San Francisco’s iconic Folsom Street Fair could soon see a high-profile departure: The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
As of Monday afternoon, The Sisters were voting on whether or not to pull out of the annual “world-class leather and fetish” festival on Folsom Street, after what amounts to a labor dispute.
“I’m hoping we can come to an agreement that’s mutually beneficial,” said Sister Rosie Palmer Partridge by phone Monday. It would be a shame to end the relationship between the two organizations, Sister Rosie said, because “this gives us a chance to touch base with the community.”
Self-described queer radical nuns, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have for more than two decades worked the Folsom Street Fair to help raise donations. Standing in pumps and drag at the entrance, they greet people joyously as they enter the leather wonderland — and compel attendees to donate money.
The contract between the fair and the Sisters is renewed annually. The Sisters provide their services and the fair pays them some of the proceeds to fund community efforts.
Patrick Finger, executive director of Folsom Street Events, which runs the fair, would not share details of the contract dispute.
“We have a good relationship with the leadership” of the Sisters, Finger said. “The accurate story is that the Sisters’ leadership and the leadership of this organization are still negotiating the contract.”
Not everyone shared Finger’s view. One frustrated member of the Sisters’ order, Sister Roma, recalled one time a decade ago when the Folsom Street Fair gave them a “key to the fair” in recognition for service.
Now, however, things are different.
“Over the years that relationship has deteriorated,” Sister Roma said. And with changes to their Folsom Stree Fair contract, “every year that becomes less lucrative for the Order.”
Now to be clear, the Sisters are not paid for what they do. They’re an all-volunteer organization and the funding they take in goes squarely to the myriad LGBTQ nonprofits they donate to nationally and locally.
But their main point of contention with Folsom is their new working conditions.
That frustration burst into public view Monday when Sister Flora Goodthyme wrote on Facebook that after 25-plus years of working with the fair, The Sisters “are being squeezed out.”
That post had a modest 29 shares on Facebook and 145 comments as of Monday afternoon, but it also has members of the community buzzing about the Sisters possibly ending their historic relationship with Folsom.
The fair’s organizers may charge for nuns who don’t show up to their shifts at Folsom, Goodthyme wrote. “Insulting, greedy and totally FUCKED is my view and opinion. When you don’t see Sisters at the gates or even a booth at Folsom Street Fair because ‘it’s too full’ this year, be sure to thank Folsom Street Events for all their community support.”
In a follow-up Facebook comment, Finger from Folsom Street Events said “We are not squeezing the Sisters out. There is a lot of inaccurate information in this post.”
Sister Roma was perhaps a bit less florid in describing the dispute than Sister Goodthyme, but sounded similarly despondent about it all.
Put simply, the Sisters are seeing their responsibilities reduced, Roma said. Instead of collecting money, they’ll only be greeters like queer radical nuns waving to say “Hi!” in a Walmart entrance. That’s a sizable reduction in their prior duties, Roma said.
They were also asked to change their shifts from three three-hour shifts to two five-hour shifts. While that may not sound like much, Roma said, it can be particularly brutal in the September sun wearing nun’s habits.
“I love seeing people, it’s the best part. But it’s grueling,” Sister Roma said. “We feel slighted, and undervalued, and it’s really sad.”
The funding the Sisters collect has gone to the San Francisco Dyke March, The Recycled AIDS Medicine Program, Eureka Food Not Bombs, Bay Area Sober in Leather, and more, according to the Sisters’ website.
For its part, the Folsom Street Fair also raises quite a bit for the community. In 2017, for instance, the fair’s roughly 250,000 attendees helped Folsom Street Events raise more than $322,000 to fund local and national charities, according to its website.
“We love the fair, we think it’s a beautiful expression of queer sexuality,” Sister Roma said.
But, “the truth is, the people who are really losing here are the communities we serve. We rely on working these gates to pull in money to turn right around and give it to marginalized communities.”
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.