Gaming with Gender Performativity, Sexuality, and Community: An Interview with Sofonda Booz on Hosting Drag Bingo Events

Michael Anthony DeAnda
mdeanda[a]depaul.edu
Lecturer
College of Computing and Digital Media, School of Design
DePaul University

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Sofonda Booz is a drag queen host of the weekly “C U Next Tuesday Bingo” event at the SoFo Tap, a bar in Chicago, IL. During her Bingo events, Sofonda draws from gay subcultural knowledge and current events to inform her games, requiring additional player participation through call-and-response, conversations, and lip syncs. In this interview, Sofonda relays her experience doing drag and developing her Bingo set, focusing on how she creates a welcoming community for players on Tuesday nights. Through her reflections on her career, she discusses cultural shifts in drag performances that address larger issues of gender and sexual identity in culture. Furthermore, she articulates her methods of researching, designing, and hosting Drag Bingo that speak to game design skills: research, experience design, and iteration.

 

In 1992, Judy Werle, the director of development for Chicken Soup Brigade, an HIV/AIDS outreach charity organization in Seattle, was tasked with conceptualizing a new fundraiser for the charity. After studying people playing Bingo at local halls, she decided to organize a similar game, but with a “gay flair” (Ang, 1996). The product of her vision took place in 1992: Gay Bingo hosted by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an order of drag queen nuns focused on service and visibility of the gay community (Kiviat, 2007). Bingo hosted by drag queens proved successful for drawing in an audience of both gay and straight people, resulting in the national spread of Drag Bingo events. In the years following the success of Gay Bingo in Seattle, Werle served as a traveling consultant for other HIV/AIDS community support programs who also wished to implement similar events. Today, every state in the US hosts a regular Drag Bingo night, and many popular ones still serve philanthropic causes.

Sofonda Booz, often referred to in Chicago, IL as “The Bearded Lady,” (see Figure 1) hosts the weekly “C U Next Tuesday Bingo” event at the SoFo Tap, a bar located on Clark Street on the northside of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. The bar’s name is derived from it’s location: South of Foster, and Sofonda will often point out how her name includes SoFo. The SoFo Tap gives off a laid-back vibe, and is billed as “your neighborhood bar.” A wooden counter borders three sides of the bar, with the shelves of alcohol and a mirror against the wall. Patrons may sit at the bar or at one of the tables that accommodate two or three people. The layout of SoFo communicates that it is a place for socializing as opposed to dancing. Events at this bar further articulate this space for socializing and mingling, such as trivia nights; Doggy Days, weekend afternoons for patrons to enjoy a beer with friends and bring their dogs and unleash them in the bar; and Bear Night for Bears, larger and hairy gay men, and men who love them. Aside from Bingo, the advertisements all contain masculine men in a state of undress (see Figure 2). While these cards highlight how bars use Bingo to advertise their other events, the types of bodies depicted in these ads contribute to the masculine aesthetic of the space. On Tuesdays, a Bingo set up occupies the open space outside of the restroom and by the dart boards, facing the entrance of the bar.

Figure 1. Sofonda Booz and her Bingo equipment.
Figure 2. Advertisements for different events at SoFo.

SoFo’s C U Next Tuesday Bingo generally starts off with about ten to fifteen players, some are seated alone at the bar or at one of the high tables drinking a cocktail or beer and indulging in free popcorn. This bar has a crowd of regulars that attend several of their events, and sometimes they drop in for Bingo. Around 7:45 PM, a couple of men in their early forties usually arrive and arrange two high-top tables close together against the wall and encircle them with five to seven seats. They hold these seats for members of their Bingo group that meets at several different Bingo events in Chicago. Many of them attend religiously to play Bingo and have a couple drinks, particularly because they like socializing. After 8 PM, Sofonda welcomes anybody who walks through the door, “Hi! Welcome to Bingo at the SoFo Tap! Come up and grab some cards!” Most people usually grab cards, even if they just retreat into the far corner to talk after getting their drinks. A couple of times, the arriving person declined the invitation, and the host just continued with the game. By 9:30 PM, half an hour from the end of the event, the crowd grows to nearly thirty participants, usually men presenting more masculine and ranging from mid- to late-twenties to mid-fifties. On occasion, some women also attend to either watch Sofonda host or joining their friends after dinner. During this time, players shift between conversing with their friends and engaging with the host. Sofonda says she encounters many regulars and is able to greet several of them by name.

