You might see them in a walkabout at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, at a Pride-fest in rural Minnesota, Dining Out for Life, cleaning up litter at Augsburg Park or mingling with other customers at a farmers market in West St. Paul.
Faces painted white, wearing nuns’ habits and coronets, they are the Ladies of the Lakes, a 501c3 charity that promotes joy and equality for everyone. Formed in the Old Catholic tradition, the group of LGBTQ and straights is a fully professed order under the umbrella of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, which started in San Francisco in 1979.
Rob Warmboe, whose identity in the Sisterhood is Sister Tammy Gaye-Bakery, said the San Francisco house was created by an individual who had just moved to the California city and brought with him four nuns’ habits. “They were borrowed for the Sound of Music, and they had never been returned,” Warmboe said.
So with four costumes to start with, the group grew organically from protests to fundraising and activism. Warmboe said the idea of dressing as nuns developed from the idea that the members did not need a hierarchical order to tell them what to do and not do. He said queers were not really welcomed by Christianity, and the habits looked really ridiculous and made people giggle.
“That’s where the joy aspect comes in,” he said. “If people can forget for just a moment what is wrong with the world and forget about all the ephemeral drama, it guides where we spend our emotion.”
The Ladies of the Lakes (LOL) began on Valentine’s Day in 2014 in the Twin Cities. “It started with people coming here who were loosely connected to the Sisters in San Francisco,” Warmboe said. “They started a house here because while the Twin Cities has a large queer community, there were little pockets all over. They wanted to bring people in, connect and spread out.
“A lot of what we do is hands on and based on community,” Warmboe continued. He said the houses in North America are based on what their communities need. Orders of sisters have sprung up internationally, as well.
“For us, a lot of what we do is to help queers, especially people of color who are queer,” Warmboe said. “We all do our own little things."
He added that the Pride Institute is America's oldest treatment center that is queer-focused. A lot of people come here by way of the Pride Institute, and they are drawn to the Twin Cities and stay here.
The LOL has done a number of activities with the Pride Institute, including calling bingo and applying tattoos at events. They work with the Aliveness Project and hold candlelight vigils, donate socks to the homeless and do fund-raisers.
“Our services focus on the queer community, but we know it’s not just queers who need joy in their lives,” Warmboe said. “We try our best to meet people where they are at. We know there is an aspect of trauma in coming out, whether it is to one’s family, community or city. We offer the gay community structure, but we realize a lot of straight people and allies have some of the same issues and trauma and are impacted, also.”
Warmboe said LOL want to do their best to go where they are wanted, and they partner with a lot of other charities and organizations. He said the Sisters are doing a lot of fundraising these days, because a number of organizations have seen their funding cut, which has resulted in HIV infections on the rise.
Although the Sisterhood is filled with humor and joy, the steps to join are taken seriously. Anyone is welcome to be a Sister, but the process takes time. One begins as a volunteer, moves to a postulant, then a novice and finally a fully professed sister. There is a lot of study and participation along the way. And the potential sister is voted upon at every step.
“You learn how to initiate small talk, how to be an active listener and how to tell little jokes that can break the ice and make everyone giggle,” Warmboe said. He said the LOL is the only fully professed house in Minnesota, and the largest in the Midwest. Members are active in the Twin Cities, but also travel to events in rural Minnesota and nearby states.
“We have in the past run into hostility locally,” Warmboe added, “but it has been awhile. It depends on what we have been invited for. People who see us online feel the power to say anything anonymously. But in person, there is generally not a lot of bashing.”
Warmboe said that does change, however, once he leaves the Twin Cities. “In places like Bemidji, for example, there are only a couple bars where my husband and I can sit on the same side of the table. And in Hibbing, we got a lot of dirty looks. I have been called faggot a couple of times.”
However, the strongest reaction Warmboe received was during an anti-gun protest at the State Capitol with Moms Demand Action. “I grew up where gun drills at school were common. I am not anti-gun, but I am anti being shot by them.”
Warmboe said someone took his photo, as he was dressed as a nun at the protest. “I got turned into a meme and it was shared by Ted Nugent. I received a massive number of death threats, but it was empowering. If a photo of me, an adult wearing a dress drew the focus off queer kids who get targeted because I am considered a bigger threat, that’s okay by me.
“I have a job, a home and insurance. I am okay. Just leave the kids out of it,” Warmboe said. He did say his mother, husband and nieces were all concerned about his safety in the face of all the death threats, but he considered the distraction to be a good thing.
As far as the focus of LOL being on queers of color, Warmboe described the challenges they face with a metaphor of a game of blackjack. “You need to get to 21, and the deck is dealt for you,” he explained. “Privilege, scarcity and a whole slew of things dictate how well someone can do in life. If you are given a deck with no kings, getting to 21 is hard. Add on that you’re queer, face generational poverty, all things that affect the deck. It is possible to reach 21, but it takes more intentional effort.”
Warmboe said that just because one is queer does not mean he is not racist. “You see someone as the other, and it is so easy to treat them as the other” he said. Living by Paul Wellstone’s motto, “We all do better when we all do better,” has been important to Warmboe.
Warmboe became a fully professed sister in 2017, taking his vows. He said he is Mistress of Novices and Mistress of Archives. He is also vice president for the 501c3. As Mistress of Archives, he keeps track of banners, signage and “all the weird things” the Sisters have acquired. He said his basement is full of banners, rocks from Lake Superior and other items collected at different events or given as gifts by other houses.
LOL has no specific location but meets the first Monday of each month at 7 p.m. in downtown Minneapolis. The 27 members come from all over the Metro: Minneapolis and St. Paul, White Bear Lake, Eagan and other suburbs.
“We plan our events, discuss grants and scholarships and make sure the bills are paid,” Warmboe said. “One percent of our fund-raising pays for our mailbox. Everything else goes back into the organization.
“I know for myself, I have seen the results of our work,” Warmboe said. “I have seen people becoming more comfortable in their own skin.”
Anyone interested in finding out more about LOL and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence can go to https://www.lolsisters.org/