The Indy Bag Ladies is a fundraising and activist organization working for the treatment and care of those with Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in Indianapolis.

“Further Adventures of Nurse Safe Sexx,” a comic strip by Indy Bag Ladies Kenn King and Rick Moore, ca. 1985-1995
Credit: Bohr/Indy Pride/Gonzalez Collection, Indiana Historical Society

The organization began as a fun Halloween bus tour of local gay bars in 1981.  Led by AIDS activists Coby Palmer, Ed Walsh, and Gary Johnson, approximately 70 men dressed in drag boarded three large charter buses to travel from bar to bar soliciting money to fight AIDS. They were named because of their likeness to New York “bag ladies” who were described in an article as fun and campy with lots of “hutspah.” This bus tour was the inaugural event that led to an ongoing legacy of AIDS activism.

In 1981, AIDS emerged as a new deadly disease, in cities across the country. Gay men were among the first to be diagnosed with AIDS, creating a lasting connection between the disease and gay communities. Palmer and other Bag Ladies decided to make a “frontal assault on ‘the plague.’” In October 1982, two of the original participants, Steve Willis and Ed Walsh began to use the bus tour, which became an annual tradition, to fundraise for AIDS care and treatment for people of Indianapolis. In addition to their costumes, participants also carried empty bags to collect donations to build a “war chest” for the future.

Coby Palmer a founder of the Bag Ladies, in drag as "Blossom," 2014
Credit: Mark A. Lee LGBT Photo Collection, Indiana Historical Society

The Indy Bag Ladies host several other fundraising events throughout the year. This includes shimmering Shamrocks, a Gospel Brunch, and drag shows. All money raised is given to the Gregory R. Powers Direct Emergency Financial Assistance (DEFA) Fund, which helps those in need in the LGBTQ communities, especially those with HIV and AIDS. Some of the DEFA funds are used to support the mission of the HEALTH FOUNDATION OF GREATER INDIANAPOLIS that aims to support HIV/AIDS health-related projects and organizations in Indianapolis.

By 2020, the Bag Ladies had raised over $1 million for AIDS and LGBTQ charities. Each year, over 100 people join the bus tour, Bag Ladies and friends alike. The group publicizes their route so supporters can meet them at different stops along their tour. Beyond fundraising, the Bag Ladies have played their part in the creation of several different AIDS-related programs.

Indy Bag Ladies on the Bus Tour, October 1982
Credit: Coby Palmer

Ons such program was the Buddy House—a temporary housing program for people with AIDS. During the early years of the AIDS crisis, the house was established when no effective treatment existed and residents were expected to reside at the house until they died. The Indy Bag Ladies and friends provided the house itself, meals, furniture, and companionship to the residents. The housing program was short-lived due to fear the Bag Ladies would face legal problems because many residents took advantage of the situation.

The Buddy Support Program was established in 1985 through a combined effort by Darrell Arthur, an Indy Bag Lady, and Dr. Daniel Hicks, a psychiatrist from Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. This program trained unlicensed caregivers to aid people with AIDS physically and emotionally. Buddies participated in several days of training that included mental support for grief, the physical symptoms of AIDS, and more. This allowed them to be paired with a person with AIDS in the community who needed assistance. Many of the original buddies were also Indy Bag Ladies. The Damien Center later adopted this program.

Bag Lady Kenn King initiated the Nurse Safe Sexx campaign, which was an extremely successful grassroots HIV-education campaign. King created the drag persona, Nurse Safe Sexx as a fun and engaging way to provide safe sex and AIDS education to the local community. King attended Bag Ladies’ gatherings and frequented the city’s gay bars and social spots to promote these messages. He and Indiana cartoonist, Rick Moore, designed a comic strip that featured a cast of characters, some based on real Bag Ladies and others fictionalized, intended to further the Nurse Safe Sexx initiative’s educational reach. These comics would appear in many of the local gay magazines.

The Indy Bag Ladies also have played an integral role in the creation of other LGBTQ or AIDS-related groups in Indianapolis. The Damien Center was established in 1987 as a care and treatment center for people with AIDS, opened through the Indy Bag Ladies’ efforts, the Episcopalian Church, and the Catholic Church.

Indy Bag Ladies were also involved in the creation of the Indiana AIDS Fund and the Indiana Youth Group, an LGBTQIA+ advocacy organization that provides basic needs, social programming, and safe social spaces for queer youth. They also continue to raise money and awareness about issues in the LGBTQ communities.

Revised March 2021

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