"Where are my bingo virgins?" exclaims Gladys Over, the glamazon Barbie of the evening. She stands over six feet tall in her stilettos, a commanding presence in the sold-out church hall.
"I don't care if you're gay or straight," she says, "you're on my turf now. Now, pick up your bingo dabbers and repeat after me."
The crowd rises to its feet, with dabbers raised in the air, repeating the words to The Bingo Pledge. "I solemnly swear...I am here to help people living with HIV/AIDS...and to stop this horrible epidemic...I also swear...that bingo is just a stupid game...But I will keep on playing bingo...until this crisis is over. Fabulous."
And so begins Buffalo Gay Bingo.
It is at Buffalo Gay Bingo where, on the second Saturday of every month, people happily wait to be entertained, and sometimes slightly humiliated, by a group of gay transvestites whose raw humor overshadows the thousands of dollars in cash prizes, while raising money for local HIV/AIDS organizations. At the game, held in the Lafayette Presbyterian Church hall, the crowd sincerely applauds when somebody wins, then, in unison, like a well-rehearsed chorus line, chants in an E-sharp tone, "Bitch" as the victor accepts their winnings. The winner politely replies, "Thank you!" Gladys Over reminds us, "straight people talk behind your back, we gays tell it like it is!" Keep the kids at home for this game, it is way too much fun.
Now don't get the wrong idea, the church ladies were there in full force, ready to win with their dabbers at their sides. There is big money to be one here. No game has a prize worth less than $50 and the first jackpot of the night is worth $600. A group of these serious players was seated just below the stage in perfect sight of Jason Ward, the number caller. He dubbed this sweet group of 70-something women, "The Golden Girls," and they became a source of many of the evening's funniest moments.
The theme of February's bingo was "Barbie and Ken Bingo." Gladys Over was on a perpetual hunt for her Ken that evening, but never found him. There were plenty of Barbies however, approximately five or six transvestites glammed up selling extra boards or calling back numbers of the winning boards to Ward for verification.
Buffalo Gay Bingo is audience participation bingo. There are certain numbers that, when called, the audience responds with specific lines. For example, when B1 is called by Ward the audience begins singing, "singular sensation, every little step she takes," with their arms swaying from side to side. When B4 is called, the audience replies, "and after." When Ward says "O," the audience asks, "O what?" If his response is anything other than 69 the audience exclaims an exaggerated drawn out "Aw!" If it is 69, the audience rises to its feet, waves their hands in the air, shakes their derrieres and yells jubilantly, "Yay!"
There are many of these scripted lines that give the evening a Rocky Horror Picture Show vibe. Gladys Over goes through all of these lines at the beginning of the night, and also lets you know that if you do not participate you will be called out on it.
She is a woman of her word. It is not long into the evening when one of the "Golden Girls" does not sing along to a bit from The Sound of Music because she is too busy finding all the I-16s that are on her boards. This does not go unnoticed by Ward, who makes the group sing by themselves. He then states that he is aware who the Dorothy in the group is, based on this resistance, "but now I want to know who the slut of the bunch is." The crowd is aghast and the hall fills with laughter.
The night is not all about jokes and wise-cracks, although they never seem to end. This is serious business. Buffalo Gay Bingo was founded over four years ago by Michael Warner, president of the Buffalo AIDS Plus Fund of Western New York, to raise money for local HIV/AIDS organizations. According to Warner, Buffalo Gay Bingo started out with between 60 - 70 bingo players, 90 percent of whom were gay. When asked for all the straight people to stand, about 75 percent of the crowd rises to its feet. "Oh my God, we've been invaded by the straights!" exclaims Over.
"It takes a lot to pull this all together," says Warner. There are many people who volunteer behind the scenes to make these monthly events successful. From "Flip the Ball Grabber," to the people selling pizza and soda at the snack bar, to the women selling raffle tickets in the hallway.
Don Yager is among the people gathered for some fun and possible cash winnings. Yager is a middle aged man who works for US immigration. He proudly remains seated when the straights are asked to stand. He has been here many times. He keeps coming back because, "it's just fun and silly, it's a cheap night for twenty bucks. Plus, I won $370 once, that's kind of cool." He continues, "What I like most is that 100 percent of the proceeds go to grassroots AIDS organizations, you know, small mom and pop places, not huge organizations."
