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Drag queen fundraiser bashed by Wyoming GOP lawmakers for $3K health dept. grant; event raises HIV/AIDS awareness, treatment funds

The advocacy organization Wyoming AIDS Assistance, which is putting on the drag event, has been receiving the state-issued grant for 10 years. The bingo fundraiser raised $44,000 in 2023.

The Stilettos Drag Queens at Drag Queen Bingo April 2023. (Stew Dyer / Cap City News)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A Wyoming Legislature group has criticized an upcoming drag bingo fundraiser as misappropriating state funds for its event. A representative from the Wyoming Department of Health shot that argument down.

On April 10, the Wyoming Freedom Caucus released a statement admonishing the health department for awarding a $3,000 grant request for organizers of the annual Drag Queen Bingo event, hosted by Wyoming AIDS Assistance, on April 27 in Laramie. The caucus stated in its release that it believes the use of tax dollars to fund the drag event is “an insult to those who have suffered and lost their lives to this deadly and serious disease,” referring to AIDS and HIV.

“Taxpayers should not be expected to fund the escapades of ‘boozed up cowfolk’ at ‘R-rated’ drag shows,” the caucus states in the release. “Publicly funded AIDS prevention efforts should be targeted on evidence-based strategies — not a perverted and scandalous event.”

The far-right legislative group, comprising 11 members in Wyoming’s House of Representatives, states on its website that it champions “smaller government, strong family values, and the protection of individual freedoms and liberties as outlined in the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions.”

Department of Health’s response

The health support organization Wyoming AIDS Assistance, which hosts the annual drag event, applied for and received just under $3,000 of federal funds through the Wyoming Department of Health’s Communicable Disease Unit, according to health department public information officer Kim Deti. The grant program’s purpose is to help prevent infections and disease by dispensing small grants to organizations working to achieve such ends.

“Because the event [Drag Queen Bingo] also includes an emphasis on disease prevention and testing in addition to its fundraising purpose, this expenditure of federal funds was deemed appropriate by unit staff,” Deti told Cap City News via email.

Drag King Opening Act at Drag Queen Bingo April 2023. (Stew Dyer / Cap City News)

The grant awarded to Wyoming AIDS Assistance covers the cost of HIV prevention messaging and rapid HIV tests, which are freely available to attendees at the bingo event, according to Scott Cheney, founding member and board president with the organization. Cheney and Wyoming AIDS Assistance have requested and received the state grant for the drag event for around a decade.

“Through partnerships, volunteers and the incredible generosity of donors, we’ve made significant strides in raising awareness, reducing stigma and improving access to resources for individuals living with HIV and AIDS in Wyoming,” Cheney told Cap City News in an interview. “I think a lot of people want to think AIDS isn’t a problem anymore — and it still is. It has been for years. We’ve made strides in treatment, but strides in treatment don’t pay for someone living in Jackson to travel to Cheyenne for their treatments.”

The Communicable Disease Unit approves grant requests for a variety of organizations and initiatives, Deti said, including public nursing offices and nonprofit health clinics. Past grant recipients have used the funds for efforts such as testing, training of healthcare providers, distribution of infection prevention materials like condoms, advertising and education.

According to guidelines provided by Deti, the purpose of the grant is “to support community efforts in Wyoming which promote HIV, Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI), and viral hepatitis B & C prevention and testing as well as MPOX prevention and testing.”

‘Vital resource’ for Wyomingites with HIV and AIDS

The annual Drag Queen Bingo is the only fundraising event that Wyoming AIDS Assistance hosts, said Cheney, who has been operating the organization since the early 2000s. Drag Queen Bingo would be lucky to collect $1,000 in the organization’s early years, Cheney said. In 2023, Drag Queen Bingo raised $44,000.

Cheney and his team have raised $750,000 since Wyoming AIDS Assistance’s inception in the early 2000s. Every dime raised remains within the state of Wyoming and is directly given to residents living with HIV.

Drag Queen Bingo in Laramie April 2023 (Stew Dyer / Cap City News)

The bingo fundraiser isn’t just about entertainment, according to Cheney. The event provides free HIV rapid testing to guests and disseminates prevention messaging to attendees throughout the night. Overall, the event is consistent with Wyoming AIDS Assistance’s mission of raising awareness about HIV and supporting Wyomingites living with the virus.

“At the end of the day, what we’re doing matters,” Cheney said. “We are a vital resource to the state, to our communities, and we have been one for over 20 years. And we’re not going to stop.”