Backlash from the Sisters and their many supporters was immediate, especially given the rising tide of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, and the criminalization of drag performance in red states. Sister Roma, one of the more prominent San Francisco nuns, spoke with KQED’s Juan Carlos Lara about this fraught moment for LGBTQ+ rights and what queer people, trans people and allies can do to fight back. — Nastia Voynovskaya
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Juan Carlos Lara: What was your initial reaction to the news that the Dodgers were rescinding their invitation and award to the Sisters’ LA chapter?
Sister Roma: I was completely shocked and disappointed. The Dodgers had made such a great decision to recognize a time-tested, honored and beloved queer organization that started here in San Francisco in 1979. And then for them to so quickly cave to the far-rightwing extremists, the pseudo-Christian websites and people on Twitter who basically just weaponized their religion as a way to practice discrimination, oppression and hate.
They literally caved in to Marco Rubio, of all people, in Florida — which, I mean, let’s be honest, Florida is pretty much turning into a fascist state. He had to stick his nose in it and protest. It was just ridiculous how quickly it blew up. People who don’t understand who the Sisters are complained to the Dodgers. And they caved in.
What do you think is at the core of this backlash? And what do you think the right is getting wrong about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence?
Luckily here in San Francisco, most people are familiar with the Sisters. Since our inception, the Sisters have been leaders and protectors of the queer community, but also all civil rights. We have always stood for women, people of color, the trans community. You’ll see us out on the holidays feeding hungry, unhoused people. You’ll see us sitting and ministering with the sick and hospices. We support queer art. We donate 95% of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that we raise directly back to the community. We are pretty well recognized here, and we have orders all over the world, and sisters in their communities are becoming well known.
I would have thought that Los Angeles — it’s supposed to be a strong, liberal part of our blue state. And for those people to have such knee-jerk reactions — they see the name, they see the makeup. Immediately, people jump on the bandwagon that we’re mocking nuns, we’re making fun of Catholics or mocking religion, and we’re mocking God. None of that is true. We really are nuns. We do the work of nuns.
The things that the sisters have an issue with is people who take the scripture and choose to interpret it in a way to discriminate against people who they disagree with and don’t like. Basically, a drag queen, a queer person, a trans person — they are weaponizing their religion against us, and they’re taking their personal beliefs to the polls. And as we can see across Florida, Tennessee, Texas, they’re passing legislation that is basically outlawing and criminalizing queer people, trans people and drag queens. Those are the people that the Dodgers decided to listen to. It’s insane.
Given the backlash, do you think queer and trans people benefit from events like the LA Dodgers’ Pride Night? What do you think is the the significance of these events?
Oh, it’s impossible to underestimate the importance of high-profile Pride events. To be honest with you, some of our community has become very complacent. There’s even a little bit of a snide attitude towards Pride because we’ve become so used to the fact that we’ve had Pride in San Francisco for, like, 50 years. People really take it for granted.
Yes, there may be corporatization of Pride, there may be a lot of pink-washing. People stick a rainbow on their product. That is true. But it can also be true at the same time that we have huge, large public gatherings where we celebrate our uniqueness, our queerness, our transness, where we come together as a community, we show the world that we’re not the awful things that they’re using to describe us. We’re not all sick and dying of AIDS. We’re not all perverts, we’re not all groomers. None of that is true. We are a beautiful, vibrant, colorful community. We’re filled with love. We’re proud of who we are. We’re proud of the accomplishments we’ve made. And it’s really important for the Dodgers to recognize and celebrate the queer community, a lot of whom are Dodgers fans. This is very hurtful to so many people, including the Sisters in Los Angeles.
The situation brings to mind the recent backlash against Bud Light after their ad featured a trans person, Dylan Mulvaney. After all of this backlash came in, Bud Light didn’t stand behind Mulvaney. Like you said, there’s a lot of benefit from having these very public celebrations, but do you think there’s harm when these groups reel back in response to backlash?
We like to believe that the majority of Americans honestly at their core feel the same way we do. We believe in civil rights. We believe all people are created equal. And when we start to see companies like Bud Light and the LA Dodgers respond to that kind of hate, it’s a real red flag. While we think they’re the minority, they’re obviously in power and they’re having an impact with very real and dangerous results.
When some organization like the Dodgers extends this fabulous invitation and then disinvites the Sisters, that shows that there is a real lack of true understanding, first of all, of who the Sisters are. It makes it feel disingenuous.
So what is their motivation? The Dodgers have been doing this for 10 years. Luckily, here in San Francisco, the Giants have been doing projects since the ’90s, and I have talked to the Giants and I know for a fact that the Giants are 1000% committed to continuing their Pride Night celebration. And we’re planning something very special to celebrate and remember Heklina, one of our drag icons we lost this year.
Some groups like the LA LGBT Center and an LA County Supervisor have already said that they’re not planning to attend Pride Night anymore, given the Dodgers recent decision. Are you hoping that other groups follow suit? What are you hoping happens to their Pride Night right now?
Honestly, we need more people to step up and speak out. I’ve seen a lot of people talking about, “Should I sell my ticket? I’m not going. No one should go.” And I do also understand the people who want to celebrate this night because they see it as a victory for our community, regardless.
I can’t tell anybody what to do. But definitely let your voices be heard. If you support the Sisters and you think the Dodgers, as much as you love them, have made a mistake, let them know. Perhaps something could even happen at the game. Maybe people should dress up in nun drag and put on some wild makeup and some wigs, and they should have a whole cheering section. That would be amazing. We’ll see.
What do you think people who identify as queer, and people who hope to be allies, should be doing to combat this rise in hate?
Well, it’s really important to actually step back and see what their true motivation is, and the truth behind these lies. You have to understand who the queer community is, who the trans community is. And if you’re a true ally, which we need now more than ever, learn how to talk about the truth. Because there’s a lot of mistruths.
People are using words to describe trans and queer people and drag queens today like “groomer” and “pedophile,” and immediately they’re othering us. They’re dehumanizing us. They’re making it us versus them. And they are trying to criminalize us. And the end result is, once you’re not a human and you’re a criminal, they can exterminate us. There is really a larger plan here — and I’m not trying to be sensationalist — to actually eradicate queer and trans people. We’ve seen it happen in other countries around the world. It’s happening here. There’s a very fascist movement.
Look, they overturned Roe v. Wade. Every woman in this country woke up in the morning with less rights than they had than when they went to bed. It’s frightening to see what’s going on. People need to wake up. We need to come together. And we need to support the blue wave that needs to push back against this red wave that we’re seeing.
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