During her Bingo events, Sofonda draws from gay subcultural knowledge and current events to inform her games, requiring additional player participation through call-and-response, conversations, and lip syncs. For example, she uses innuendos when calling balls, like when calling O69, players are to make their most exaggerated orgasm noise. She also creates Bingo patterns referencing sex and body parts, such as the “tight little hole” and “blown out asshole” (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Tight Little Hole pattern (left) and Blown Out Asshole pattern (right).

Drag Bingo is a more complex game than its ludic and procedural components relay. Roger Caillois (1958/ 2001) explores games of chance as equalizers of all participants, but argues this type of play trains people to accepting fate. Games of chance foreground destiny or luck while setting the player as a passive participant, particularly because it denies the use of skill and training. Thus, chance-based games create space of truly fair play under ideal conditions because skills, resources, and experiences are removed from the situation (Caillois, p. 17). Greg Costikyan (2013), while interested in uncertainty in games, assesses that without the ability to master the game, players will lose interested in purely chance-based games. Though, as Mary Flanagan (2009) discusses, chance-based games serve to facilitate social interaction between players. She challenges the privilege of focusing purely on the procedural and ludic structures of chance games, arguing that understanding the experience games, even games of chance, requires observing the broader contexts in which this play happens. So while Costikyan suggests players often become restless with game of chance due to their limited agency, Flanagan demonstrates that these games provide just enough structure to facilitate social interaction between co-located players. In line with Flanagan, Drag Bingo highlights that games of chance need be probed further than the ludic and procedural elements to incorporate the experiences and socializing activities that also occur in and around games.

Drag Bingo is an interesting game to consider when thinking about studying and designing games. Werle’s initial development of Gay Bingo highlights many of the skills for game design: design research (visiting the Bingo halls), experience design (collaborating with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to bring a gay flare to the event), consideration of the target audience (thinking about how to make this event more than simply calling balls), and marketing (popularizing it in Seattle and consulting for other HIV support organizations in other cities). As Sofonda discusses in this interview, she also researches her events, focuses on her audience, and thinks about the experience she is constructing. Furthermore, she thinks about how to iterate her games and her sessions so that the environment for play continues to be safe and welcoming for players.

In this interview conducted on 23 February 2018, Sofonda Booz focuses on her experience doing drag and developing her Bingo set, discussing how she creates a welcoming community for Bingo players to join in on a Tuesday night. The interview begins with the development of Booz’s drag career and her understanding of drag. Her discussion of drag highlights interesting shifts in gay culture and drag that speak to issues of gender performativity, biological essentialism, and inclusion/exclusion. As she transitions into talking about Bingo, Booz bears light on queerly performing in and out of LGBTQ spaces, but also articulates how her experiences of doing drag influence her Bingo sets. Worth considering through this interview is how play shapes identity and how gender and sexuality are negotiated through play, materiality and performances. Through her experience, she discusses how she utilizes Bingo to create a low-stakes space for players to play with gender and sexuality.

Michael DeAnda [MDA]: Let’s start off talking about your drag career. How long have you been doing drag?

Sofonda Booz [SB]: I would say on-and-off, I’ve been doing drag for six or seven years. The first time I ever did drag for public consumption other than like Halloween was as part of a GLBTQ theater company I was a part of, called Midtangeant Productions. We were running for ten years, and through them there were multiple shows where I ended up in drag. The first show I was fully immersed in corsets and boobs and padding and makeup and wigs was the revival of a show called Snow White and the Seven Drag Queens. That was seven or eight years ago. And the show ran on and off for two years. Through that I kind of just learned [drag] from people around me.

It was all performance, I never considered myself a drag queen, I was like, “I’m an actor, and I’m doing drag for the show.” I even wrote in the program, “I am not a drag queen, and I just want to make that clear. I’m a dragtor.” Because of [acting in drag] there were other opportunities that arose. Like there was another opportunity where I got a chance to write a show as part of that theater company with myself as the lead, [playing a] woman in drag. What I liked doing was being on stage and doing comedy. I found that I got a lot more mileage from being funny in a dress than being funny as a boy. Theater is what started me down this, down this corseted path.

