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Wednesday, Apr 7 1999
Sisters of Perpetual Conspiracy
Satire relies for its effectiveness on context and delivery. An otherwise-hilarious joke can fall flat, or give offense, if delivered at the wrong time or in the wrong way. Let me show you what I mean:

When the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence perform their hijinks (condom Eucharist ceremonies and Hunky Jesus contests) at the gay pride parade, an AIDS fund-raiser, or any other secular event, they can be very funny. But when cross-dressing Sisters perform the same nun-based gags on Easter Sunday, with a government seal of approval, and after hundreds of Catholics asked for respect and were given none, they are deeply offensive.

Many analogies have been drawn to illustrate the insensitivity of the Sisters' Easter plans, some hysterical and offensive in their own right. (I mean, really, comparing the Sisters to neo-Nazis, or the KKK.) Here is an analogy that works for me: Imagine that a Catholic organization won a permit from the city to close down a few blocks of city street, where Catholics planned to parade effeminately around in faux-swishy clothing and play off the worst gay stereotypes (some of the Catholics would sport oversized NAMBLA buttons) on the anniversary of the assassination of Harvey Milk.

Now imagine the analogy isn't some thought exercise, but a real-life "celebration."

You would have to work hard to miss Catholics' point. You'd almost have to be hostile to the church, which is my point.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and their main backers in city government, Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Mark Leno, may have focused their rhetoric on the First Amendment -- both its free speech and its establishment of religion clauses -- when they defended the Sisters' "right" to party down on Castro Street on Easter. But these rationales cloaked a more basic and fairly obvious reason for their stubborn refusal to heed Catholic appeals for respect.

The gay leadership in San Francisco is at war with Archbishop William J. Levada, a conservative cleric who does not recognize homosexuality as a valid lifestyle. Politics blinded gay leaders such as Ammiano and Leno to both the insensitivity of the Sisters' plans and the authenticity of Catholic concern.

Both supervisors have cast the Catholic appeal for respect as part of the church leadership's overarching policy on homosexuality. Ammiano told the New York Times that opposition to an Easter "party" of transvestites dressed as Catholic nuns was part of a Catholic "jihad" against gays. (Talk about offensive analogies; since when did the Catholic Church start setting off bombs and hijacking planes?)

Leno went so far as to connect the conservative Catholic position on homosexuality to the military's policy on gays and the federal government's denial of basic civil rights legislation for lesbians and gays. Referring to a proposed state initiative to ban gay marriage and the archbishop's objection to domestic partner ceremonies in City Hall, Leno told a packed Board of Supervisors meeting on March 29, "That is what this [the Catholic complaints of offensiveness] is all about."

This statement betrays all signs of the classic conspiratorial thinking of the wacky left in San Francisco. Everything, in wacky-left-land, is part of larger machinations by sinister forces. There is always a hidden agenda. Nothing is as it seems. Nice, polite nuns asking for respect for the day when (they believe) Christ, the only begotten son of God, rose to heaven to relieve us of our sins are actually soldiers in a war on gays.

I knew Ammiano trafficked in such idiocy. It's surprising to me that Leno does, too.

Tangled up in this kind of conspiratorial analysis, the Sisters and their supporters adopted a war-room posture. No surrender. No quarter. They were not interested in a resolution to the dispute that recognized the complexity of the Catholic Church and the importance of Easter to rank-and-file Catholics (and, by the way, millions of other Christians).

No, the Sisters and their supporters lusted after the public defeat of a sworn enemy. They wanted to teach Levada a rather obvious and unnecessary lesson: that gays have more power in the City of St. Francis than the Catholic Church does. It simply didn't matter to them that they had to plow under the heartfelt spirituality of thousands of Catholic parishioners to get at their target.

Well, the Sisters and their political patrons have proven their point. Look what it's cost: The rift between Catholics and the gay community has widened. The victory did nothing to change the minds of Catholic conservatives. (If anything, it has only further entrenched their feelings about the gay community.) The city now faces a national boycott by Catholic organizations. Hundreds -- no, almost certainly thousands -- of Catholics in San Francisco have been insulted. Many of those who were willing to see the legitimacy of the gay life, or who were on the fence, are now probably too deeply hurt to push their church toward greater inclusiveness.

But the worst facet of this great clash is, for me, its intellectual foundation. The Sisters and their supporters in government called on the full armory of gay political power and the most hallowed precepts of the First Amendment to protect -- what? The right of a group to obtain official sanction for the mocking of a religion on its holiest day?

Now there's a priority for you.
Oh, I almost forgot about the sweet added bonus to the Sisters' contretemps: The mongrels of the far right will now have enough fund-raising ammo to keep themselves well-fed into the next decade. (And for the next few years, every way-right bullet sailing over the barricades and into the gay community ought to be labeled "Courtesy of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.")

The Sisters' little game of political revenge wouldn't have gotten very far, but for the utter failure of the entire Board of Supervisors to do the damn job it was elected to do.

At the end of February, the Department of Parking and Traffic denied, for a second time, the Sisters' request to close Castro Street between 17th and 18th streets on Easter Sunday, based on merchant concerns that the closure would hurt their businesses on a busy holiday. The Sisters appealed the measure to the Board of Supervisors.

About The Author

George Cothran


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