The Bag Ladies could quite possibly be the nation’s first HIV/AIDS fundraising organization. Since the initial bus tour in 1981, more and more men and women have become part of this on-going and growing tradition. Around Halloween 1981, seventy or so men dressed in drag, boarded three buses, and began a journey to help in the fight against AIDS calling themselves “The Bag Ladies.” The Bag Ladies got their name from an article out of a New York City newspaper. Coburn (Coby) Palmer, one of the original Bag Ladies, read in the article that the New York “bag ladies” were fun and campy and had lots of “chutzpah!”
The Bus Tour
The invitation for the first Bag Lady Bus Tour came on a simple brown paper bag and said nothing about HIV, AIDS, or a new, mysterious deadly disease that seemed to be singling out gay men. Partygoers would dress in drag and tote a trash bag full of costume changes like the bag ladies in New York City. A city bus would ferry them to a Halloween crawl of the city’s gay bars. It was just about having a good time in 1981 — until AIDS loomed on the horizon.
Since then, the Bag Ladies — the organization that grew out of the first event — has raised more than $1 million. The Bag Ladies are one of the oldest AIDS fundraising organizations in the country. But, the Bag Ladies would not have happened if not for the three men (Coby Palmer, Ed Walsh & Gary Johnson) who organized that first party.
When Coby, Ed and Gary, heard that a local man, famous for his wild Halloween parties would not be hosting a party in 1981, they decided to pick up the baton — and go one step further with the Bag Ladies bus tour. On a trip to New York, Coby heard about a new disease that seemed to indiscriminately strike gay men. In 1982, Palmer dropped by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, one of the few programs that existed to help those who had AIDS. When he returned to Indianapolis, Palmer and his friends realized that the Bag Ladies could transform their predilection for parties into a fund-raising venture. The group held a benefit that raised $2,000, half of which went to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and half to local organizations. The group also started spreading the word locally about this new disease.
From that humble beginning, the Bag Ladies & the Bus Tour have evolved into one of the LGBT community’s best fund raising organizations! Since the initial bus tour in 1981, more and more men have become part of this on-going and growing tradition. The Bag Ladies are stronger than ever and the money they raise supports many local organizations. The Damien Center, the Gregory Powers Direct Emergency Financial Assistance (DEFA) Fund, Indiana Youth Group (IYG), Step Up, and the Indiana AIDS Fund all benefit from money raised by the Bag Ladies. In addition to the annual Bus Tour, several of former “Queens” along with others raise money through performances throughout the year. The Bag Ladies have been part of several organizations throughout the years: Indiana Cares, AIDS Serve and Indiana Still Cares and Indy Pride, Inc. In January 2017, the Bag Ladies officially became part of The Health Foundation of Greater Indianapolis to more closely align the group with the organization where most of the funds are donated. Currently, the “ladies” march on in their high heels and outrageous hair and continue raising money! During the 2016 calendar year, the Pride Bag Ladies raised and donated over $100,000!
The Gregory Power Direct Emergency Financial Assistance (DEFA) Fund
The Health Foundation of Greater Indianapolis established the Gregory Powers Direct Emergency Financial Assistance (DEFA) Fund in 2002 to provide grants to care coordination sites across Indiana. These grants support a wide scope of services, including medical needs, housing issues, access to services and day-to-day living expenses for persons living with HIV/AIDS. Through the efforts of Team Friends of Greg, Talbott Street Dance Club and over 80 teams at the annual Indiana AIDS Walk as well as through the efforts of the Bag Ladies, IndyTennis and other events, The Health Foundation was able to award $247,500 in grants to 12 Indiana community organizations in 2014. The Bag Ladies are proud to be one of the organizations who contribute to this vital program which assists HIV/AIDS clients with basic or emergency financial needs!
Bag Ladies Assist Organizations
One of the first organizations that benefited from donations by the Bag Ladies was the Buddy House which provided housing for individuals with HIV/AIDS who were having financial difficulties. In the early years, several of the Bag Lady Queens did other fund raising events such as photo signings, cook book sales, cut-a-thon, and helped organize events like the Garage Party. In 2017, the Bag Ladies are stronger than ever and the money they raise supports several local organizations including The Damien Center; the Gregory Powers Direct Emergency Financial Assistance (DEFA) Fund; Indiana Youth Group (IYG); Step Up, Inc.; Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; and the Indiana AIDS Fund.
The Bag Ladies have been part of several non-profit organizations throughout the years: Indiana Cares, AIDS Serve and Indiana Still Cares and Indy Pride, Inc.
Current Events & the Bus Tour
The Bag Ladies are men (and a few women/drag kings) willing to dress in high heels and wear outrageous costumes to entertain and raise money for the Indianapolis LGBT community and beyond. For the past several years, the Bag Ladies have held annual fundraising events throughout the year. These events have included Cadillac Barbie’s Disco Brunch, Shimmering Shamrocks, For The Love of Queens, Sequoia Pentecost & Rachel Yoder’s Annual Country/Gospel Brunch, and Loud & Proud (an event held during Circle City IN Pride week). However, their best known event is still the Annual Bag Lady Bus Tour.
As in the beginning, each year around Halloween, the “Ladies” travel from bar to bar soliciting money until the early hours of the morning on what is called “The Bag Lady Bus Tour.” At the end of the night a new Bag Lady Queen is crowned. Originally, this was the Bag Lady who raised the most money. While raising money is still a major factor in crowning the Queen, the organization now hosts a Bag Lady Queen Pageant prior to the annual Bus Tour. (See Bag Lady Queen Expectations & Selection Process).