MDA: That’s a great way to put it! So who inspires you to do drag? What are your references when you’re performing or getting ready?

SB: When I started, I was like, “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” I was learning from people around me, like close friends in my tight little theater community. Madame X specifically that helped me along, she was part of that theater company and works at Kit Kat Lounge.[1] I call her my drag grandma, not my drag mother, because I make jokes that she’s as old as a dinosaur.

I look in my closet—I have a closet for me, and I have a closet for Sofonda. A lot of Sofonda’s closet was really borrowed, stolen, or given. For a long time I didn’t have an inspiration. I was doing drag to entertain people. As long as the look was funny, and it made a visual impact, I didn’t really care. But kind of over the past couple of years, I’ve been more and more inspired by the bearded drag community. I don’t necessarily model myself after them, but I do look at them as pioneers and as inspiration, not necessarily like a visual inspiration because I’m not modeling myself after their clothing styles. But I look at them as people who are really leading a path to major acceptance for someone like a bearded queen.

To go back to like Snow White and the Seven Drag Queens, when I started that show, I had to shave my beard every single week. And then I convinced my director to let me do it bearded. I had been seeing more and more bearded queens, like Lucy Stool, Hellvetika, JerFay, some of the girls down at The Call.[2] Drag over the past few years has started to diversify so much that everything is drag. Those are the ones who inspired me. Style-wise, I go on these little “journeys.” Right now, I’m on this 50s housewife journey with where I’m at in my life and because it’s a style I’ve always wanted delve into (see Figure ). My biggest inspiration is to make sure that I am larger than life, entertaining as hell, and that I’m not just a pretty girl in a dress. I’m “The Bearded Lady!” So I’m like, “I’m not going to be [beautifully feminine], I’m not going to be cute.” If I’m already exaggerating drag to the point where I’m a bearded queen, everything else is exaggerated too.

Figure 4. One of Sofonda Booz’s 50s housewife look.

MDA: So you mentioned keeping separate spaces for your clothing and your means of expression. I’d like to ask about your pronouns. What pronouns do you use?

SB: I do use “she” and “her” when I’m in drag and I refer to myself as a lady. But when I’m in drag I’m the first one to take the piss on myself. My whole mentality when I’m up there telling jokes is like, “I best make a joke about myself first before someone else thinks that I’m taking this all too seriously, because I’m not!” I’m there to entertain people; I’m there to make people laugh. But I definitely use she/her pronouns. I use she/her pronouns with all my drag queen friends, and I call my drag queen friends by their drag queen names: it’s not “Nate,” it’s “Specificity”; it’s not “Colby,” it’s “Tequila”; it’s not “Drew,” it’s “Dixie.” Unless I met them in a separate part of my life, then I usually call them by she/her. And I think that’s also synonymous with gay culture as well. I think a lot of my gay friends who aren’t in drag I call “her” or “she.” You know it’s almost a colloquialism of gay culture at this point to be like, “Oh girl!” I think it’s beyond just being a drag queen, I think it’s just part of who I’ve grown up and become as a gay man and the culture I’m immersed in currently.

MDA: Do you have a lot of people who refer to you as “Sofonda,” even when you’re out of drag? What’s that like?

SB: Yeah. I’m fine with it. Especially people at the bar. People at SoFo call me Sofonda all the time. I’ll walk in, and they’re like, “Hey Sofonda!” It’s actually kind of a little pat on the back because then it’s like I know that I have over the past few years really taken a different look at my drag and a really different look at my drag career, which is almost exclusively toward Drag Queen Bingo. I always have had a worry that, especially when I started doing drag and when I started doing Bingo, that people aren’t going to see me as a drag queen, as pretty, or as any kind of illusion—that’ I’m just a man in a dress. I’m not the most polished queen in the world, but it shows me that they’re still buying into what I’m selling. So, I mean it validating, like, “I like who you are Sofonda, and I like what you’re doing.”

MDA: I know that the term “drag” is, is really contested, especially when we’re talking about validation and what is really considered “drag.” What is your definition of “drag?” What is “drag” to you?

SB: Well that’s a two-pronged answer because I think to really define what I define “drag” now, I’d have to define what I thought drag was then.

