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Blessed Sisters and Cross Dressing: Christmas in City Hall

Blessed Sisters and Cross Dressing: Christmas in City Hall

by Binoy Kampmark

The much admired rotunda is filled with anticipation. The audience gathered within San Francisco City Hall awaits the annual Tree of Hope Lighting ceremony. They are in for a treat of contradictions, a pastiche, a pantomime. Towering transvestites in immaculate dresses with pin-point stilettos; the ‘queer nuns’ of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an order armed with Christmas glitter set to banish rather than farm guilt; Rev. Nobuaki Hanaoka, a survivor of the atom bomb; a comedian Marga Gomez, and a jazz rendition by Veronica Klaus.

Any ideology, when taken into a marketplace, becomes boutique. Trends are cultivated. We live in a climate of hope, and San Francisco has always been at the forefront of promoting that commodity. Is it curious to have cross-dressing, transvestite delights and a survivor of the atomic bomb mingle and promote a creed? No. This is tragedy and camp, promotion and propaganda. Conservatives might regard this as grotesque, though this is nothing if not comic, a drag show in high stage endorsed by the city’s mayoral office.

The political stance of the audience is obvious. This is a gathering for the converted and GOP members and followers are not to be found. Gomez lashes out with her sharpened tongue, talking about Sapphic Latina fantasies. ‘You should have seen that hot mum on the bus.’ From lust, the topic turns political. Comedy vanishes before polemics. The tongue turns to lashing with relish the Republican figure Sarah Palin, the keenest and perhaps softest of targets. ‘I wish Sarah Palin were adopted by a family of bears.’ A few more comments aimed below the belt of the Alaskan hockey mum, and its time for the sisters to come on stage.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who appeared in San Francisco on Easter Sunday 1979, seem to have walked off a canvass, the creations of an artist both manic and wickedly creative. They are painted with astonishing detail, their faces layers so rich they would challenge a still life. Even the beards are well tended, trimmed with as much finesse as a royal garden. Their habits are resplendent, a shimmer of brilliance. ‘Thank you sister,’ cries the audience. All evils, banished by the exercise of pleasure. Hatred, given its marching orders. Then the tree, lit after glitter has been dispensed.

The audience proves to be thirsty. There is nothing like a free event to encourage indulgence. Vodka and cranberry juice proves to be the only available option by 6. Empty bottles of champagne and wine resemble tombstones on the tables. The chance to sample sushi was also at hand, though the flurry of fingers and hands prevents a genuine appreciation of the food. ‘I only wish I had arrived earlier,’ sighs a socialite. A few other familiar faces have also made the journey, a mixture of characters, charlatans and pleasure seekers.

With the Christmas tree lit, the charming and arresting Veronica Klaus, a transsexual blonde with smoky voice, appears with her jazz troopers. They perch themselves on the stair case leading up to the tree. Klaus made much mileage with her gender reassignment surgery in 2006, speaking of her privates as ‘my remodeled rumpus room’. The audience is enraptured. The staircase of City Hall is being rubbed and brushed by a man in black tee shirt and tattered jeans, his drenched body out of time with the music, moving in a contorted state. His shaven head is shining with beads of sweat. A lady in her late sixties in a red cardigan and Christmas hat springs forth like a desert blossom after rain. Both dance individually, their faces never meeting. Each, in a meditated, one might say even medicated state, so individual as to be egocentric. Hope, and the liquor, has moved into their veins.

Klaus persists, holding the fort of music and hands fliers of her next show in between songs. One of them: Santa Baby. Suddenly, a vision. Santa Baby is rushing. The checks, with freshly inked signatures are there in the stocking and may not bounce this Christmas. The duplex shall be available. The Christmas tree needs to be trimmed. The blonde is a mirage on the staircase, her hat gradually disappearing into the iridescence of the tree. The seats in the hall are emptying, and the chatter about getting a dog for the new year is gradually weakening. ‘Water, anybody?’ asks the one of the youthful attendants.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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