Friday, November 21, 2014

Sisterhood of the Dazzling Stance

Novice Sister Fluffy has big breasts and a full beard.

It’s a Sunday night at Play, the club in Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood that is home to some of Kentucky’s finest drag queens. But Fluffy is not a drag queen – the military vet also known as Kirk Murphy is an aspirant member of the Derby City Sisters, a group that bills themselves as “an order of radical fun-loving nuns dedicated to spreading joy and banishing stigmatic guilt.”

If the name hasn’t already given it away, Fluffy isn’t an actual nun, either. He’s part of the new Louisville mission house connected to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, whose network includes dozens of other houses internationally. The group began in San Francisco in 1979, quickly finding their calling as educators and activists as the AIDS epidemic began wreaking havoc.

The founding Sisters “went out into the streets to challenge the world,” according to their “Sistory”. The Derby City Sisters live in a somewhat more progressive world, where marriage equality continues to evolve. But many obstacles and prejudices remain.

“Ours is a ministry of presence,” says Ryan Phillips, 28 and the local founder also known as novice Sister Velveeta VonTease. “Just being there for someone when they need someone to talk to, to celebrate you for who you are.”

Phillips says the chalky clown white makeup the Sisters apply goes a long way towards putting those people at ease, especially after they’ve had a few drinks. People tell the Sisters all kinds of secrets, he says, things they won’t tell their families or even their partners.

This trust pays off when it comes to one of the core elements of the modern Sisters’ mission: sex education, still, including offering HIV/AIDS testing. “Unlike the church, we won’t tell you not to have sex – quite the opposite,” Phillips says. “We’ll tell you to have sex as often as possible, but just play safe … Our work is to spread joy and abolish guilt. Throw some glitter on you and throw that guilt away.”

The group was only a vague notion a year ago. Phillips had first discovered the concept as a teen, and after recent encounters on a “Drag Stars at Sea Cruise,” he sat down with some members and discussed how the organization worked. Phillips made a resolution at 12:01 a.m. on New Year’s Day this year to make it happen in Kentucky. “I felt that there was an incredible pulse happening in the city of Louisville, and that if something like this were to happen, for it to be successful, it had to happen right then and there.”

He invited a few friends. “I had no idea who would be involved, who would be interested,” Phillips says. 48 people came to the first meeting; six of them are still involved. Four nuns from Nashville and one from Portland came to help. “People in the bars instantly gravitated towards us. It was one of those moments when I was, like, ‘Yesss!,’” he laughs.

Soon, they were 15, then 25; now, they count 33 members. Some locals are aware of the group but confused about their mission. The simplest explanation is that they promote love. Also: acceptance, compassion, joy and other ideas that don’t come first to mind when one contemplates nuns (clowns, maybe, but also unlikely). Their members are Atheists, Buddhists, Catholics – a veritable alphabet soup united by the idea of destroying labels and divisiveness. That, and the greatest, safest sex you can find.

Sister Fluffy serves as “The Mistress of Pleasure,” putting together 1,500 “pleasure packs” of condoms, lube and breath mints each month. Tonight, he’s calling numbers for the monthly “Sister Bingo” night at Play. Kirk is somewhat shy in his everyday “boy” life, but Fluffy is more in your face. “I may have the biggest boobies in the order,” he laughs.

Murphy and his husband are both vets from Oklahoma. Getting involved with the Sisters has made them more outgoing, more open and more liberal. Husband Parker Coe Murphy acts as one of the guards for the Sisters when they are out doing their “bar missionary” work. Members begin as aspirants – those who are checking it out. Postulancy follows, as they begin applying their new faces and erasing their regular identity. They are more demure, silent as they observe the process. Novices go out in full dress, doing their work, including mandatory service projects. Then, and only then, can these men in dresses become a fully professed Sister.

It’s a year-long process, and it’s a lot of work. Phillips spends six to eight hours a day working on the group: organizing, promoting, networking and more. It takes an average of two hours for members to transform themselves into character. But even if they never help anyone else, they’ve helped each other. “I chose these people. I didn’t get to choose my own family. I spend more time with these folks than I do with my own family,” Sister Fluffy says. Their new names go toward spreading joy – it’s hard to get mad at anything named “Fluffy” – but also give them a chance to start over, with their new identity separate from those who might have been unkind to them in the past.

“More and more, Fluffy is coming out. I can’t take a picture now without putting my hand on my hip,” Murphy laughs.

Phillips says it’s a priority for the group to also work with groups outside of the LGBTQIA world – animal shelters and the homeless, for example – along with groups like the Louisville Youth Group, which provides support for LGBTQIA teens. Oh, and actual nuns? Nuns love the Sisters.

Louisville’s just the first stop, Phillips says, adding that they hope to expand to Lexington as soon as possible. Beyond that, he’s thinking about Cincinnati and Indianapolis. “There’s so many opportunities for this magic and this type of energy to have a presence in any city … We’re everywhere. They never thought they would see one in Louisville.”

c. 2014 Story Magazine

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