Back last summer, before the thing called Bat N' Rouge had first batted its eyes at Humboldt, the powerful were wary. Participation in the charity softball game to raise money for a four-mile trail along a ridge behind Arcata required some flounce, some feminine accoutrement. You had to come in drag, that is: a dress, makeup, pumps, big hair, the whole gushy works if you could swing it.
And you could, with the help of Father Oh Mary! He was not only the president of the Eureka Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, one of the game's chief organizers. The Father, aka Peter Samuels, was also the Mistress of Manifestation, the person who helps novice Sisters divine their persona. We'll get to that later. His job for that first Bat N' Rouge was to help the senior team -- a nervous stable of male politicos and luminaries -- find "their look." A successful portrait painter and, more to the point, a retired costume designer with chops honed on Broadway, Samuels had the usual tools of the trade in his garage studio in Eureka -- a white dress form, fabric, patterns, scissors, glue, thread and needles, plus sequins and rhinestones that could form a twinkling river across the table in the center of the room. He also had emergency fixins to loan: a rainbow forest of feather boas and a rack of loud and luscious plus-sized dresses donated to the Sisters or procured from thrift stores.
To hear Samuels describe the late-summer evening last year when 12 senior-team ballplayers showed up at his house to be outfitted for Humboldt's first Bat N' Rouge, it looked as if he might be having to hogtie some of the more conservative fellows to stuff them into their new look.
"They all filed in and they were like a bunch of shy little teenage girls," the 56-year-old native New Yorker/Los Angeles refugee recalled, sitting on his back porch one recent overcast August afternoon. Comfortably dressed in blue sweats and a red fleece jacket, Samuels lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair. Mellow chimes picked a tune from the breeze and traffic whirred on a busy neighborhood street. "I said, ‘Don't worry, I'm not going to make you do anything that will make you uncomfortable.' And by the end of the night they were like, ‘Wow, you look great in pink!' and ‘Omigod, you look so good in those flowers!' It was just so funny! All their fears and defenses had dropped away."
On game day, however, many had done Samuels one better.
Samuels had chosen a quiet, librarian look for Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos. Instead, Gallegos showed up in "this incredible, sexy, black satin Victoria Secret policewoman outfit that he had ordered online! And he was buff and everything," Samuels recalled. "I didn't know! I had only seen pictures of him in a suit."
A batch of non-glam men -- some considered conservative, like Randy Gans of Security National and Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman -- had been coaxed into getting dolled up, and liked it. Moreover, game-day and post-game day activities raised $23,000 for the Arcata Ridge Trail. Enormous success. The Sisters and their co-organizers had expected 300 people to come watch the game and they got 1,200, said Debi Farber Bush, the City of Arcata's ridge trail committee member who conceived the fund-raiser.
Maybe it was the cause. Maybe it was the glitter. Many will say it was both, and that Humboldt County hasn't been the same since the Sisters arrived on the scene in 2006. To date, the Eureka Sisters have raised more than $100,000 for local charities. Not bad for a non-religious order of, if we may oversimplify for a moment, predominantly gay male nuns who paint their faces white, apply elaborate eye-makeup, don oddly regal but clown-like costumes, take on crazy names with double and triple entendres and insert themselves into public spaces. What is it about the Sisters that makes all kinds of people want to join them, drop their trousers and put on a dress for them, or at least bust open their wallets?
The Sisters, an international order with some 30-odd houses, or abbeys, in 10 countries, swirled into Humboldt in March 2006. Since then, the Eureka Sisters, Inc. Abbey of the Big Red Wood has raised money and raised consciousness, through Bat N' Rouge, special events and bingo. The group's quarterly bingo games each bring in $3,000 to $5,000 for designated charities, minus 10 percent to pay for the rental hall and the insurance. People who would like the Sisters' help raising money can write letters or show up at their monthly meetings to petition for their cause.
The Sisters are here partly through the inspired intervention of two men who moved from Long Beach in 2003. Michael Weiss and Todd Larsen, along with their partner Joel Bollinger, were done with the city. "We wanted to live longer, and we wanted to downscale our lives," Weiss said.
Humboldt was rural and rainy, which they loved. Bollinger got a job at the courthouse in the records department. Larsen found work at Baroni Designs, where he is general manager. Weiss worked with the North Coast AIDS Project then became the program services coordinator with the Humboldt County Health and Human Services Public Health Branch. While casting about for extracurricular activities, Weiss and Larsen started Queer Humboldt, which ended up inviting the Russian River sisters to Humboldt events. The sisters from the south were a huge hit, and people clamored for more. They appeared again in 2005, at the naughty, fun "Bingo with a Twist," which raised nearly $10,000 for two charities: HIV kids and the Humboldt Community Breast Health Project. More clamoring, this time to form a house of Sisters in Humboldt. And an abbey was born.
