How Drag Queens Took Over Bingo

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Matthew Browning / Seattle Paparazzi

Hostess Glamazonia with costume contest winners at Lifelong AIDS Alliance's Gay Bingo.

One of the first things you learn at drag queen bingo is that if you can't take being picked on, you keep your mouth shut. Yes, this is bingo, the game of blue-haired grandmas and church-basement fundraisers, but a drag queen is a drag queen, and if in between N-36 and I-18 your table is being rowdy, she'll be rowdy right back. "Straight guys, calm down, this isn't Bennigan's," sassed Ginger, a short blonde in a black dress slit up to the waist, on a recent Wednesday night. My friends and I were at Lips, a Manhattan restaurant that turns into a bingo parlor midweek with drag queens — those over-the-top, tell-it-like-it-is men dressed as women — plucking balls from the bingo cage.

Ginger took turns calling numbers with Yvonne, the establishment's owner, who in a short straight wig and long velvet jacket, had a Louise Brooks vibe — a sharp contrast to the beehive hairdos and animal-print outfits of Lips' other waitresses, who looked to have come straight from the set of a John Waters movie. Ginger and Yvonne's cutting back-and-forth of mostly unprintable comments about Clay Aiken, Michael Jackson, and Weight Watchers spared neither each other nor the bingo players. When the first winner went to the front of the room to get her card verified and forgot to bring her card, Ginger shot out: "Good thing she's cute. She's not that smart."

Bingo and drag queens. Where, you might understandably ask, did this ever come from? Seattle, as it turns out. In the early 1990s, as director of development for the Chicken Soup Brigade, a support organization for people with AIDS, Judy Werle was charged with dreaming up fundraising events. "I checked out places where people gathered and spent money, because I figured if you had that, you could redirect the money to a good cause," says Werle. That logic led her to bingo halls. "They were totally full of obsessed people," she says. "But it was also extremely boring. So we decided to liven it up in the way that only gay men can."

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, drag queens dressed as nuns, hosted the Brigade's first gay bingo (the game's original name), and the line wrapped around the block. The charity quickly scheduled more. In the beginning, the crowd was almost entirely gay, but slowly straight people started showing up — good news for the Brigade, now part of the Lifelong AIDS Alliance, which was eager to expand its donor base.

The success attracted the attention of other AIDS non-profits. A few years ago, a TV director named Glenn Holsten attended one event and was so touched by a family who had come to bingo to celebrate the life of a son they had lost to AIDS that Holsten decided to make a documentary. The result, Gay Bingo, released in 2001, shows the diversity of the players: gay, straight, old, young, black, white, single, taken. "The cliché is true," says Holsten. "It brings people together from all walks of life."

From there, interest in the game only grew. It spread to Boston, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles. And then even farther afield — to Utah, Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming. At some point along the way, drag queen bingo went commercial, with bars, clubs and restaurants hosting games as a way to draw in crowds and turn a profit. Then it went to cable: in Season 2 of Sex and the City, Carrie and the girls visit their favorite bar, which hosts drag queen bingo on Saturday nights. In New York City, you can now find a game practically any night of the week, including one emceed by a drag queen puppet.

The biggest games, though, are still AIDS fundraisers. Once a month, people pack the 800-seat Durham Armory in North Carolina for family-friendly, alcohol-free drag bingo nights led by BVD (bingo-verifying diva) Mary K. Mart. The crowd is about half gay and half straight, and on a typical night, $10,000 is raised for the Alliance of AIDS Services-Carolina. In 2002, when the Alliance ran its first game, "we thought that if we got a hundred people and a thousand dollars, it would be a miracle," says John Paul Womble, director of development. The event sold out and the Alliance eventually moved to the much larger Armory. Nervous about filling such a large space, Womble got in touch with North Carolina resident Tammy Faye Bakker Messner — yes, that Tammy Faye, former wife of fallen televangelist Jim Bakker — and asked if she'd call the numbers. She agreed, and the Armory sold out. "Talk about surreal," says Womble. "I was standing on stage with Tammy Faye Bakker and 12 drag queens."

Now the game is spreading to charities with no particular root in the gay community. Last fall, the Young Professionals Network of the Rocky Mountain Multiple Sclerosis Center raised $8,000 running drag queen bingo. "We're trying to get younger people involved, the 20- and 30-something-year-olds," says Kathryn Buckley, development coordinator of the Englewood, Colo. center. "A lot of us can't afford to do the big black-tie dinners and golf tournaments, and this is just so much fun."

Back in New York, my experience wasn't quite as philanthropically minded, unless you take into account that when a drag queen knows to keep the frozen cosmos coming, I tip well. After a few rounds of not winning, I sat down with Yvonne — nee Mark Zschiesche — and asked why bingo works in such an unlikely setting. "Everyone likes the possibility of winning a prize, and it's easy to play," she said, "even if you've had a few cosmos."

The makers of a new TV series on ABC, National Bingo Night, are betting on that widespread likeability. I called Andrew Glassman, the creator and executive producer of the show, which premieres May 18, to ask if drag queens might meet bingo on national television. "That probably wouldn't be a Season One occurrence," he said. "But we do look at this game as something everyone can enjoy, no matter what gender of clothing they happen to be wearing." Very true, Andrew. But trust me: it's more fun when the callers are in drag.