Bag Lady Queen Selection Criteria (updated 2017)
The purpose of the Bag Lady Queen is to provide community service and help plan and create fundraising events. Below is detailed information about the selection criteria for Bag Lady Queen.
The following information is provided to make sure that all Bag Lady Queen candidates are aware of the rules and expectations for the campaign and duties in the role of Bag Lady Queen.
- Potential candidates are encouraged to wait until a formal announcement is made regarding any consideration in running for the title of Bag Lady Queen.
- Applications will be accepted starting January 1 and will continue to be accepted until June 1. All candidates will be formally introduced at the Bag Lady Loud & Proud show during Circle City IN Pride Week.
- Each candidate will be required to complete an application which requires endorsement from a former Bag Lady Queen
- All candidates will host a least one qualifying event. The venue must ob obtained by the candidate. The candidate and former Bag Lady Queen who endorsed the candidate must both be present at the venue meeting.
- An event application must be submitted and approved before any promotional material is released. A disclaimer is required in all event information stating that the event is being held to aid in the contestant’s bid to become the next Bag Lady Queen..
- All funds raised must be counted and verified by the cash counters and the former Bag Lady Queen who endorsed the candidate and turned in to the Bag Lady Coordinator (Cadillac Barbie) or his representative at the end of the event.
- To qualify as funds raised, all monies raised must benefit a 501(c)3 charitable organization and be approved by the Bag Lady Committee. Candidates are encouraged to remember that the Bag Ladies hae always been committed to raising funds for HIV/AIDS and other LGBT issues. The LAST time ANY funds can be turned in to count towards the candidate’s fundraising at the Bag Lady Contestant Showcase (formally called the Bag Lady Queen Pageant). All money must be turned into the Bag Lady Coordinator (Cadillac Barbie) before the event begins.
Contestant Showcase (formerly the Bag Lady Queen Pageant)
- The Bag Lady Contestant Showcase will consist of:
- On-stage Q & A
- Creative Presentation
- Talent Presentation
- Candidate should come to the Showcase already in make-up. Each candidate may have one person backstage to assist during the event.
- The final decision on Queen will be kept in the same tradition as it has been since its inception, a vote of the former Bag Lady Queens which takes into consideration, the candidate’s involvement in the community, money raised, and overall essence of what a Bag Lady Queen should be.
Duties of the Bag Lady Queen
- If the Bag Lady Queen is attending another event such as but not limited to any fundraisers, pageants, community events the Queen must wear the Bag Lady Queen Sash. If the Queen is judging the event, the Queen should be in full face and dressed appropriately.
- The Queen will be responsible for organizing and hosting The Stockings Were Hung show with the outgoing Queen. The new Queen should invite other candidates who were not selected to participate in this event.
- The Queen will coordinate the former Bag Lady Queens and encourage them to ride on the float during the Cadillac Barbie Pride Parade.
- The Queen shall promote and encourage new riders for the annual Bag Lady Bus Tour and encourage contestants to compete for Bag Lady Queen.
- The Queen will not compete or hold any other titles until her reign as Quee4n is completed.
- The Queen is encouraged to be involved in other fundraising event happening in the community or offer community services as the need arises.
- The Queen should be an active participate and help coordinate a Bag Lady Team in the AIDS Walk.
- The Queen is expected to attend and participate in as many Bag Lady events as possible during the year
All decisions on applications, vendors, fundraising events, appearances, Queen selection will be final. These criteria are meant to be used as tools to make this opportunity as much fun, and respectful as possible and ensuring the hear of the Bag Lady Queen title remains true!
The Bag Ladies currently present two awards: The Blossom/Cadillac Barbie Award and the Joseph F. Miller Community Service Award. The Blossom/Cadillac Barbie award is given to an individual has gone “above and beyond” in the Indianapolis community and who continues to be dedicated to making the GLBT community a better place for everyone. This award is named after Blossom (Coby Palmer), Bag Lady founder and Cadillac Barbie (Gary Brackett) for providing leadership to keep the organization viable from 2005 – present. A listing of former Blossom/Cadillac Barbie Award winners is available on the website
During the 30th Anniversary Bus Tour, the Bag Ladies introduced a new annual award – the Joseph F. Miller Community Service Award. This award is named in memory of Joseph F. Miller, renowned philanthropist from Indianapolis and friend of the Bag Ladies who passed away in 2010. This award will be presented annually to someone in the community has given above and beyond of his/her time, talents, and money to enrich the lives of the GLBT community in Indianapolis. A listing of former award winners is available on the website.
At the 35th Annual Bag Lady Bus Tour, Founder Coby Palmer presented Founder Awards to: Ed Talucci, Tom Sizemore and Gary Brackett for their support and service to the organization throughout the years.
As they start their 36th year, the Bag Ladies continue to march on in their high heels and outrageous hair and continue raising money! The 2016 Bus Tour marked thirty-five years of raising funds for the Indianapolis GLBT community! The 2016 Bus Tour raised over $43,000! During the calendar year 2015, the Bag Ladies through their own shows and events and by assisting other organizations raised and donated over $107,000!
For information about how to schedule a Bag Lady Event or to have Bag Ladies participate in a fundraising event, please contact Cadillac Barbie (Gary Brackett) at firstname.lastname@example.org.