At first, Weiss figured the Eureka Sisters would be focusing on issues pertinent to people in the queer community -- people who were gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, both genders or perhaps something else, or who refused to be labeled anything. The order arose in the gay community in the Castro in 1980 as the AIDS crisis escalated. Many Sisters houses since have continued to make sex education, queer activism and queer rights their main focus. But in the end Humboldt, which didn't have a large, organized gay community, shaped the Sisters' agenda.
The Eureka Sisters' founders were a mix of straight and gay people who were into theater. Their following swiftly grew beyond the gay community. "We kind of overlapped our mission and our fight for equality into causes for the general public here in Humboldt County," Weiss said. When a group asks for their support, the sisters want to know if it supports equality for gays and others. The Emma Center for abused women first had to open its arms to transgender women before it could qualify for Sister help. "The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence came in and they worked with us, and they helped educate us and our staff and our volunteers," said Debra Patton, who sits on the Emma Center board of directors. "They actually did open our minds." In this broader approach to charity, the Big Red Wood takes after its mentor, the equally rural Russian River Sisters, rather than more urban abbeys.
Besides the Arcata Ridge Trail, the Breast Health Project and HIVKids, the Eureka Sisters have raised money for homeless shelters, the North Coast Rape Crisis Team, the Humboldt County AIDS Task Force, the Redwood AIDS Information Network Services in Southern Humboldt, Marriage Equality, the Raven Project for homeless youth, the Northcoast Resource Center, which helps homeless people get back on their feet, and many others. The Senior Resource Center used Sisters money to help create its new Alzheimer's facility. The Humboldt Wildlife Care Center hired a permanent staffer with Sister-raised proceeds. The Sisters gave the Strongbridge Montessori school in Arcata a $300 grant to build a fence to keep kids safely inside the grounds, and raised money for the Whitethorn school in Southern Humboldt to feed its starving budget.
Ask just about any Sister to summarize the order's mission, and she'll likely recite as if it's part of a catechism, "Promulgating universal joy and expiating stigmatic guilt."
"That means we're really looking at society and saying, no more shame," said Weiss. "Be proud of who you are, because we're all very, very different and we're all beautiful, amazing people."
There are 20 members in the Eureka Sisters. Some are volunteers. Some are working toward becoming Sisters or Guards. Guards don't wear dresses and white-face, but are uber-male in black leathers; their job is to protect the Sisters when they're out in public in costume. About half the members are queer men -- gay, bisexual, transgender or another variation. The rest are women, half lesbians and half straight. For all of them, at the Sisters' core, is a devotion to helping and connecting with people in the queer community. And dressing up.
Otherwise, if community service were all they wanted to do, they could join Rotary, or the Elks.
Qaiel Peltier (birth name, Kyle), dressed in jean cutoffs and a brown short-sleeved knit shirt, sat in the Peltier family's backyard in McKinleyville one day last month, talking to a journalist.
The delicate-featured 20-year-old -- slender fingers encircled by silver rings, a sassy side-flip of bangs -- had been inside earlier at the kitchen table, arranging rhinestones on a cut piece of fabric that would soon be a sparkly new dress for Peltier's persona, Sister Gaia T, at the upcoming Sisters conclave in Portland. Peltier is a novice sister in the Eureka house, and also the youngest of the Sisters.
Peltier joined last fall, after a fruitless effort to find, or create, a youthful, queer-focused community service group -- and after several of his young friends, online or nearby, had committed suicide.
"I'd been a queer activist for a long time," Peltier said. "Ever since I transferred to the Academy of the Redwoods."
Peltier grew up in McKinleyville and loved singing and writing poetry and sports, including football. But he struggled with being different -- with weight and eating disorders and bullies who liked to trip and violently tackle him. When an ex-boyfriend outed Peltier, the bullying intensified. One day, Peltier's worried mom snooped and found threatening emails from a freshman girl on her son's computer.
Peltier transferred to the then-new high school attached to the College of the Redwoods, the Academy, where he thrived. He became class president, made friends in the Queer Student Union, refashioned his name to "Qaiel" and chucked out gender-specific pronouns such as "he" or "she" and "him" or "her" in favor of the gender-neutral "ze" and "hir."
