Scott Sullivan dressed as Sister Ursula of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
Scott Sullivan first adopted the persona of Sister Ursula in 2018. He leads a group in Wichita called the Emerald City Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who dress as nuns to affirm gay and trans people. (Scott Sullivan/courtesy photo)

By his own account, Scott Sullivan leads a boring life.

He’s a 58-year-old white male who works at the local tag office, as he has for 25 years. He’s married. He grew up mostly in the Midwest, one of two children in an upper-middle class, two-parent “white-bread” family. 

He knew little trauma as a child, but a couple of memories stand out — memories that provide clues to other aspects of his life that appear to be anything but boring. 

Like how he often applies showy makeup and fake eyelashes, paints his full beard a bright green, and dons a polyester dress and striped stockings, topped off with a nun’s habit and veil. He does this to manifest himself as Sister Ursula of the Emerald City Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

Sister Ursula exists to spread messages of affirmation to gay and trans youth: You are loved, you are valued, you are enough. 

It’s a message meant to counter the impact of words coming from politicians and pulpits telling LGTBQ youth they are aberrant. Trans kids in particular have been a target in Kansas, with lawmakers wanting to restrict what teams trans students may play on, what health care they can receive, what bathrooms they may use and what gender they may put on their driver’s licenses. Attorney General Kris Kobach recently obtained an injunction to stop the state of Kansas from allowing trans people to change their gender markers on their state IDs.

Scott recalls his own early memories of not belonging:

“In gym class, there would be a kid sitting next to me who for some reason didn’t want to sit next to me,” Scott recalls. “And so he would kick me away from him. I can see it like it was yesterday.”

In middle school, when he asked his best friends to try out for cheerleader with him, they initially agreed but then backed out. Scott tried out alone, but was rejected: “We don’t have male cheerleaders,” he was told.

Not until after college did Scott admit to himself or anyone that he was gay. Thirty more years would pass before he would become Sister Ursula. What happened in between is a story that explains why Scott believes his life is boring.

His father, the government worker

The boring life claim falls apart slightly once Scott mentions his father being in the CIA. 

He’s not supposed to talk about that, he says. But he shrugged off vows of secrecy once his dad retired and started wearing ball caps emblazoned with the CIA logo.

Scott dismisses the idea that having a father in the CIA is interesting. He says no, it’s nothing, because his dad wasn’t an agent but someone who conducted background checks on government employees.

“My dad did a government job and was like everybody else,” he said. And his mom worked at a bank and in a department store, and Scott looked at them and thought, “That’s all fine and good. And it pays the bills, but it’s kind of boring.” 

But his father’s job did take the family to different cities and foreign locales, which led to Scott being born in Korea, then spending his earliest years in Japan. 

That proved consequential. 

After childhood moves took him across the country, Scott ended up in Michigan for high school — why he says he grew up Midwestern — where he began teaching himself Japanese and even took the Japanese exchange student (female) to prom. 

“I was like, “one of no other white people I knew that spoke a word of Japanese, or even knew where Japan was on a map,” Scott says. He went on to major in Japanese and study abroad for a year in Japan, all of which led to his first job out of school, acting as a translator and tour guide for Japanese tourists in Las Vegas.

“And it was in Las Vegas where I came out.”

‘We need to know: Are you gay?’

In the late 1980s, Las Vegas was “a very closeted” place with just a few gay bars, Scott says. But a significant number of gay people were involved in the production of Las Vegas shows. 

Scott was living with an aunt on his mother’s side who introduced Scott to her Pizza Hut gay co-worker Joe, who one day offered to take Scott out with a group of friends, including Joe’s younger brother Leonord, also gay.

“They were going out to the club, and I’m like, ‘Well, can I go along?’ And we got in the truck, and they said, ‘OK, before we pull out of the driveway, we need to know one thing: Are you gay?’

“And I’m like, I think so.”

From that moment on, Scott says he and Leonord did everything together. “I taught him Japanese so that we could talk about other people in public and no one would know what we’re talking about. Because that’s what you do with your best friend.”

But it wasn’t long until Leonord moved away, and Scott began a series of nonserious, short-term relationships — “they would call me the two-month kid.” One of the more serious relationships was with a man named Brad, but Brad couldn’t get past Scott’s love of all things Japanese. 

“I loved Brad a lot. But Brad had a problem with my profession,” Scott recalls. 

Scott begins speaking rapidly, detailing the breakup and how Brad later discovered he was HIV-positive. “And then he wouldn’t even think of coming back with me because he didn’t want to infect me.”

