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California Legislature’s honor for drag activist angers state Republicans

Sister Roma with state Sen. Scott Wiener and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins
Sister Roma with Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, left, and state Sen. Scott Wiener.
(Anita Chabria / Los Angeles Times)
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Known as much for her dramatic face makeup and colored boa headdresses as for her work caring for AIDS patients, promoting safe-sex education and cleaning up trash throughout San Francisco, drag activist Sister Roma was honored Monday during an annual LGBTQ+ Pride Month ceremony in the state Capitol.

But what’s normally a routine event in the statehouse dominated by Democrats, where more LGBTQ+ lawmakers now serve than at any time in state history, has become a flashpoint in the culture wars as Republicans push back against acceptance of transgender identities and honors for a group of service-oriented drag queens who they see as mocking the Catholic religion.

“The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, through their public disparagement of the Catholic Faith, have displayed a disregard for the principles of tolerance and understanding that should guide our society. Honoring them in the Senate Chambers would be inappropriate and contrary to the values we hold dear,” GOP state senators wrote in a letter last week asking Senate leader Toni Atkins to withdraw Roma’s invitation to be honored in the chamber.

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State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) with Sister Roma in the state Capitol.
State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) nominated Sister Roma to be honored during the Legislature’s annual LGBTQ+ Pride Month ceremony.
(Hannah Wiley / Los Angeles Times)

Atkins, a San Diego Democrat who is the first out LGBTQ+ person to lead the state Senate, denied their request, saying in a response letter to the GOP caucus that while Catholic and religious organizations have a right to be disappointed with the nomination, she also believes that “in the end, faith is stronger than any parody could possibly be.”

Despite the criticism, Roma was welcomed with a standing ovation in both the Assembly and Senate, even while some Republicans walked off the floors in protest as she was recognized.

In a statement, Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher of Yuba City said he would “not celebrate those who engage in religious bigotry or attempt to co-opt our faith into something it is not.”

“I recognize that the Sisters have done charitable work in the community. But their vulgar mockery of our Christian faith is extremely insulting and disrespectful. We cannot condone this,” he said.

The controversy follows a similar eruption in Los Angeles, where weeks ago the Dodgers said they would recognize the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence with a community heroes award, then rescinded the award amid criticism from Catholics, and finally reinstated it with a promise to “better educate ourselves” and strengthen ties with the LGBTQ+ community.

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The queer service group is one of California’s oldest LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations and has since expanded around the globe. Members take a vow to serve their communities through ministry, education, safe-sex campaigns, entertainment and human rights advocacy. In the 1980s, that mission included battling the AIDS epidemic, and taking in those cast from society and left to suffer and die alone.

Sister Roma remembers a time when the stigma against AIDS was so profound, few were willing to go near, let alone touch, their own friends and family who were HIV-positive.

For the Los Angeles Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, it’s about comforting those in need, Pride award or not. After the Dodgers tumult, the drag nuns reflect on their ministry.

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“The Sisters would go in search of these people, who were quite often hunched over a cocktail in a dark bar, and we would just sit down and engage them in conversation,” Roma said in an interview with The Times. “At the end of that talk, quite often those people would ask for a hug, and the Sisters would always say yes.”

That’s when Roma knew she had found her life’s calling.

Since she joined the Order in 1987, Roma has become one of the most recognizable Sisters in San Francisco, donning black and silver eyebrows, white make up and a rotating cast of colored boa headdresses as she helps the city that’s she’s called home since arriving in 1985 from Grand Rapids, Mich. She’s led an anti-violence campaign, fought Facebook to win the right to use chosen names on the platform and promoted wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat and member of the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, said he nominated Roma because she is “one of the absolute best, most effective and most respected community leaders in San Francisco.”

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Wiener said the Republican pushback reflects a misunderstanding of the Sisters’ work.

“The Catholic organizations that are demonizing the Sisters and saying that they are somehow hateful or anti-Catholic have it completely backwards,” Wiener said.

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While Republicans nationally have been vocal in opposing transgender rights and identities, such culture war issues are rare in the California state Senate, where the GOP holds just a fifth of the seats and the institutional culture tends toward civility. The letter rebuking Roma’s appearance in the Capitol is one of the more significant displays of division in the upper chamber in recent years.

Democrats used the backlash to highlight how much work remains to end anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, even in a state as deeply blue as California.

During the Senate’s ceremony, State Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) applauded the “remarkable gains” the LGBTQ+ community has made over the decades, but acknowledged efforts around the country to make its members “a political punching bag.”

“I happen to be a very proud Catholic,” she added. “And while I love my church, my church doesn’t always love all parts of me. But that’s OK, because I don’t always love all parts of my church either.”

The Dodgers rescinded plans to honor the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence on Pride Night, only to encounter a heated backlash. “We’re not used to people going to bat for drag queens,” one Sister said.

May 19, 2023

Evangelical and Catholic organizations scheduled a prayer vigil outside the Capitol while the Legislature held the Pride Month ceremony.

“It’s disheartening to see the California Legislature honor a group characterized by its mockery of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular,” California Family Council President Jonathan Keller said in a statement. “By promoting the profane ‘Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,’ these elected leaders are endorsing mockery, hatred, and blasphemy. This ceremony is deeply offensive towards millions of Californians across the Golden State.”

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Roma rejected the idea that she or any of the Sisters were mocking Catholicism or other faith groups.

“We literally minister to our community. We spread joy, we feed the hungry, we provide supplies and care to the unhoused community, we minister to the sick, we support the youth,” she said.

“My existence is not an attack on your faith. The problem is some people use their faith as an attack on my existence,” Roma added. “My getting equal rights does not take your rights away. And your religious beliefs do not give you the right to discriminate against me.”

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