The Bingo Queens
Ruby Ridge works the crowd in the social hall at Salt Lake City's First Baptist Church in his green moss wig, dangly grape-bunch earrings and silver platform pumps. His gray beard peeks out beneath the red lipstick and rouge.
Ruby, aka Donald Steward, affectionately greets longtime friends and new associates as "queers" or "lesbians" or "Greek mafia," as he introduces the more than 150 people who show up for the monthly Drag Queen Bingo. The room is awash in helium balloons, shimmering fabrics and double-entendres. Mardi Gras beads adorn many a neck as Ruby's pals in drag circle the room: Petunia Pap Smear waves a wand with gold tassels; Rusty Faucett has a rubber wig with mylar streamers; and Chevy Suburban tiptoes in red tutu and big feather headdress.
"Any jewelry left behind is mine," Ruby cackles into the microphone with his slight New Zealand accent, as he calls out the numbers. "G56. G47. B2. N64."
Suddenly, in the corner someone stands up and spins around, indicating a winner is near.
Then it's back to the game. "E8," followed by shrieks of, "There's no E."
The winner makes his way to the stage amid catcalls and cheers to receive his prize -- assorted toys and candy from All-a-Dollar. Fiddle Faddle, Cheetos, a T-shirt and chocolates.
It's a frolicking good time, minus the alcohol. All for a good cause.
Surveying the crowded hall with pride, Ruby says, "It's just like Noah's Ark -- two of everything. Gays, lesbians, straights, young, old, middle-aged, teens and even babies."
Even more striking, it's in a church.
"A lot of gays and lesbians have been really damaged by their churches and don't want to set foot inside a church," says Steward, who has been a member of First Baptist for years. "This is like an inoculation, a dose of comfortable church involvement. Those who want more can pick it up."
It started with a skit
Steward, a Salt Lake City businessman, and his partner, Dick Dotson, created Drag Queen Bingo some 19 years ago as a spoof entertainment at Camp Pinecliff, a weekend retreat for AIDS patients and their families about 18 miles southeast of Coalville.
The drag queen show proved to be such a hit that Steward and Dotson decided to turn it into a fundraising mechanism. For many years, the queens put on a monthly bingo event for the whole gay community and friends at the downtown Stonewall Center, but it eventually grew too large for the space. So they moved it to First Baptist at 755 S. 1300 East. Two years ago, the group split. Those remaining chose to be less raunchy and more sober, Steward said.
The gay community is still a very alcohol-drinking and partying group, he says. "For those with sobriety or addiction issues, their opportunities are limited."
Every third Friday, then, scores of people gather at the church to play eight rounds, some with names like Loser Bingo, Teaser Bingo and Drag in a Bag Bingo. The first game costs $5; each subsequent round is $3. Then there are the "party fouls," which are called when someone has her elbows or forearms on the table, makes a false claim or lets a cell phone ring. When a foul is called, the entire table must stand up, don a turban and carry a purse around the room, while those at other tables hold up dollar bills to be collected.
"It's like a speed trap," Steward jokes. "It's just an excuse to collect tips."
All told, a typical bingo evening nets about $1,500, he says.
The funds go to a different charity every month. March's event will raise money for an Ethiopian family with three kids.
A big tent
Sitting at the round table in the front is the Rev. David Henry, First Baptist's interim pastor. This is his first bingo night, and he is clearly enjoying himself.
The event fits within everything Henry has worked to accomplish at his longtime church, Wasatch Presbyterian in Salt Lake City, and at his new, temporary abode.
First Baptist is a mainstream American Baptist church that sings the old hymns, prays for its members in the military and supports service missions all over the world. It is one of the oldest churches in the valley, with members ranging from young children to families to seniors. It also has a completely integrated and active gay demographic, stretching back almost 20 years.
"Ours is an open and encouraging congregation," Henry says, before slipping out the back door, wearing a giant lipstick imprint on his forehead. "This all comes together organically. For two hours a month, this historically conservative church gets a makeover. I see that as healthy."
About a quarter of the participants are members at First Baptist; others come from Holladay United Church of Christ, South Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and Salt Lake Metropolitan Community Church, a traditionally gay and lesbian Christian faith.
Many of this night's attendees also help out at Pinecliff.
Marian Stephen, who describes herself as "hopelessly straight," served as camp chaplain for the first time last September.
"This was the most magnificent group of men and women I have ever seen," says Stephen, who brought along her husband of 47 ½ years. " My message to them was that 'God loves you just as you are.' "
Even a Mormon grandmother got into the act, so to speak.
"I have been working as a nurse at Pinecliff since it opened 19 years ago," Melanie Bosworth says. "I have brought my whole family, including my daughter, who is now over 30 with two kids, and my mother, who is 80. We've developed some neat friendships."
Bosworth is a Relief Society president in the Coalville LDS stake and is well aware of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' positions on homosexuality and gay sex, but finds no contradiction with her support of the queens.
"It's not my responsibility to judge," she says. "I am here to love everyone and treat everyone kindly."