This essay begins with a tale of two cardinals.

It’s not the story you’re expecting.

I’ve never met Cardinal Packin’ Packer in person, but I first met his alter ego, Sister Vibrata Electric of the Order of the Flaming Labia, more than fifteen years ago when she volunteered to be interviewed for a book I was researching. I met Cardinal Carnal Cravings in Seattle nearly a decade later, when I was doing research for my most recent book, Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody. He more often manifested as Sister Daya Reckoning. Both cardinals are the masculine personas manifested by fully professed Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

The Sisters are a forty-year-old, religiously-unaffiliated order of noncelibate nuns who manifest when they’re needed and available and who otherwise lead what they term “secular lives” in roles ranging from student through homemaker to IT professional, lawyer, or educator; I’m fond of joking that they’re the love children of famed drag queen Divine and Julie Andrews’s Maria from The Sound of Music. They call themselves “queer nuns,” welcome members of all genders, sexualities, and religious persuasions (including the unpersuaded), and see themselves as doing the work of religious nuns in communities rarely served by such nuns. Wearing habits ranging from traditional Roman Catholic robes to cocktail dresses, often with their signature white pancake makeup and bejeweled faces, they educate, fundraise, minister, and advocate in forms that range widely across the four continents on which they’re active but that focus especially on sexual justice and sexual health.

The order also engages in protest, both political and religious. In 1987, for instance, they held a Papal Mass in San Francisco to protest the visit of Pope John Paul II. It was a solemn ritual as well as a parodic protest, in which Harvey Milk was canonized, the Pope was exorcised, and enormous platters of golden condoms were distributed for communion. This approach to activism caught my attention early on; I’ve come to call it “serious parody.”

There are two main roles available in the Order of Perpetual Indulgence: Sisters, who are traditionally feminine, and Guards, who are traditionally masculine. Fully professed Sisters— those who have completed the year-long process of full admission to the order—may also manifest “masculine personas,” typically as male Roman Catholic religious. Thus, Cardinal Packin’ Pecker and Cardinal Carnal Cravings.

What’s interesting to me about these two cardinals is the difference in audience reaction to them. Neither cardinal reported to me that he was regularly approached for the sort of (feminine-coded) ministry for which Sisters are known: a listening ear, safer sex advice or supplies, and the like. Yet Cardinal Packin’ Pecker drew positive and enthusiastic reactions from the public whenever he manifested, while Cardinal Carnal Cravings met with significant disinterest. Why? Is there something different about queer communities in Los Angeles and Seattle? I don’t think so, at least not in this regard. I think the enthusiasm for the one cardinal and the lukewarm reception of the other has everything to do with cultural laws of gender and the limits they place on the legibility of parody. Cardinal Packin’ Pecker, you see, is a cisgender woman in his secular life; Cardinal Carnal Cravings is a cisgender man.

Because of shifting ideas of gender that cast even elite, white men as sexually uncontrollable and portrayed most poor men, non-Protestant men, and men of color as sexual predators, Protestants in the United States have been deeply mistrustful of male celibacy for at least two centuries. That mistrust turned into anti-Catholic violence following the 1830s publication of two wildly popular books about lecherous Catholic priests abusing women in convents: Rebecca Reed’s novel, Six Months in a Convent, and the ghostwritten and discredited autobiography, Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. As revelations unfold today, seemingly without end, of sexual assaults by Roman Catholic priests and cover-ups by their superiors, and in the shadow of repeated efforts by Pope Benedict and many other conservatives to resurrect the specter of the homosexual child molester that haunted the coming-of-age of entire generations of queer folks and still motivates anti-transgender laws today, anti-Catholicism and homophobia stand together in an unsteady balance. Against this backdrop, the figure of the oversexed Catholic priest reads in complex and discomfiting ways even in queer communities. Parody is limited by the perceptive capacities of its audience, and this parody, it seems, cuts too close to the bone.

Whereas the gaily noncelibate nun, whether bearded or bare-chinned, speaking in soprano tones or a rich bass, elicits delight and often startlingly profound respect from many in queer communities (see the order’s Vimeo channel for many wonderful examples), the noncelibate priest reads quite differently. A woman appearing as Cardinal Packin’ Pecker, sporting an impossibly large silicone phallus under his robes, may not inspire in his audience the kind of devotional response that the feminine Sisters—even Sister Vibrata herself—do, but this cardinal nonetheless met with the laughter and enthusiastic response of an audience who probably read him as parody and revenge—a woman taking on a role and a rank closed to her in the Church, sharply calling out the scandal with her perpetually-erect portrayal of the hierarchy.

Cardinal Carnal Cravings, on the other hand, taking visibly and audibly male as well as masculine form, seems to come too close to the actual truth. In embodying not only a time-honored US stereotype of the dangerously lecherous Catholic priest but even the contemporary image of the priestly predator—complete with the homophobic implication that such predators are gay—Cardinal Carnal Cravings shifts the register from serious parody to serious enactment. In so doing, he becomes legible not as funny, political, or resistant but simply as creepy. He’s the hidden secret that queer communities have been accused of hiding for decades, in whose image they have been castigated, defrocked, and excommunicated. No wonder no one wants to talk to him.

Despite the Sisters’ sharp, inventive, and in many ways effective use of serious parody in their engagement with traditional images of the Roman Catholic Church (and of so much else), like all forms of parody the order’s manifestations are constrained by its audience. Gender parody— genderfuck, in the language of drag and gender theory—is entirely legible for many of the order’s fans. So is what I term religionfuck—performatively calling into question which bodies can be considered religious, when, and why. But legibility has its limits, and when masculinity meets male embodiment in the parodic representation of the lecherous Roman Catholic religious, the laws of gender manifest in sharp relief.

Over two decades ago, Chuck Kleinhans wrote that “Camp . . . operates within the larger boundaries of a racist, patriarchal, bourgeois culture. That it defines itself in difference from the dominant culture does not automatically construct Camp as radically oppositional. Only an audience and the work’s exhibition context can complete that subversion.”1Chuck Kleinhans, “Taking Out the Trash: Camp and the Politics of Parody,” in The Politics and Poetics of Camp, edited by Moe Meyer (New York: Routledge, 1994), 195. In this tale of two cardinals, a queer audience and an exhibition context of ongoing Catholic sex abuse scandals and ongoing attempts to blame those scandals on gay priests undermines the success of the camp; the parody in this case falters against the persistent laws of gender. In the wrong time and to the wrong audience, the legibility of parody fades and the audience sees only a pedophilic gay priest, the exact figure who today haunts both queer and conservative nightmares.