by Keith Barber

After seven years, Green Queen Bingo hits its stride while supporting Greensboro’s LGBT community

Big Shirli Stevens (center), the mistress of ceremonies at the April 15 Green Queen Bingo event, poses with three of her fans.

There’s an air of excitement at the Empire Room in downtown Greensboro on a windy spring evening. The Crystals’ classic, “Going to the Chapel,” is blasting over the loudspeakers as contestants arrive for Green Queen Bingo. Tonight’s theme is “Bridesmaid Bingo” and many of the contestants, both gay and straight, are dressed for the occasion. A number of women are wearing bridal veils, while others are wearing tiaras and bridesmaid dresses.

Linda Socia and her friend, Lisette Ruiz, are both dressed as bridesmaids. Ruiz spices up her costume a bit with a little extra padding to create the look of a pregnant bridesmaid. Two self-described “fag hags,” Socia and Ruiz say they haven’t missed a gay bingo event in years.

“The pajama party one was the best; we wore robes and you wore pink bunny slippers,” Socia says, nodding to Ruiz.

“It’s just fun,” says Ruiz. “The people here are so wonderful. Big Shirli [Stevens] and all the other drag queens; they just make bingo that much more wonderful to come to. It’s entertaining, it’s fun and you kind of let yourself go — you be whatever you want to be.”

Socia and Ruiz comprise a small part of the straight contingent at tonight’s event.

“We’ve always had gay friends and always supported them — that’s the most important reason we’re here,” Socia says.

Ivan Canada, a member of the board of directors of Guilford Green Foundation, says the crowd at tonight’s event reflects the diversity in the Greensboro community. “The average component of our makeup — I would say we have 50 to 60 percent of our straight allies out to the support the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community through gay bingo,” Canada said.

Upstairs in the lobby, Big Shirli Stevens — the mistress of ceremonies and drag queen extraordinaire — mingles with contestants. Big Shirli signed on with Green Queen Bingo in its second year, and has been the headliner ever since, says Canada. Big Shirli typically works closely with eight BVDs, or ball-verifying divas that help determine the winners.

It’s nearing 7:30 p.m. and the DJ begins playing a wedding march. The BVDs walk down the center of the ballroom carrying bouquets. They align in front of the stage like bridesmaids as bingo chairman Bill Falcon waits at the altar like an expectant groom. Suddenly, the lights dim and “Here Comes the Bride” begins to play.

Big Shirli steps into the spotlight and walks down the aisle to thunderous applause and laughter.

Falcon and Big Shirli lip sync to a movie scene where the groom confesses to his bride that he’s gay. Big Shirli, in the role of the bride, is enraged and flings Falcon to the ground in a rage, and the audience eats it up.

Finally, the bingo is about to begin. First, all contestants are asked to stand and recite the Green Queen Bingo Pledge.

“I pledge allegiance to the dauber of Green Queen Bingo of the Triad and to the hilarity for which it stands. One community, under stress, striving for acceptance of all,” the 500 contestants say in unison.

Unity has long been the mission of the Guilford Green Foundation, Canada says, and gay bingo has helped bring together the gay and straight communities for many years. Guilford Green builds unity yearround by supporting organizations that help advance lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT people and issues.

“The proceeds mostly stay within the Triad area,” says Canada. “We support any LGBT organization like PFLAG, GSAFE. We also support mainstream organizations that are doing LGBT specific programming like the National Conference for Community and Justice.

Canada said Guilford Green also supports a summer leadership camp for high school students that promotes diversity and tolerance.

Equality NC is another grantee of Guilford Green Foundation. On this night, Brant Miller, a college student, mans the organization’s booth.

Miller explains that Equality NC is a statewide group that lobbies the General Assembly on behalf of the LGBT community. Currently, Equality NC is lobbying against the Defense of Marriage bill, which was introduced in the NC House earlier this month. The bill stipulates that marriage is the union of one man and one woman at one time that no other relationship shall be recognized as a valid marriage by the state.

“We have a postcard campaign right now and we’re getting everyone to fill out these postcards that we’re going to send to their [state] senators and representatives letting them know that their constituents are opposed to that legislation,” Miller explains. “Right now we’re working on really solidifying our community and having a good base of representation in the state of North Carolina, which we feel we already have but we want to strengthen that.”

As the bingo games begin, George Ewing and Debra Vigliano stay close to their booth for Win-Win Solutions and its “No More Bullies” campaign.