Indeed, during intermission, a check for $2,000 is presented to Babette Sullivan, president of the AIDS Network of WNY.
The mission of the Network is to "actively develop, promote and advocate a community based, coordinated response to HIV/AIDS through a partnership of all people dedicated to HIV/AIDS issues." The Network accomplishes this by linking people affected in the Western New York community with the right people or agencies that can help them. They also provide transportation to over 160 patients throughout Western New York including areas outside Buffalo like Dunkirk, Olean and Jamestown.
The AIDS Network lost its funding on December 31st, and is operating out of an office in the Lafayette Presbyterian Church. "The problem is that HIV is not a big news thing anymore," according to Mary Goodspeed, HIV Clinical Coordinator and board member of the AIDS Network. Over thirty years after this epidemic started, people are still being diagnosed with this disease. "Every 9 ½ minutes someone is affected by HIV," says Goodspeed. This check for $2,000 means a lot to the Network. "We couldn't do it without you," Sullivan tells Warner as she gratefully accepts the check.
The donation to the AIDS Network is made possible through the proceeds of the bingo night. By spending $20 at the door, you receive a packet of eight game boards for all five of the evening's regular games. You also receive one each of the two jackpot boards and one Bullseye board, a mini-jackpot game. You can purchase extra jackpot and mini-jackpot game boards from one of the roaming Barbies during the first half of the night.
There are also raffles during intermission; one is for a cash prize of $150 and another for a couples massage at a local spa. Raffle tickets available in the outer hallway are $2 for six tickets. All of these monies go toward the cash prizes for the evening as well as the ultimate prize, the check for the HIV/AIDS organization of the night.
After the check presentation during intermission, anyone who is celebrating an anniversary during the month is asked to come up in front. Each person proudly announces how many years they have been with their partner, wife or husband. Each time the crowd sincerely applauds. Then the same is done for anyone celebrating a birthday during the month, all adding to the spirit of this event. Next comes the raffles and Yager is the happy recipient of the $150 prize. He jumps to his feet as his raffle number is called.
Bingo playing resumes. Gladys Over takes to the floor again in search of her Ken. Ward tells her, "You look like a cross between a Russian weight lifter and Suzanne Sommers!" Over is not offended, and by her coy grin gives the impression that she is tickled pink. Her rebuttal to Ward is, "you know what would look good on you? Me!" The audience roars with laughter and proceeds to the big game of the night, the Red White and Blue special.
This is a coverall game that has three game boards; one red, one white and one blue. The prize is a percentage of the income of the evening, and therefore is dependent on the number of people who are in attendance. February's event was sold out at 300 people which resulted in the following prizes; $575 if the coverall occurred on the red board, $690 if it occurred on the white board and $805 if it occurred on the blue board.
This game was serious. The numbers came fast and furious. Everyone stared at their boards, making sure not to skip any numbers. As time went on, the energy heightened. With every passing number someone was coming closer to calling bingo.
Finally, a slim single man, with actual Barbie Dolls seated on his table, perhaps brought as good luck charms, cried out "Bingo!" The hall filled with shouts of congratulations. After his numbers were verified on his red board and he was presented with $575 in cash, everyone shouted, "bitch!" followed by exuberant applause.
At the end of the night, after the final game has been played, patrons file out of the Lafayette Church onto Elmwood Avenue. As they leave, workers gratefully say goodbye and thank each one for their attendance and support.
You can join in the fun the second Saturday of each month at the Lafayette Presbyterian Church at 875 Elmwood Avenue in the heart of the Elmwood Village. Games begin at 7:00 and doors open at 6:00. In the past, people began lining up outside the doors as early as 4:30 to ensure their seat inside, literally waiting hours for the event to begin. Beginning in March, a number system will be in place. You may come as early as 4:30, receive your numbered ticket and return after the doors open. Only one ticket will be given to each person. In other words, no buying tickets for friends. It's every man or woman for themselves.
Upcoming themes include April's "Mickey and Minnie Bingo," May's "Prom Bingo," and June's "The Real Housewives of Gay Bingo." You can find more information on Buffalo Gay Bingo on their website at BuffaloGayBingo.com or join them on Facebook or Twitter. You can learn more about the AIDS Network of WNY at AidsNetwork.net. Keep in mind, in the words of Gladys Over, "this is not your grandmother's bingo."