A one-block street in San Francisco's Mission District, just two blocks away from Dolores Park and near the location where two gay men donned nun's habits in the late 1970s and birthed a drag-activist movement and culture, is set to be renamed in honor of a founder of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
Born Ken Bunch in Iowa, and later reborn as Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch, Sister Vish-Knew's later shortened nun's name is a better fit for a street sign. And Supervisor Rafael Mandelman on Tuesday introduced a resolution that will add a commemorative street name to a one-block alley, Alert Alley, in the Mission District. Alert Alley runs between Dolores Street and Landers Street, between 15th and 16th streets, and it will soon be known as Sister Vish-Knew Way.
"When Sister Vish-Knew donned a nun’s habit in San Francisco on Easter weekend in 1979, she launched a spiritual movement dedicated to queer community service, activism and art that has spread across the globe," Mandelman said in a statement. "As the co-founder of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and through her decades of service to the organization and to San Francisco, Sister Vish-Knew has made a huge impact on the lives of countless LGBTQ+ people. I am glad we have the opportunity to honor her by adding 'Sister Vish-Knew Way' to a street in her longtime neighborhood."
The location of the commemorative renaming — which follows on similar renamings of sections of streets for late trans drag performer Vicky Marlane, and Tony Bennett — was chosen both because it is close to Sister Vish-Knew's longtime home in the neighborhood, and because of its proximity to Dolores Park and the original founding moment of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
While the Sisters in 1982 famously distributed what is thought to be the first public-health pamphlet encouraging safer sex among gay men and acknowledging the existence of the still unnamed virus that caused AIDS, and while the organization has grown into an international network of orders that do charitable work in their communities, the Sisters began as a lark.
As Sister Vish-Knew describes it, "One bored Easter weekend in 1979 my roommate and I donned the habits to have some fun, and it turned into a worldwide spiritual, community service, activist, performance and artist organization of Sisters."
The habits were brought to SF from Iowa City, where Sister Vish-Knew had been part of a drag troupe that called themselves The Sugar Plum Fairies. He bought the first five nun's habits that would become the signature of the Sisters from a convent in Iowa City — lying and telling the nuns that they needed the habits for a production of The Sound of Music, when they were really for a drag show.
A contemporary of Harvey Milk, Sister Vish-Knew says that her activism began back in high school, and she claims to be "the second person in the U.S. to apply for a same-sex marriage license, in 1976."
"Being a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence has been my life-work," Sister Vish-Knew says. And the Sisters have sent her around the globe to represent the organization, including at LifeBall in Vienna, serving as a grand marshal of Prague Pride, and joining an international contingent of Sisters at the 6th annual Shanghai Pride.
The shortening of Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch came in recent years, Sister Vish says, explaining to the Bay Area Reporter, "I wanted to soften my image up."
In addition to being a play on words, a response to the many people who ask her if she knew that the Sisters would have such longevity when she first donned that habit, the name Vish-Knew is also, obviously, a reference to the Hindu god Vishnu. Bunch tells the BAR that his original nun's name was Sister Ady in reference to Ardhanarishvara, which is a form of the Hindu deity Shiva combined with his consort Parvati, who was depicted as half-male and half-female ("Before nonbinary became a thing," says Vish.)
One of the more high-profile of SF's Sisters, Sister Roma, said in a statement, "As one of the founders of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and someone who has remained an active member since our inception, Sister Vish-Knew created and nurtured a worldwide volunteer human rights activist and fundraising organization. I am thrilled to see her being honored for her decades of dedication and service as well as being recognized as a hero in LGBTQ history."
The commemorative renaming of Alert Alley will be taken up by a Board of Supervisors committee next month, and later by the full Board — with the hope that the new street sign can be unveiled in conjunction with Easter Weekend in April, which will mark the 43rd anniversary of the Sisters.