Brad moved to Texas, and later Scott would as well, buying a house together with another man in Austin. Words stream out as Scott describes what happened next: He was at his favorite gay bar in Austin, the Chain Drive, and picked up the weekly gay publication, “This Week in Texas.” 

“It’s so big… it really looks like a Reader’s Digest.” Mainly a directory of ads promoting gay bars in various cities, the publication had an obituary section at the back. “And one night I was opening it up, and I saw Brad’s obituary.”

Recalling this memory, Scott is suddenly unable to speak. 

He remains silent for the next 56 seconds.

And then… 

“So this is the mid-1990s and people are dying all around me…”

He pauses. More silence.

How did everyone deal with that? he is asked. 

His response is barely audible.

“They didn’t.”

Inviting the parents to his nonlegal church wedding

In 1996, Scott and his then-partner — also named Scott — decided to hold a wedding service at a willing church in Austin, Texas.

“That was long before it was legal,” Scott acknowledges.

In fact, same-sex marriage had been illegal in Texas since 1973. Legal gay unions would not be recognized until the 2015 Supreme Court ruling Obergefell v. Hodges, which affirmed equal rights to marry. Scott would eventually marry legally, in New Brunswick, Canada, in 2021 to his current husband, William.

But 25 years ago, marrying in a church was an act of defiance. Scott and Scott sent formal invitations and invited their families. Scott’s father and aunt attended. His mother declined, saying she didn’t have enough notice. 

This was not how Scott’s parents found out he was gay. That came years before when he told them why he was moving from Las Vegas to Austin.

His parents and brother were visiting him in Las Vegas when he announced his planned move. 

“And my dad’s like, ‘Well, I know why.’ And I’m like, OK smartypants, why? And he’s like, ‘It’s for a guy. It’s for a man.’ And I went, Yeah, right, it’s for a man. And dad’s like, ‘OK.’”

Then Scott asked his mom what she had to say. 

“And my mom’s like, ‘I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit. But if it makes you happy, I will deal with it.”

It’s here that Scott mentions, as an afterthought, his job in Austin working in a gold vault. 

“It sounds more interesting than it is,” he says.

Scott was working for the bridal sector of ArtCarved. He would weigh out gold and alloys to be tested for carat rating. Scott thought it was a great job, but he was laid off in a corporate shake-up. And that led to his move to Wichita in 1998. 

Scott was living off unemployment when he decided to leave his partner and follow a man he met online to Wichita. (Scott didn’t need to get divorced because he had never been legally married.)

Scott quickly found a temp job in the county treasurer’s office. That led to a full-time job in the tag office, where he became a self-taught computer expert working IT. By his own count, he’s outlasted four county treasurers and seven county managers. 

“Once you get a job with the county and you’ve passed your one-year probationary period, it’s almost impossible to get rid of you unless you do something incredibly stupid.”

Job security like that was important to what happened next. 

Scott Sullivan in front of the Sedgwick County tag office.
Scott Sullivan has worked at the Sedgwick County Tag Office since moving to Wichita in 1998. He is a social activist working to support gay and trans people, particularly youth, by regularly assuming a persona as a nun, Sister Ursula of the Emerald City Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Sedgwick County: A safe place to be gay

According to Scott, Sedgwick County is a safe place to be a gay employee. “I would almost guarantee there’s at least one member that’s gay in every department,” he says. 

In 2001, Sedgwick County briefly offered to provide “domestic partner” benefits to gay couples living together. “And the county commissioners voted to remove it. …Because the public sent them so many emails saying how bad it was.” 

Scott didn’t like that. He was photographed protesting afterward, holding a sign reading, “Wizard of Oz: Cowardly Lion played by SG Commission.” 

Scott wasn’t afraid of getting fired, just as he’s not really afraid of anything. Which he recognizes  makes his lived experience different from many people in the LGBTQ community. 

By his own description he is a physically imposing presence — a tall, large man who assigns himself to a subset of gay men known as bears: “big and bearded and hairy… lumberjacks.” 

In fact, he and a few friends launched a “bear club” in Austin called the Heart of Texas Bears. That started Scott down the path of gay social service organizations. He brought his activist streak to Wichita, which led to the next “boring” chapter in Scott’s life — where he became pagan.

Sisters Clara, Ursula and Glamarama of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
Sister Clara of the Missionary Order of Perpetual Indulgence (far left) wouldn’t give up until Scott Sullivan (center) agreed to take the role of Sister Ursula and start the Emerald City Sisters in Kansas. At right, Sister Glamarama of the City of Fountains Sisters. They wear black veils to signify their senior status in the organization. (Scott Sullivan/courtesy photo)

Finding his calling among the gay pagans

“Religion is a messed-up thing,” Scott says. His mother was Methodist. His father converted to Catholicism late in life. Scott tried on religions like shoes, trying to find something that fit.