Peltier is at Humboldt State University now, majoring in psychology and multi-cultural studies and president of the Queer Student Union. But Peltier is a multi-issues person, working part time as a youth mentor for Humboldt County, and advocating for animals, prisoners and the rural poor. With the Sisters, all of these causes could be embraced. And dressing up -- getting "in face," as the Sisters call it -- as Sister Gaia T clinched it. Peltier's first Sister act was volunteering at the first Bat N' Rouge, attire-perfect: "A red cocktail dress, split thigh. Drawn-on moustache. Purple hair. Blue and red scarf."
It felt great.
"I'm a pretty bold person anyway," Peltier said. "But when I'm 'in face,' people react more to me. And I feel I have power, which is good for me, because for so long I felt disempowered. Sister Gaia T is so glamorous. She has a loud voice."
Peltier's mom, who had come home from work as the interview was wrapping up, looked wary. Protective. She didn't want to be identified by name, but she did have something to say.
"It scares me," she said. "I don't want anything to happen to my son. All this glitz and glamour. I don't get it. There are other ways to raise money."
She said there were a lot of rough, unbending people around. She resented having to always defend her son to them.
"I would love for him to do all of this activism," she said. "I support him 100 percent. But why bring attention to yourself in that way? There's a lot of hate crimes that go on."
Peltier told her that the Sisters, when they were "in face," do what other women do to stay safe -- they stick together; they don't go out alone.
Peltier's mom said she didn't know if she really trusted some of the older guys in the Sisters.
"The Sisters I hang out with are like siblings," Peltier protested. "Or they're like grandfathers to me. I have never, ever been hit on by any of them."
Peltier's mom looked at the journalist. "He's my only son. And I was raised in Humboldt County. ... I just worry about him."
Is it dangerous? Going into public in outrageous gender-bending costumes, or even just being openly gay?
Todd Larsen, head of Queer Humboldt, doesn't think so. In his eight years here, he's heard of little anti-gay violence.
Even in uniform -- with faces painted white like an 18th century denizen of the French court (or like a clown), eyes and lips dramatically exaggerated, and a square, winged headdress made by Father Oh Mary! out of a coat hangar and a baseball cap -- the Sisters feel safe, physically.
They can be victims of subtler assaults.
Samuels -- Father Oh Mary! -- said one time when he was out in public with the Sisters, a woman towing a small child came up to him and whispered, "You're going to hell!"
"I said, ‘Well, I guess I'll meet you there,'" he recalled.
James Walker, aka Guard Red Wood Daddy, said he hasn't had any tense moments on duty. As a Guard, the red-haired Walker (hence the naughty moniker) is charged with protecting the Sisters when they're "in face."
"What I have had to do is 'nun herding' -- like cows. Because the nuns get popular: They're walking in all their regalia, and people call them over and want to talk to them. Well, we've got to keep all the Sisters together in a group. If a Sister gets separated, a Guard will gently herd her back to the group. It's safer and keeps everyone moving forward on the mission."
Walker heard about one bad incident last year. It was right after Bat N' Rouge. "Some of the Sisters, still in their makeup and garb, went to one of the local bars in Arcata. There happened to be a lot of college jocks in the bar. And one of the guys yanked a Sister's headpiece off of her head; and that hurts, because they use lots of hairpins for that."
The thief ran out the door and the Sister, who was visiting from another city, lost her head piece, wig and probably some tufts of hair, said Walker.
More frightening than any outward displays of violence a Sister might face, though, is the insidious discrimination that Walker said he's experienced as a gay man.
"I'm still encountering it, in job interviews," said Walker, 54, who graduated in 2008 from CalState Long Beach magna cum laude with degrees in philosophy and ceramic fine arts. He was an electrician in the U.S. Navy before that, maintaining the computers that decode data from missiles. "I can tell within 10 minutes whether or not they're going to take me seriously. They see on my resume what I've volunteered for -- AIDS? Oh he's a faggot, I don't want him."
He hopes the Sisters and the Guards can help bridge that kind of gap.
Because of the glitz and the glam.
Aspirant Guard Bear Flogger -- 43-year-old native Humboldter Loren Kester -- said the first time he saw the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, he thought, "This is frickin' bizarre. I cannot be hanging out with these queers."
Kester was undergoing the physical transformation from female to male at the time. He'd known, he said, since he was a little kid that he should have been born in a male body. The trapped feeling made him restless, unhappy and mean. Changing physically to a male has made him feel happy and confident, he said. But hanging out with the Sisters -- which he started doing despite his misgivings -- has made him kinder.
"The Sisters give me a support that the lesbian community doesn't give me, that the straight community doesn't give me," he said.
