(via The Drag Nuns Who Are Helping the LGBTQ Community Grieve)

Aaron Sanford-Weatherell was woken by a flurry of text messages early
Sunday morning. His boss at Orlando’s Hope and Help Center of Central
Florida, where he works as an HIV counselor, was calling to make sure he
was OK.

“I woke my husband up, and I told him, ‘There’s been a shooting
at Pulse,” he told VICE. “And I think that unfortunately as a society,
we’ve gotten so used to shootings that it didn’t seem real. It didn’t
seem like it was happening here.”

When he later learned that the shooting killed 49 people and
wounded 53 others at the Orlando gay club, the reality sank in. He’d
been to Pulse several times with the Orlando chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,
to hand out condoms and talk about the importance of getting tested for
sexually transmitted diseases. Pulse was a fitting site for this kind
of activism: The club was named to commemorate the heartbeat of its co-founder’s brother, who died of AIDS in 1991.

Sanford-Weatherell is better known to the Orlando community as
Sister Itza Cameltoe—the drag persona he assumes as president of the
Sisters’ Orlando chapter. The nonprofit organization has chapters in
roughly 40 American cities and 11 countries worldwide, and its members
are known for dressing in a drag-version of traditional nun attire. And
yes, they give themselves tongue-in-cheek, sometimes raunchy monikers
like Sister Itza Cameltoe, who describes the overall aesthetic as a
“gender fuck.” (Many of the sisters identify as men but take on feminine
pronouns while serving the “order of queer nuns.”)

During
club visits, charity events, festivals, and other public appearances,
the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence make themselves highly visible in
garb that looks like a mix between saintly nun and wise-cracking clown.
The look is intended to spoof the ultra-conservative Catholic Church,
but also to signify the sisters’ own nun-like roles as pillars of their
community, devoted to charity and social good. “When we’re out in the
community, people come to us with their issues, and people ask us where
to get an HIV test or a hot meal,” said Sister Itza Cameltoe. “We’re
happy to fill that role.”

It’s a role that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence did not take
lightly last weekend, in the aftermath of such an enormous attack on the LGBTQ community.

In Orlando on Sunday night, Sister Cameltoe and her fellow
sisters joined more than 200 others at a vigil at the iconic gay bar and
hotel Parliament House. In Los Angeles, the local chapter had been
planning to celebrate its organization’s 20th anniversary at the LA Pride Parade on Sunday,
but when they all heard the news of the shooting, they knew their
parade appearance could no longer be about themselves. Rather than
donning the rainbow-colored habits and dresses that they typically wear
for pride parades, the sisters wore black robes to commemorate the
victims of the shooting. They brought flowers and chalk and created an
impromptu shrine on the sidewalk, where they invited passersby to write
messages of love and hope to Orlando.

In San Francisco, the flagship Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
chapter joined thousands of others at a candle light vigil in Harvey
Milk Plaza on Sunday, before marching nearly two miles to city hall in
solidarity with the victims of the Orlando shooting.

“The sisters were spread out among the crowd to help support
them,” Sister Anni Coque l’Doo, the organization’s president, told VICE.
She described the march as solemn and peaceful, filled at times with
alternating bursts of reflective singing and chants of “We’re here,
we’re queer.”

“Some people just need to see us and that brings a smile to their
face because we are the people, the faceless members of the community,”
she said. “We’re there for them, whatever their needs are. We are there
to support them and help them through this time.”

It’s not the first time the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have
helped their communities grieve and heal. The organization was founded
as a protest group in San Francisco in 1979, and in the years that
followed, it quickly grew to help spread awareness and education in the
face of the spiraling AIDS epidemic that ravaged the gay community.

One of the organization’s earliest members, Bobbi Campbell, a registered nurse and HIV activist who appeared on a 1983 Newsweek cover under the headline “Gay America,”
is credited with producing and distributing one of the first pamphlets
on safe sex for gay men, according to Sister Dawn Quiche-Long, the
mistress of ink (or secretary) of the LA chapter.

While the organization as a whole remains committed to preaching
safe sex and sex education, individual chapters in recent years have
tackled a range of other issues both local and national—everything from
marriage equality and immigration to healthcare, homelessness, and sex
workers’ rights.

The organization was originally founded by a group of gay men,
but the sisters VICE spoke with stressed that it is no longer a group
run solely by and for gay men. Many of the regional “houses,” as the
chapters are known, include straight men, straight women, lesbians, and
bisexual, transgender, and queer people, plus everyone in between.

The sisters see themselves as sacred clowns or comical jesters
who seek to bring happiness to the masses—their unofficial mission
statement is to “promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic
guilt"—even, and especially, during the most incomprehensible tragedies.

Sister Dawn Quiche-Long would argue that that comic relief is
needed now more than ever. "I look at things, and I say, ‘If I can do
this—you know, become this person and publicly, I’m this nun, on a
Sunday morning—then you can feel comfortable about who you are, where
you are, and why you are when you go to work on Monday,” she told VICE.
“We’re there to say, ‘It’s OK to be you, and we will not stand in fear.
We will stand in solidarity.’”

Follow Jennifer Swann on Twitter.

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