Ewing explains that he’s raising awareness of an anti-bullying event to help raise awareness and raise funds for anti-bullying programs in schools. On May 1, Ewing says he will organize an anti-bullying rally in Scranton, Pa., and begin a month-long, 600-mile walking trek to Greensboro. Ewings says he expects to raise $300,000 next month with all proceeds going to anti-bullying programs in the states he passes through including North Carolina. Along the way, Ewing will also be speaking with state legislators to get anti-bullying legislation enacted.

“The legislators are really interested in what we’re doing,” Ewing says. “They know that the funds are being cut. There’s no money for the anti-bullying campaign but this isn’t a problem we can legislate away.”

In 2009, Gov. Beverly Perdue signed into law the School Violence Prevention Act, which mandates that all school systems develop a policy prohibiting bullying or harassing behavior. The law specifically prohibits harassing behavior directed at someone because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Canada credits Gay Straight Advocates for Education, or GSAFE, for help lowering the level of bullying of LGBT students in Guilford County. GSAFE, which receives funding form Guilford Green, conducts anti-bullying workshops with local educators to help keep LGBT students safe in the classroom.

Before Big Shirli begins calling balls, she introduces tonight’s BVDs. She then explains that each bingo game requires players fill squares in unusual configurations.

“There are no straight lines in gay bingo,” Big Shirli announces to a roar of laughter.

Big Shirli then polls the room, asking a show of hands for all the gay men, lesbians, straight men and straight women. From the response, it’s clear that gay bingo draws a very diverse crowd.

Miller, a member of the UNCG student group PRIDE, says he’s impressed by how much the larger Greensboro community supports the LGBT community. PRIDE promotes awareness of LGBT issues and educates those in the UNCG community on how to create a safer campus for LGBT students, according to the group’s website.

“Having seven university campuses in Greensboro is part of it because it helps diversify the community, and being a gay person in Greensboro, I’ve never felt uncomfortable in the community,” Miller said.

As a drag queen performs a dance routine for a receptive audience, Thomas Clodfelter works behind the bar.

A speaker and peer educator for Triad Health Project, Clodfelter said he’s volunteered on Green Queen Bingo for many years. Clodfelter says he’s been living with HIV for 20 years, and explains that Triad

Health Project provides emotional and spiritual support to people who are living with HIV/AIDS.

“We provide client assistance, food pantry, and bus passes,” Clodfelter says. “We help with power of attorneys; [living] wills; housing; food stamps; pretty much the basic needs we need to live and help us get off the street.”

Triad Health Project is another recipient of funds from gay bingo, Clodfelter says. He is eternally grateful for their support.

“They’re a great organization, they care about what’s going on in the community and they put forth the time and effort to make it better and provide services to all people,” Clodfelter says.

A woman calls out “Bingo,” and walks to the stage to claim her prize. However, the game officials tell her that she made a mistake on her game card. Big Shirli shows her disappointment by making the contestant wear a sign that reads, “My issues have issues.”

After two games, Big Shirli announces, “Time for a little drag.” Malaya, a drag queen, performs a dance routine and the audience cheers and claps along.

Canada takes a moment to reflect on how far Green Queen Bingo has come in the past seven years. He recalls how the group started with a $10,000 seed grant from the Future Fund of Greensboro. He remembers how there were protestors at the inaugural gay bingo event at Kress Terrace. On this spring night, there are no sign of protestors.

Tony Pietrantozzi, owner of Custom Jewelers Gallery — a season sponsor of gay bingo — said he’s seen a shift in the Greensboro community in its attitudes toward gays and lesbians in recent years.

“Since I’ve come out, I’ve had nothing but support from businesses and family,” Pietrantozzi said. “I’m concerned about [intolerance] but I’ve seen a lot of progress even in the past five years. I think things are changing slowly but surely.”

The support for the gay and lesbian community is evident throughout the night as winners routinely decide to give back a portion of their winnings to Guilford Green. Most of all, everyone has fun and enjoys fellowship with their friends regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, and that’s the beauty of gay bingo.

“The straight community as well as the gay community, we all come together,” Clodfelter says. “We understand we’re all humans and we all come together to make it work and that’s so powerful and I love seeing us come together as a whole.”

CORRECTION: The earlier version of this story identified George Ewing as "openly gay." He is, in fact, straight and married with two children. We regret the error.