Gay Bingo: Queer Games and HIV Activism

Curator's Note

The Reagan Administration’s homophobic fueled jokes about and neglect of responding to the AIDS epidemic underscore how representation is linked to politics: the matter was scoffed and mocked as a “gay plague.” The precariousness of LGBTQ lives, already marginalized through systemic heterosexism and cissexism, was exacerbated by the misrepresentation of HIV. Thus, much of the impetus to care for LGBTQ people living with HIV came from within this community. From this, Gay Bingo accentuations intertwining histories of LGBTQ communities, HIV activism, and games.

In the early ‘90s, Judy Werle, who served as director of development for The Chicken Soup Brigade, an HIV support organization, began conceptualizing new fundraisers. As Audra Ang (1996) reports, Werle targeted Bingo halls, surveying to see what interested people about Bingo and why they played. Overall, she found the experience rather lackluster, though she identified Bingo as a function that drew in people. Thinking about her cause, she considered how such an event might look with a gay flare. In 1992, The Chicken Soup Brigade held the first Gay Bingo event hosted by The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an order of queer and trans nuns devoted to “devoted to community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment.” With standing room only and a line around the corner, the event was such a success and drew in a surprising amount of straight people in addition to the expected gay audience.

Bo Ruberg argues that uncovering the intimacies between queerness and games is a rallying cry for queer subjects to reclaim the entirety of the games medium (2019, 17). Gay Bingo exemplifies this in several ways. It is more than the Bingo Werle surveyed: Bingo interpreted by The Sisters, and by Drag Queens in contemporary games, emphasizes in play the queer logics, talents, and subcultural competencies of the LGBTQ community (DeAnda, 2019). The game also provided a social space for HIV fundraising. Gay Bingo brought to bear queerness and games to support those most vulnerable in a political and social climate that marked both LGBTQ people and people living with HIV for death.

Charity Hambingo pattern reference sheet used at Hamburger Mary's Chicago. Photo by author.


Ang, Audra. “Gay Bingo Nights Find Niche in Seattle.” LA Times, 9 June 1996,

DeAnda, Michael Anthony. "Gaming with Gender Performativity, Sexuality, and Community: An Interview with Sofonda Booz on Hosting Drag Bingo Events." Sexuality & Play in Media [special issue], WiderScreen, 1 no. 2 (2019).

Lifelong. "Love Fest Gay Bingo Gift Certificate" [digital image]. Lifelong, 2019,

Ruberg, Bonnie. Video Games Have Always Been Queer. New York University Press, 2019.


Given the COVID-19 crisis, with its fraught resonance with other pandemics, this intersection of games, spaces, play, community, queerness, survival, disease, and mutual aid (particularly for analog games) is on a lot of people's minds--from playing Pandemic to zoom tabletop RPG games to the desire, hope, and need to save and return to shared spaces be they someone's living room or the queer bar or the bingo hall.  I don't know the history of bingo itself, but it is definitely the repurposing and queering of a game/space/sociality often associated with a very particular demographic; the challenge to the heteronormativity of it all--particularly "church bingo"--is fascinating.  Thanks for the intriguing piece!

Thank you for your comment, Edmond.

This article comes to mind that highlights some of the eerie similarities between political/social responses to HIV and COVID-19. I think there are interesting connections here that resonate with solidarity, but also speak to, as Trevor Hoppe studies, punishing disease. Another intersection of these two crises is that people crafting panels for the AIDS memorial quilt used extra fabric to make face masks

There are several interesting connections through which we can explore Gay Bingo (which we might also think of as Drag Bingo) and COVID, such as you have pointed out, how queer bars are really being affected by these ordinances and what this means for queer communities' sites of location and potential spaces to leverage for LGBTQ activism. One of my favorite bars has actually started hosting zoom parties and events. And Charlie Hides, a contestant on S5 of RuPaul's Drag Race hosts a Friday Night "Isolation Drag Bingo" event via Zoom. I 

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.