Wednesday, July 2, 2008


This is from The Independent

John Paul Womble: Fun and funds with Drag Bingo

Every month or so at the Armory in downtown Durham, John Paul Womble joins a drag queen named Mary K. Mart to call out numbers in a giant game of bingo. Drag Bingo attracts scores who bring their families to play for the $500 prize and also to see Sierra Nevada, Miss Diagnose, Eunice Ray and Kiki Rodriguez shimmy across the stage and tell bawdy jokes that are just beyond the comprehension of children.

Womble has co-hosted the event since the early days, in 2002, when the Alliance of AIDS Services turned to him to help raise money. Since then, the event has raised nearly a half-million dollars to help serve people in the Triangle living with HIV and AIDS.

Womble became an advocate for people with HIV not long after he was diagnosed with the virus himself, 15 years ago, when he had been working as a small business owner. "My passion and commitment to the cause of eliminating HIV off the face of the earth is a personal battle," he says. "I'd like the disease to stop with me."

When Womble was diagnosed, HIV mostly plagued gay men, and they died in large numbers. Womble helped prepare them for death. When he joined the Alliance eight years ago as director of development and public affairs, testing positive for HIV was no longer a death sentence and the demographics had begun to shift. "Our clients are not affluent gays and lesbians," he says. "Ninety-eight percent of our clients are below the federal poverty level."

"They have no voice," he says. "HIV is not the disease du jour. There are so many diseases that affect our community as a whole. Part of my goal is to keep issues of HIV constantly on people's minds."

The Alliance uses an integrative approach to care, helping clients with housing, medical care, faith ministries and prevention education. Womble works closely with local and state health departments to push the Alliance approach and talks to members of Congress about the changing face of HIV in the South. But locally, he's a celebrity for a different reason.

"I've testified before Congress. I have met with the president. And the one thing people remember me for is Drag Bingo," he says. "The neatest thing about it is the crowd is primarily heterosexual. It's the greatest bridge-building event in the community." —Mosi Secret

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