Norman and I were never ones for rules.” Norman showed her how to apply the white face and Roma took it from there. “It wasn’t a glamorous makeover as much as it was warpaint, but I thought I looked AMAZING. Before going to the game, we went to the Patio Cafe in the Castro, which was the hottest spot to be for Sunday brunch. I distinctly remember picking up the knife and holding it at the perfect angle just to stare at my reflection. I felt comfortable, gorgeous, giddy, flirtatious… I felt alive. And I was hooked.”
From the “Cheerleaders” to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence was an easy kick-step. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an Order of queer and trans “nuns” devoted to community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment, first appeared in San Francisco in 1979. Using humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit, The Sisters have gone global with their mission to promulgate universal joy, expiate stigmatic guilt and serve the community, with Houses all across the U.S. and worldwide. They have raised millions of dollars for HIV/AIDS-related and other community charities.
“At first I was attracted to the shocking makeup and outrageous theatrics of the Sisters,” Sister Roma told A&U, “but the more I learned about their rich history of activism, especially their pioneering work around HIV/AIDS education and prevention, the more I realized this was a life calling.” She described what can truly be called an epiphany: “I felt like my head and heart exploded. I realized that I cared about my community. I was ready to fight for civil rights and prepared to be of service to help those in need. Even though I was raised Catholic, and attended four years at a private Catholic College, it took the Sisters to awaken in me a spiritual connection with the universe like I’d never known before.”
She continued, “It was the Sisters’ pragmatic and passionate response to HIV/AIDS that really sealed the deal. There was still a lot to learn about the virus, and AIDS paranoia was very real in San Francisco in the mid-80s. People became visibly ill, displaying sudden and dramatic weight loss, fatigue, and were often covered in bright purple lesions caused by Kaposi’s sarcoma. People with AIDS frequently lost their jobs, their homes, their family and friends. The stigma and fear caused many people to be afraid to touch someone who was suffering from AIDS, but not the Sisters. We would venture into the hospices, the local AIDS wards, and the gay bars, to sit and talk with those afflicted with the disease. More often than not, they would ask for a hug, and the Sisters always said yes.”
One of the first projects that Sister Roma took on in addition to her HIV/AIDS education and stigma work, was the “Stop The Violence Campaign.” The year 1989 had seen an increase in violent anti-LGBTQ hate crimes in the Castro District and around Dolores Park——“and it pissed me off. I wanted to raise awareness in our community and at the same time provide them with a ‘safe place’ to go if they needed help.” And so she turned on her computer, designed a poster with a pink triangle that read STOP THE VIOLENCE, and distributed them to store-front merchants throughout the Castro district and beyond. If the business agreed to act as a place of refuge during an emergency, it got a second poster that read SAFE PLACE. Roma and other Sisters filmed a PSA about safety that was shown locally, and began distributing whistles in the neighborhood. “To this very day you will see these posters in storefronts around the Castro and see us out on patrol distributing safety information and whistles,” she said. “I’m very proud of it.”
Another campaign that Roma is rightfully proud of is #MyNameIs, her 2014 attack on Facebook’s arcane “real name” policy. Roma’s ire was raised when Facebook froze her account until she could provide a legal I.D. to prove her “real name.” “When it happened to me, I tried to contact Facebook, which is literally impossible, so I went to Twitter and tweeted ‘Tell @Facebook that their ‘real name’ policy is unfair and discriminatory. #MyNameIsRoma.’ The next day the tweet had gone viral and local [television station] CBS5 came to my office to interview me about the situation.” Within days, Sister Roma’s #MyNameIs campaign became international headline news. With that notoriety came messages from others around the world who had been locked out of their Facebook accounts for using a “fake name.” “I’m talking about heart-wrenching stories from domestic violence survivors, schoolteachers, authors, mental health workers, trans youth, burlesque performers, law enforcement officials, this was a huge problem.” A planned protest at Facebook headquarters produced several meetings with “high-ranking security officials and decision-makers” in the company. Although the campaign won some concessions from the tech giant, “’Fake name’ reporting still happens, but it does feel like it’s not as bad as it was in 2014,” Roma said. “So it’s not really a ‘YAY,’ more of a ‘meh.’”
Worse than a “meh” has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Sisters’ ability to raise money for the many AIDS-related and other community-based groups which it helps to fund with grants. Their biggest yearly fundraiser, Easter in the Park with the Sisters, which usually attracts 10,000 people and generates the seed money for their community grants, was canceled in 2020 and, frankly, looks doubtful for 2021.
But, as if performing a resurrection, Sister Roma said, “We are exploring new opportunities to raise money and stay involved [now that] all in-person events, bars, nightclubs and restaurants have been basically shut down since March. But, as you know, this is not our first pandemic. Virtual shows are the new reality as drag queens flock to Twitch and host drag bingo on Zoom. A group of nightlife promoters and performers started the SF Queer Nightlife Fund and host weekly t-dances on Twitch to raise money for the community. My friend Carlton has turned the Powerhouse [a popular South of Market leather bar/cruise spot] into a food bank. D’Arcy Drollinger at Oasis made national news for her revolutionary Meals On Heels, where drag queens deliver dinner and a drag show, curbside. You cannot keep our community down.”
It makes sense that Sister Roma, of the Order whose mission statement is “To promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt,” would feel optimistic about 2021. “Despite the dumpster fire that was 2020,” she told A&U, “I remain in good spirits and stay very busy.” After listing seven or eight things that she is working on simultaneously, she continued, “For the most part I stayed home, but I did make an exception for a BLM protest, feeding the homeless at Thanksgiving, and some street ministry/trash detail with the Sisters’ Squeaky Clean Gutter Queens. Of course, I stay as socially distant as possible and always wear a mask. It’s important to get some exercise, some sunlight, and some human interaction. If you can combine it with community service, even better. To be honest, I’m content and cozy at home. There’s no need to hang out with friends indoors, have a random hookup, go to a club, or travel to a circuit party. To get coronavirus now, when vaccines are going into arms, would be so tragic. Honestly, we are so close!”
And, as Sister Roma reminds us, this is not our first pandemic.
For more information about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, visit: thesisters.org.
Thank you to The Academy San Francisco for allowing us to photograph in this wonderful space. For more information, log on to: www.academy-sf.com.
Hank Trout’s past cover stories for A&U have included activists Cleve Jones, Ken Jones and Billie Cooper.