Great Escape

They Survived the AIDS Epidemic and Found a Way to Give Back

See the town where LGBTQ San Franciscans have been seeking refuge since the 1970s

Sister Francis A. Sissy stands for a portrait at her home, 40 acres called Honeyrock Ranch. Healdsburg, California, 2014. All photos: Talia Herman. Photo editing by Michelle Le.

II was raised in Guerneville, California. My parents still live in my childhood home. Guerneville’s this mix of hippies, hillbillies, and old bikers living along the Russian River, about a 90-minute drive north of San Francisco. It has been a tourist spot for Bay Area folks for 100 years, starting with blue-collar vacationers, then back-to-landers and hippies, then the Hell’s Angels. But in the early 1970s, the queer presence arrived, consisting mostly of gay men. Tolerance for the LGBTQ community wasn’t that great, but it was more tolerant than other places. And then, very quickly, it became a gay party town. Gay men started investing in real estate, buying summer homes. They moved up here full-time and opened businesses. By the ’80s, Guerneville was a gay mecca.

Johnson’s Beach, a privately owned beach. Guerneville, California.
A home with a view of vineyards. Guerneville, California, 2014.

Back in 2002, I was home for winter break from college, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence had just formed in Guerneville. The Sisters are an order of queer nuns devoted to community service, outreach, and humanitarian work. My mom had this vintage clothing store, and a lot of the Sisters would come in to buy large dresses and shoes and accessories. She had a little setup where you could drink tea, which meant she made friends with everyone. That’s when I started photographing the community. And then I revisited them a decade later.

Sister Francis A. Sissy with his husband, Pete, at their home. They live on 40 acres called Honeyrock Ranch in Healdsburg, California. This photo was taken September 16, 2014.

Sister Francis A. Sissy, one of my main subjects, is from the Russian River. When he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, he came back to the area. He came home to die. But he didn’t. Medication came out, and it worked for him and he survived. Afterward, he went back to school to earn a master’s degree in social work — and dedicated himself to community service.

Sister Francis (left) greets a guest at a memorial for a man who died after living a long time with HIV. Sebastopol, California, 2014.
Sister Francis (center) talks with Sister Sparkle Plenty (2nd from right) at a fellow Sister’s birthday party. Guerneville, California, 2014.

So there were these men in beautiful Guerneville who were HIV-positive or grappling with the AIDS epidemic in their community. But when the medication got better and people survived, they wanted to give back. And this is one of the reasons the Sisters formed. They started fundraising for queer causes and breast cancer health. They were so efficient at making money that they felt like they were running out of groups to support—so they branched out. They saved a senior center through bingo fundraisers, and then they upgraded the fire department’s equipment. They funded a girl’s 4-H project by supplying her with a professional scale to weigh her pigs.

It changed the community’s—and perhaps the world’s—ideas about queer boys in dresses.

Sister Francis. Healdsburg, California, 2014.
Left: Sister Francis. Right: Sister Sparkle Plenty, a founding member of the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Guerneville, California, 2014.

“[Being a Sister] was something I could do to get me out of my shell and give me some self-confidence to get on with my life. It also helped me with the idea that I am here to make a difference, rather than simply taking up space.”

—Sister Sparkle Plenty

Sister Sparkle Plenty. Healdsburg, California, 2014.
Sister Sparkle Plenty. Occidental, California, 2014.
Sister Wilma Tizgro, 2014.
Left: Sister Sparkle Plenty at a fundraising bingo game, 2014. Center: Mountie Annie (second from left) waves money at a fundraiser, 2014. Right: Senior center member Marcela spanks Sister Barbie Mitzvah at a bingo game, 2004.

“I think what Marcela really enjoys is that she’s recognized as a member of the community at bingo. When she’s not at bingo, I think she sees herself as just another little old lady who needs a lot. She comes alive at bingo.”

— Sister Sparkle Plenty

Sister Wilma Tizgro at bingo, 2014.

“We didn’t really know what to expect. We really didn’t know how we would work with these people — so-called bikers and cowboys and so forth. We quickly realized they were just as capable of understanding us as we were capable of understanding them.”

— Sister Sparkle Plenty

The Juicy Pig, a local bar. Guerneville, California, 2014.
Left: Gay Henry, a straight kid from Guerneville whose drag was inspired in part by the Sisters, performs at a Russian River talent show, 2015. Right: Sister Wilma Tizgro and Sister Araya Sunshine out in front of the Russian River Veterans Hall during a bingo game, 2014.

is an editorial photojournalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her clients include the New Yorker and California Sunday Magazine.

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