House of the Rising Sun
By Denny Patterson
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, also known as the Order of Perpetual Indulgence, is a charity, protest, and street performance organization that uses drag and religious imagery to call attention to sexual tolerance and satirizes issues of gender and morality. Founded in 1979 by a small group of gay men in San Francisco, they would wear nun attire in visible situations and use campyness to draw attention to social conflict and problems in the Castro District.
Since then, the Sisters have grown throughout the U.S. and are currently organized as an international network of orders, which are primarily non-profit charity organizations that raise money for HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ related causes, and mainstream community service organizations, while promoting safer sex and educating others about the harmful effects of drug abuse and other risky behaviors.
In January 2009, the South Florida chapter, the House of the Rising Sun, began and was introduced to the Fort Lauderdale community in March during Pridefest weekend. Striving to educate, care for the sick, and help others through charitable acts, these Sisters are dedicated to continuing the work started by the four men in San Francisco.
I had the pleasure of chatting more with the House of the Rising Sun’s current Abbess, Sister Pinky Flamengo, about the organization, the work they do, and what it’s like to be a Sister.
Denny Patterson: Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Sister Flamengo. How long have you been Sister?
Pinky Flamengo: I have been a member of the South Florida Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for a little over seven years.
DP: Can you please go into a little more detail about the work you do?
PF: We are an Order of 21st century nuns dedicated to the promulgation of universal joy and the expiation of stigmatic guilt. Our ministry is one of public manifestation and habitual perpetration. We love to use big words [laughs]. Our mission is to encourage self-expression and diversity, engender acceptance, foster tolerance, and educate those within and outside of the LGBTQ community by promoting love and laughter through community service and fundraising, but ultimately setting the example that to sin is human, but to indulge without shame is divine. In a nutshell, we are a nonprofit who helps other nonprofits raise funds. We do this in two ways: assisting other nonprofits with their nonprofits and putting on our own event with a designated nonprofit as a beneficiary. We concentrate mostly on nonprofits who are in line with our mission of service to the LGBTQ community and allies.
DP: Why did you join the Sisters?
PF: This is a very long story [laughs]. When I first met the Sisters in San Francisco in the early 1980s, I regretfully did not consider joining until I moved to Fort Lauderdale in the mid-2000s. I have always been involved in the HIV/AIDS arena since I tested positive back in 1983. I got into counseling and working with Ryan White organizations. When I moved to South Florida, I decided that 20 years of that kind of work was enough and wasn’t going to do it anymore. However, I am a long-term survivor and have a message of hope to share so I couldn’t stay silent for long. A few years later, my roommate started dating a gentleman who just happened to be a Sister. Remembering them from my San Francisco days, I decided that here was an opportunity and a much more fun way to share my message of hope.
DP: Why do you think a group like the Sisters is necessary?
PF: There are many great nonprofits who are very serious in getting out the messages of HIV/AIDS awareness and safer sex, as well as groups who fight for community rights from nearly every angle. The Sisters simply add another level of sparkle and color to an otherwise serious situation. The messages are still there, and the importance is not diminished, but it is shared in a more outrageous and glitter filled way.
DP: When the South Florida order began, how was it received by the community?
PF: The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are an easily recognizable group no matter where you travel. We are a worldwide phenomenon. Most people are happy to see us and readily join in the fun while supporting their own community. I was not among the first Sisters who worked so hard to start the South Florida house, but I know full well the intensity of work involved.
DP: What kind of impact has the Order been on the South Florida community?
PF: We are still a relatively small house and we have a very large area to cover, yet we seem to be loved and appreciated everywhere we go. The groups we are involved with genuinely seem to appreciate our assistance. Regretfully, we are too small to adequately attend all event requests, but we try to always make sure there is some Sister representation.
DP: What kind of impact has the Sisters personally made on your life?
PF: We are more than just a group of men who dress up as nuns and parade around. We are a loose knit family with a common goal; we are also a part of the very same community that we support. So, that mission statement applies equally to us. The South Florida Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have been incredibly supportive of me during my crisis times. I hope we translate the love, support, and comraderies that I have received to our community at large.
DP: It is great to see you have such a passion for the Sisters.
PF: Life is still a miracle. I believe that everyone deserves a joyful life. Sadly, this world we currently live in seems to have difficulty with that concept. As a Sister, I can embody that joy and irreverent, rule-denting fun. I can also share those laughs with others. I believe that every Sister house around the world shares that ability to lift people up when they are down. Marching hand in hand to defeat that negativity and then remind people to play after a fight well fought!
DP: What are some of the House of the Rising Sun’s biggest accomplishments?
PF: Establishing and maintaining a group who is charged with the support and encouragement of the LGBTQ community and allies, from West Palm to Naples and Key West to Miami, is one of our biggest accomplishments. Lately, our collaboration with leather groups, kink groups, and trans groups has not only increased our own knowledge and sensitivity but also has enabled us to add our support to these expanding groups. It is okay to just be you, whoever you happen to be.
DP: Has the Sisters been confronted with any major challenges or backlash?
PF: [Laughs] Ego and coulrophobia. We must always be careful when we are out and about because there are a lot of people who are either afraid of clowns or simply don’t like them, sometimes violently so. We are not in the business of terrifying people and try to always be sensitive and give a wide berth to those whose phobia is triggered by the whiteface that we wear. As far as ego is concerned, every group has stronger and weaker members who need to be heard, but a balance must be kept and that is sometimes the hardest challenge. Not always from within, either.
DP: What is the number one lesson you preach?
PF: Personally, I try to teach balance and equality and hope. Moderation in all things and don’t forget to put some play time into your life. Couple those with the Sister message of joy and acceptance and I think we have a very powerful seed to plant in the world.
For more information about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, House of the Rising Sun, email Info@SouthFloridaSister.org, or like and follow their Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/SouthFloridaSisters.