“I went from Methodism, to Southern Baptist, to regular Baptist, to Catholic for a while, to Buddhism, to Shinto, to druid, to witchcraft to heathenry,” he says. Shintoism — a Japanese religion — made the most sense to him, he said. He liked the idea that everything has a spirit.

But for a social outlet in Wichita, Scott settled on the Unitarian Universalist Church, which says on its website it practices “radical inclusion.” He met a lot of witches and druids and pagans there. “It’s a very large community, even though it doesn’t seem like it.”

Really, Scott says, he’s an atheist. 

But his search for social connection eventually led him to a campground near Tonganoxie, Kansas, called Camp Gaea, a pagan camp retreat, drawing visitors from a five-state region. During gatherings, Scott runs the kitchen, cooking breakfasts and dinners.

It was at Camp Gaea that he was called. 

Sister Clara from Iowa had been an institution at Camp Gaea since 1993, raising money through the years for a new toilet system, a new shower system, a new lawnmower, whatever was needed, Scott explains. 

Scott didn’t fully understand about Sister Clara and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at first. Then he got curious. “I started looking at the sisters as an organization and looking at their history and finding out who they were.”

He learned Sister Clara and the others are part of an international movement of gay and trans people. The group’s website declares: “We use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit.”

Sister Clara told him: “You need to start a house in Wichita because there is no house in Kansas.” Scott told her no. “I don’t really want to do that. That’s a lot of work.” Sister Clara wouldn’t take no for an answer.

In 2018, Scott started the Emerald City Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and became Sister Ursula, regularly donning his nun garb to affirm the LGBTQ community, particularly youth. 

Asked why he agreed to take this on, Scott hesitates. 

“Every sister has their own reason … I can’t say for sure why I did it. Maybe I did it because I couldn’t help during the time when people were dying all around me. Or maybe it’s that people just need to have a little bit of joy in their life. 

“Or I’m doing it because it makes me the center of attention. Everybody loves to take a picture with me. I get to put on dresses. Those could all be reasons why I’m doing it.”

Why a nun?

“We’re using an icon of religion to spread what that religion should have spread in the first place, but doesn’t.” 

Sometimes he wonders if he’s doing enough. In some states, sisters will lie down in the streets to protest. “Our house is probably a little more reserved than some.” That’s partly because Scott never asks the sisters to do things that risk their jobs or their safety. 

For example, the Emerald City Sisters did not lobby in Topeka against the anti-trans legislation enacted in the past session. But Sister Ursula did speak at the Transgender Day of Visibility in Wichita. 

“Every time we step out of the house, in face, as a nun, we are potentially at risk,” he says. “If you’ve got a big white face, and a big flowing veil, you become a target. Even though your whole purpose is to spread love and joy.”

Following his cautious strategy, Scott says his nuns have experienced little to no harassment. Instead, they frequently get approached by people wishing to be photographed with them.

Emerald City SIsters of Perpetual Indulgence
Scott Sullivan (far right) is dressed as Sister Ursula, a founding member of the Emerald City Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The sisters appeared at Wichita’s Big Gay Market in June to promote the social service organization. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Why he does this: to support gay youth

Scott is more frequently found dressed as himself, speaking to teens at The Center, a downtown safe gathering space for LGBTQ youth.

He believes this generation has it much harder than he did in the 1980s. Most people were in the closet then, struggling privately. Now youth struggle publicly with all the political and familial fallout that brings.

“Oh my god, the stories I hear from the kids at The Center,” Scott says. Parents refusing to acknowledge their children’s sexual orientation or gender identity, mentally and sometimes physically abusing them, he says. 

Scott wonders: Is this the price of being out?

“So if I can dress up like a funny clown, a 21st century nun who is 58 years old, and I can be supportive, then at least somebody is supportive in your life.”

Asked if his own mother — now in her 80s —  has ever seen him dressed as Sister Ursula and whether she was supportive, Scott says yes; she’s seen pictures. “She’s better now than she was 30 years ago.” 

Ultimately, Scott enjoyed the unconditional love of both his parents and very little harassment from anyone throughout his gay life. “I’ve never been marginalized,” he says. 

“And that is why my life is boring.”

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Polly Basore Wenzl is the editor of The Wichita Beacon. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, she worked as a reporter in Washington, D.C., before coming to Wichita in 1998. She is the author...