And the thing is, he didn't have to wear the fancy head gear that Father Oh Mary! had designed, or a dress or makeup. As a Guard, Kester could go full-on macho male in jeans and black leather and whip. For that matter, no one's confined to a narrow look. Sister Nova Aggra, who is female, goes all-out Sister glamorous then paints on a moustache. Some of the Guards, said Kester, will get all macho and then apply glitter on their eyelids.
The costume is the thing, and the more gender-confusing possibly the better.
"It opens minds," said Walker, Guard Red Wood Daddy. "The sacred clown concept comes into play here. When you get people to laugh, you can introduce a new thought and they will accept it more easily. They begin to feel at ease and to rethink their rigid ways of seeing people."
So it's about transforming a person, and a society, with sheer fun and pure intent?
"The first time I got dressed up as a Sister, it was during Gay Pride in Arcata," said Samuels, sitting at a table inside his studio laying rhinestones in a diamond pattern on a dress he was making for another Sister. "And I remember these kids came up to me. They were between 7 and 12 years old, I guess. And with a curiosity I found so refreshing, with no precepts about a man in a dress with a beard, they started asking me questions. 'Are you a boy or a girl?' one asked. I said, 'What do you think?' One said, 'Girl.' Another one said, 'Boy.' And we talked for about half an hour. I said to them, it was like Halloween -- and becoming something you were."
It takes a minimum of a year to become a Sister, and usually longer. First, you have to volunteer. Then, if you still like it, you can ask to be an aspirant, then a postulant, then a novice. Each phase has its own rules.
Eventually, you might rise to a fully professed Sister. Or, following a similar track, a full-fledged Guard. And possibly you will have discovered your calling, something that feels, in a way, spiritual.
"It's a very personal journey," said Weiss. "Very much like other nuns, in religious service, we discover what our callings are. I went into it thinking my drive to do this was gay activism and HIV work, and found it was a little different for me."
For Weiss, the revealing moment came when he was a novice, and he took part in a bar ministry during an international conclave of Sisters in Philadelphia. Volunteers wore white T-shirts, and the Sisters and novices handed bar patrons pens and told them to write, on the T-shirts, the shame other people had given them, and then they'd burn the T-shirts.
Late that night, Weiss said, a young man wrote on a T-shirt, "Tell my family I love them," and burst into tears. A Sister took him outside, sat with him, and got him help. Weiss believes a suicide was averted that night. "I came to understand my purpose for being a Sister was to get really into the gay community and really provide a space for healing -- ears for somebody to listen to, a shoulder for somebody in need of a hug," Weiss said. "I realized how many people are isolated by the parts of their lives that should be supporting them -- whether it's their church or their family or their rural environment."
Some people say the Sisters are making fun of the church, specifically of Catholic nuns. That they're anti-religion. Weiss and other Eureka Sisters say they are not.
Sister Juana Little -- 54-year-old Duane Leal -- is Catholic. He is also bisexual, and has suffered unkind words from certain fellow parishioners. But never, he says, from the parish priest at St. Bernard's in Eureka.
"I do not do this to attack my faith," Leal said. "I wouldn't do it. I'm there because 'by your works you are to be judged,' and if I want to have a little fun in the process, why not? If we can't have fun, I mean, really. That's just sad. ... It's an outreach to my community, to my gay and lesbian, and bisexual, community -- where people would not listen to me if I have a Bible in my hand, they might listen if I'm a sacred clown, in white face."
In San Francisco, Sisters have clashed with their diocese. But the Eureka Sisters don't seem to have crossed the radar here in the Santa Rosa Diocese. A request for a statement from the diocese -- Has it taken a position on the Sisters? Does the fact it raises money for charitable causes influence that view? -- was met with confusion:
"We have no information and no position on the group. It does not appear to have a website, so it is not clear that it is a 501 (c)3 charitable organization. The name was chosen in decades past, from my understanding, as a parody of Catholic religious women's orders -- though it is unclear exactly what was being parodied about them. No one has come forward claiming to represent the group, nor approached the diocese with any requests. As far as we know, it is just a name. Sorry,
Deirdre M. Frontczak Ph.D.
Sheen Communications Group"
Well then, perhaps she'd like to come to the ballgame this Friday.
Father Oh Mary!'s job as nervous-Nellie dress-up guide has gotten a lot easier this year. The men -- conservative or liberal, hunky or hulking -- are plunging into the spirit of Bat N' Rouge. They've taken over the costuming themselves. Oh Mary! dishes out advice if asked, and then just steps back and enjoys what the Sisters have wrought.
From that first glittery, glimmery dress, or those delectable heels, can it be all that far to understanding each other a little better?