How drag queens conquered bingo – and for a good cause

In the history of popular games and pastimes, sometimes unlikely combinations emerge; this is perhaps what first springs to mind when you try to combine the image of a bingo audience with that of a drag queen host. A game that is so widely well-received by churchgoers was taken to a whole new level in the way that only drag queens know how to do things: with a lot of glamor, a lot of fun, and a lot of sass.

Drag Bingo Origins: AIDS Activism

Drag queens and bingo go way back and actually merged for the first time for a good cause: fighting AIDS. The Chicken Soup Brigade, a charity supporting people living with the virus, first introduced drag bingo during the 1990s in Seattle.

Judy Werle, the person in charge of identifying possible fundraising campaigns, examined bingo halls as an option, since it was one of those places where people would gather together to spend money and have fun – and found a whole lot of enthusiasts that could sure use some more excitement in the way they played bingo. That is when she thought of inviting drag queens to host.

Source: Drag Queen Bingo via Facebook

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She turned to a group called The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence –  drag queens dressing up as nuns – and they hosted the first ever gay bingo, the forerunner of what would later come to be known as drag queen bingo, to huge success. Straight people caught wind and started showing up, adding to the show’s fame and the funds raised.

The Brigade, which became during that period a member of the Lifelong AIDS Alliance, saw a unique opportunity to extend its donor base and soon other AIDS charities did the same. The game took over Chicago and Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta and Los Angeles – even Utah, Idaho, and cold Alaska followed suit.

The hit combo spilled over to pop culture. In 2001 Glenn Holsten, a TV director, met a family during a bingo event that chose it to celebrate the memory of a son that had died of AIDS; moved by the story, he made a documentary about the wonderful world where straight and gay people, drag queens and activists, AIDS patients and family members, come together to support each other while having fun.

The film is titled Gay Bingo and follows closely a monthly Philadelphia drag queen bingo fundraising event. It is focused on portraying precisely that diversity of bingo enthusiasts, with “Bingo Verifying Divas” (BVDs) at the forefront.

The Influence of Drag Queens on Bingo

But Drag Queen bingo has skyrocketed and come a long way since then. It enjoyed more and more success, until it broke the confines of AIDS activism and conquered commercial venues like bars and clubs, where owners choose drag queens as hosts to attract customers.

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After all, drag queens sort of reinvented bingo, turning a slow-paced, quiet game to a night loaded with humorous, fierce banter, full of sexual innuendos and harmless picking on members of the audience.

It is true that you cannot attend drag queen bingo and not expect to be made fun of at least a couple of times during the night; give a drag queen a microphone and a stage, and no one is safe anymore…

Source: Drag Queen Bingo via Facebook

The impact of drag queens on bingo extends far beyond their on-stage presence; they have also heavily influenced the aesthetics of the game in general. This can be observed in online bingo in particular, as many bingo sites tend to employ fabulous and campy features in glamorous settings to appeal to players.

The drag queens even made their way into mainstream pop culture and have forever conquered a place in its heart: in Season 2 of the insanely popular sitcom Sex and the City, Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte go to their favorite bar, which incidentally hosts drag queen bingo every Saturday night.

You can even visit that same bar where the girls played drag bingo: apparently, it is Nell’s on 14th Street between 7th and 8th Avenue. Nowadays, you can find a drag bingo on every other corner in cities like New York; and the game has started to feature in all sorts of places, like student unions – which also helps bring together more people with drag itself.

As with anything the drag community touches, bingo has been transformed into something much more fun – but also heavy with an activist orientation, ranging from supporting AIDS charities to bringing people from all walks of life in touch with drag queens and the LGBT+ community.

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About Kim X

Vada Magazine staff writer and daydreamer.