Men and women in red dresses, outlandishly bouffant wigs, heels and tiaras mill and smoke cigarettes in the Saturday night drizzle behind Beauty Bar. Some converse politely, take snapshots and occasionally bounce to the music.
Sister Raegeena, in a nun's habit and mimelike drag makeup, sets what's left of a three-tiered cake on a folding table. The incidental reference to "MacArthur Park" goes unnoticed. There's too much else to covet here, too much to admire: baby-doll dresses, ball gowns, sundresses, cocktail couture and elaborately constructed homemade outfits.
It's still early at the Rough, Tough and Red All Over party, the main fundraiser produced by the Sin Sity Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and there's a line out the front door. In two years the irreverent group has raised and distributed about $200,000 for its SADAP program — Sisters AIDS Drug Assistance Program.
The Las Vegas chapter of the Sisters — a vocational order of mostly male nuns in drag, with 30 chapters and missions around the country — take no government money and vow to help those in need, without judgment. Since 2005, they have become increasingly visible in the Vegas community — doing "bar ministry," where they hand out condoms and promote safer sex, attending HIV/AIDS events or fundraisers and generating awareness at arts events. When not "in face," they're dealing with doctors, pharmaceutical companies and getting medication to clients who have run out of options. These might be high-income earners who can't afford their co-pays, new convicts on probation who can't access government funds, undocumented clients or men, women and children waiting for other assistance programs to come through. Only 25 percent of those assisted by the Sisters are gay; many receiving help are minority women.
- Beyond the Weekly
- Sin Sity Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
Candice Nichols, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada, calls their work "crucial." Other fans of the Sisters include Aid For AIDS of Nevada (AFAN) and Father Joseph O'Brien, a Dominican priest who runs St. Therese Center.
The Nevada Gay Rodeo Association gave its 2009 proceeds to the Sisters. The Imperial Royal Sovereign Court of the Desert Empire, another drag-inclined charitable group, has also handed over a chunk of benefit money.
Father O'Brien says he's proud of the Sisters' work, and adds that he would even put on a dress for its Red Dress Party — so long as it was Dolly Levi's dress from Hello, Dolly!
But not everybody is warm to this or any other chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. To hear a Catholic priest speak favorably of their work is uncommon.
The Sisters began in San Francisco in 1979, where the group is as known for confrontations with the Catholic Church as for its good deeds. Their appearance — clown-white, Kabuki-stylized facial makeup and distinctive habits and wimples — can be jarring to the uninitiated. The troupe has its share of detractors even within the gay community.
The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights petitioned the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, which hosts a Hunky Jesus contest in a San Francisco park each Easter. Outraged by the perceived mocking of Catholics, the League also registered a complaint with the American Cancer Society, because it accepted more than $1,300 and 100 wigs from the San Francisco chapter's wig drive.
Compared to chapters in other, more gay-populous cities, the Sin Sity Sisters are markedly more subdued in their theatrics. Which is not to say they don't know how to have a good time.
But the local Sisters say it's more important to focus their time and attention on their responsibilities. The local chapter spent its first two years volunteering with other organizations, raising money for them and serving mostly as a bridge to unify HIV/AIDS groups.
"Most of us were activists before we got on the board," say Sister Raegeena (aka Eugene), a founding member. "Some of us are clients who have had to interact with the system and know what is and is not available."
Mother Loosy, the Vegas chapter's founder, is a speaker with AFAN's Project UpFront and served on the Ryan White Planning Council with Sister Sioux. Raegeena volunteered with AFAN and also spent seven years in hospice outreach and cancer care at Nathan Adelson Hospice. Sister Lola volunteered and worked for the Rape Crisis Center and is a board member of the Nevada Coalition Against Sexual Violence.
Other Sisters include Sister Gloria, Sister Prudence and Sister Hope. There are novices and postulants who train at least a year to become full-fledged Sisters.
"It's one of the reasons our order grows very slowly," says Sister Raegeena. "It's an enormous commitment."
The makeup and habits work for and against the group, says Sister Raegeena. "The anonymity allows us to work with all facets of the community, from street teens to leather boys to bear daddies. We can walk up to anyone and talk about our ministry. It allows us access and interest where there might not have been.
"When we started out, we had no idea what we were in for. People will come up and share intimate details of their life. Sometimes people just need to talk. That's a side that I didn't know was going to be a part of it."
The other side, he says, is that "we're men in drag and seen as anti-Catholic."
Mother Loosy (aka Tracy), who has lived 19 years with AIDS, is a former Bellagio baccarat dealer who got sick and went on disability. Resistant to many drugs, his co-pays alone were totaling more than $1,500 per month. Wasting syndrome alone requires a human growth hormone that costs, he says, $6,700 a month. To receive aid, he cashed out his 401(k) and got rid of his assets.
His life's mission, he says, is now to help others with HIV/AIDS. "It's a very expensive disease. People ask themselves, 'Am I going to pay my rent this month? Eat? I have to stay alive so I have to stay on this medication so I won't buy groceries?' We want people to stay healthy without the stress. I had a decent job, so I could set myself up a bit."
Sister Sioux (aka Jim), a retired certified corporate accountant who works 30 hours a week doing administrative work for the group, says it's difficult to not react to or judge those having unsafe sex. But, he says, "the most difficult thing is client intake, sitting across from someone who is falling apart and they have nowhere to turn. We're not like LA, where there are tens of thousands of people to assist."
Because of Southern Nevada's transitional nature, it's difficult to track the number of cases, which limits government AIDS-drug-assistance funding and drives the Sisters to work harder.
"Many clients move to Nevada after initial diagnosis, but the state that they were initially diagnosed in receives the funding," says Jared Hafen, client services supervisor at AFAN, who refers clients to the Sisters.
The Sisters remain devoted to the community. "The ideology behind the Sisters — compared with nuns of any religion and the vocation — makes us in every sense a sisterhood," says Sister Raegeena.