It’s not entirely unpredictable for people to draw assumptions about men who masquerade in lavishly adorned white face cream, gaudy jewels and the habits of Catholic nuns.
Behold a fully bedecked member of the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and you might imagine that he seeks to mock or shock or garner attention or perhaps repel.
A career public educator in Guerneville, Elaine Carlson has observed the drag-dressing Russian River Sisters for years. She’ll tell you she feels quite confident about what it is they want most: They want to be of help.
“Their first question is, ‘What can we do?’ ” said Carlson, principal of Guerneville School.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a phenomenon born in 1979 in San Francisco’s largely gay Castro District, has spawned clusters across the country and overseas. Members of the independent Russian River order host uproarious monthly bingo games and other fundraisers, and they dispense money to more than 200 local community endeavors, more than $1.5 million since their inception 15 years ago.
For Guerneville School, they collect educational supplies that some kids can’t afford. They’ve donated to the school library, its garden and the music program, and to teachers’ individual classroom needs.
Though their get-ups and in-character demeanor can be jarring, Carlson observes that the Sisters do what they do with great caring and inclusion — and that no one seems to have more fun.
“You know they’re not billionaires, but they just give of themselves,” said Carlson. “They’re a kick in the pants.”
Perhaps no one knows more about the Sisters of greater Guerneville than Occidental resident and former auto-parts shop owner Jim Longacre.
At 64, Longacre is the guy next door: trim, light on top, soft spoken and thoughtful. But give him a couple of hours to transform into Sister Sparkle Plenty, a co-founder of the Russian River order and its Mistress of Saints, and watch him dazzle.
Should you step into a bingo game at Guerneville’s Veterans Memorial Building or another of the Sisters’ benefit events, Sparkle may be the first to approach, glorious in neo-nun regalia, with matching color on the lips and in starbursts above the eyes. Then she will assure you through an ecstatic greeting that no matter who are you are, you are welcome.
“That’s my favorite part,” Longacre said while dressed in street clothes outside a Sebastopol coffeehouse. The sun caught a few specks of glitter that soap and water hadn’t removed from below an eye.
Longacre grew up in rural Contra Costa County and recalls hearing about the three gay men who in 1979 showed what they thought of conformity and the stigmatizing of homosexuals by parading about San Francisco in nuns’ costumes left over from a stage performance of “The Sound of Music.”
That exhibition grew into an order of gay men dressed outlandishly in habits and vowing “to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt.”
The San Francisco Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence joined nuclear-power protests following the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant. Late columnist Herb Caen wrote about it when they hosted a bingo and disco party in San Francisco to raise money for gay refugees from Cuba.
With the onset of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s, Sisters advocated safe-sex practices and reached out to the straight community to counter anti-gay hysteria.
Jim Longacre, then in his 30s, was vaguely aware of the San Francisco Sisters as he worked the counter of an auto parts store in Pittsburg. The business had passed to him from his father and grandfather.
Longacre said it wasn’t at all a gay-friendly industry, but he put up with it for more than 20 years before selling out in 1993. He moved near Occidental and bought a business far more to his liking: the Wishing Well Nursery in Freestone.
There he immersed himself in the community and began hosting benefit events for nonprofits that included the Food for Thought AIDS food bank and Face to Face, which works to end HIV in Sonoma County.
Longacre recalls hearing early in 2001 that an order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence was forming in Guerneville. He figured that becoming a founding member might help him with the insecurities that had kept him private and in the background.
Beyond that, he thought the costumes were fabulous. A short time later, Sister Sparkle Plenty and the five other Russian River Sisters made their debut.
“I had no idea what we were getting into,” Longacre said.
He expected the new order to focus on AIDS and on service to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and it did. For a while.
“Then we found out that Guerneville School could use anything and everything it could get,” he said.
After partnering with the school and making donations of supplies and money, the Russian River Sisters became aware that Guerneville’s senior center was in danger of losing its home. And all manner of west county community agencies needed help to sustain their services.
“There’s so much need,” Longacre said. The Sisters stepped up by building their monthly bingo games, held the second Saturday of the month; hosting special fundraising events, and making cash grants to as many local causes as they can afford to help.
“We don’t keep a dime,” he said
There currently are 26 Russian River Sisters, and they’re not all gay men. As the group expanded its mission of caring far beyond the LGBT community and into the community at large, it also welcomed lesbians and straight women, along with men attracted to the philanthropy, the role-playing and the fun.
The dressing up and the unfettered humor endemic to the Sisters shouldn’t lead anyone to doubt that members of the order take their mission seriously. They are under oath and, as with true clowns and mimes and actors, they know that with the costume comes the responsibility to remain true to character and to the purpose of embodying joy and the intrinsic right of each person to be happy and valued.
Longacre suggests that when he and the other Sisters don their garb and set out to engage the public, they’re no different than their neighbors who look like ordinary people until they dress as a doctor or a nurse, minister, judge, police officer, college professor or firefighter and go off to serve.
“We’re just a little sparklier,” he said.