Jack Fertig, one of the first Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence--best known as Sister Boom Boom a.k.a. Sister Rose of the Bloody Stains of the Sacred Robes of Jesus--was born on February 21, 1955, in Chicago. He grew up in Maryland. However, since his family had a long history in San Francisco dating to the 1850s he always considered himself a native there. His parents were civil rights activists and he attended political demonstrations with them as a young boy. At age 15 he told his parents he was gay, and described himself in high school as "a fat, unathletic, bookish sissy."
Fertig's interest in religion, spirituality, and the occult started early. A Pisces himself, he started studying astrology in the late 1960s and launched his professional practice in 1977. He sometimes wrote newspaper columns on astrology. Though raised Jewish, at various times he embraced his Catholic roots and attended Episcopal churches before ltimately converting to Islam. "He was forever spiritually curious as he sampled faiths like good meals before finding a home in Islam," said fellow activist Waiyde Palmer.
An activist from a young age, Fertig claimed to have attended the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a junior delegate rather than a protester. He gravitated toward the nascent gay liberation movement and said he was at the first New York City Stonewall March in 1970, commemorating the riots of the year before. Making his way to San Francisco in the early 1970s, Mr. Fertig helped start the Fruit Punch gay radio show on KPFA, developed gay youth programs at the Pacific Center in Berkeley, and performed with local theater groups. He attended University of California Berkeley, but dropped out. He later returned to college and graduated from San Francisco State University in 2003.
Sister Soami Delux, formerly known as Sister Missionary Position, takes credit for recruiting Fertig to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at the 21st Street Baths in the early 1980s, when the group consisted of less than a dozen members. In his persona as Sister Boom Boom, Fertig was the best known and most flamboyant of the Sisters, a group of mostly gay activists whose spoof of Roman Catholic religious women delighted--and outraged--thousands of people in the early flowering of the Castro District as a gay mecca. As the AIDS epidemic hit the city, the Sisters produced "Play Fair," the first explicit safer sex pamphlet. In 1982 Sister Boom Boom and actress Shirley MacLaine emceed what is thought to be the first-ever AIDS fundraiser, a dog show in the Castro.
Sister Boom Boom made her mark on history when she threw her wimple into the ring in the 1982 San Francisco supervisor election. Listing her occupation as "nun of the above" and with a war chest of less than $1,000, she garnered more than 23,000 votes and came in eighth, short of the top five candidates who were elected. A memorable campaign poster was created for that race, showing Boom Boom flying on a broomstick, the words "Surrender Dianne" trailing in purple smoke, a reference to then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein.
"I think a good citizen should run for office once in their lifetime," Fertig would say years later, "and anybody who does it more than that is absolutely crazy." Nevertheless, in 1983, Sister Boom Boom unsuccessfully challenged Feinstein in the mayoral race. In response, the city instituted a law requiring that all candidates use their legal names on the ballot.
In the run-up to the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, Sister Boom Boom led a ritual exorcism of Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly in Union Square that drew broad media attention. "Those were exciting, exuberant times made so much more so by Jack's feisty, witty participation," Sister Soami told the B.A.R. "He was certainly one of our brightest and boldest and a most clever and talented Sister." The campaigns and the convention brought the Sisters nationwide and even international renown, and Fertig, in particular, became a symbol of San Francisco's unique culture--a role he would soon grow tired of.
"No large gathering in San Francisco's homosexual community ... would be quite complete without the appearance of a figure clad in a hiked-up nun's habit, black fishnet stockings, and a tightly drawn wimple that sometimes fails to hold in an unruly shock of red hair," wrote Michael Moritz and co-authors in a Time magazine roundup up of events surrounding the convention. "Outside San Francisco, Fertig's bizarre alter ego has come to symbolize a climate of tolerance gone haywire."
Fertig saw the Sisters as a way "to promulgate joy and expiate guilt," according to Jok Church, who knew him for more than 30 years. In later years, Fertig had another explanation: "In the early '80s it was all sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll." When his doctor told him to give up drinking, he took up drugs instead. By 1985, something snapped. "I was tired of being the whipping boy for San Francisco being a weird town," he said. "The party got stale." Fertig quit drinking and drugs in 1985 and was sober for the rest of his life.
In addition to gay liberation, over the years Mr. Fertig embraced causes including workers' rights, racial equality, immigrant rights, and Palestine solidarity. According to his 1982 candidate statement, he worked with an alphabet soup of organizations including labor unions, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and gay liberation groups.
At age 57 Fertig was stricken by liver cancer and died at home on August 5, 2012, with his partner of 18 years, Elias Trevino, and other family at his side.
(This biographical statement is an edited version of the obituary written by Liz Highleyman in the Bay Area Reporter with additional information from an obituary by Carl Nolte in the San Francisco Chronicle.)