When I was in this GLBT theater company for example, I was in a show, and I was getting in wigs and corsets, putting on makeup and heels, and I was “the drag queen.” But then we have the female actors who are also getting in wigs and corsets and makeup and heels and getting on stage, but for me they weren’t a drag queen. I have a friend who is a female drag queen who performs all over the country really, and I met her through this theater company. We had this debate a few years ago. She’s like, “I’m a drag queen.” I was like, “You’re at an unfair disadvantage. You have big old tits. You don’t even have to [pad]. You have to do so much less. It’s not giving me the illusion of being a woman; you are a woman. You are enhancing it, and you’re making it larger than life, but that’s not what [drag] is.” I think everything that’s been happening in the drag community over the past few years, especially in Chicago—Chicago is one of the most diverse drag communities I’ve ever seen—about the rise of different types of drag: bearded queens and genderfuck[3] and female drag queens. I don’t even really think of any of those label subsets as like, “Oh well, you’re a ‘genderfuck drag queen,’” “Oh, you’re a ‘female drag queen.’” It’s just “drag queen.”

Drag to me is taking that person who isn’t on the exterior every single day but who lives inside and is burning bright, and however you want to express that creatively for the world to see, then that’s drag. There are people who dress in drag for their nine-to-five: they put their hair up, they do their makeup, they put on heels, clothes, suits and slick their hair if they’re a [masculine presenting], and that’s like their work drag. It’s just an enhancement of yourself, and for me, it’s always been the best person you can be and the person you maybe always wanted to be but can’t always be. I try and be a consistent character as a person from day to night, I still tell stupid jokes, I still laugh at myself, I’m still self-deprecating. But when I get on a microphone, I put all the best parts of myself out there full-force. Drag is an expression of yourself and your heart and your passion. It’s so stupid to say it, but I realized over the past few months how passionate I am about fucking Bingo.

When I realized that, I was just like, “God! I can just have even more fun doing it!” I like my nine-to-five job and the people I work with; they know about Sofonda, and they’ve come to see her multiple times. But there’s just this freeing energy I feel when I’m up there with a microphone hosting because I love performing and I love making people laugh. I get so scared when people don’t laugh. That speaks to drag queens needing validation. Everybody has their insecurities. But when I was acting, I didn’t like doing dramas because I didn’t know if I was doing a good job. I’m not going to hear the audience crying. But when I’m acting a fool, and I hear somebody laugh or somebody comes up to me after a show and tells me, “you were really funny,” or “thank you so much, here’s a twenty dollar bill”—which has happened and needs to happen more! I’ve always been a guy who likes tangible results, and I like to know the effort I’m putting in is worth something to somebody.

MDA: So I’m interested. Earlier you said that you’re drag career’s basically been priming you for doing Drag Bingo, I want to hear about that. What was that trajectory like? What were the milestones for that?

SB: So Snow White and the Seven Drag Queens literally opened so many doors for me, and I met a lot people in my life at that time because of that show. There was one time where a friend said, “Hey, my girlfriend’s friend is looking for a drag queen to host Bingo, and I thought of you.” And I responded, “I mean I’ve been to Drag Queen Bingo. I’ve been to some really bad Drag Queen Bingo, I’ve been to some really good Drag Queen Bingo too.” But I also never thought, “That’s going to be me some day!” But then this opportunity fell in my lap to do Bingo, and the best part was that it at [Tavern on Little Fort] a straight bar in North Center, just north of Irving Park off of Lincoln.

Basically, they just said they wanted a Bingo night. I didn’t even know if they wanted a drag queen because all their communication only mentioned they were looking for a Bingo host. So I came in [to pitch my set] and I said, “We’ll call it ‘Dirty Bingo’ and I’m going to bring a guest host every week,” as a fucking security blanket. I just got through the presentation and I was expecting some reservation because it’s a straight bar. Instead they said, “Okay great! Sounds like you know what you’re doing, so I guess we’ll see you in two weeks. We’ll start advertising and then go from there.” I was like, “This was easy. I just got recommended for it, wrote my own fucking ticket, and now I’m hosting Bingo at a straight bar.” That first gig ran every week for six months at a straight bar.

There were some good nights, some bad nights. It was a ten minute walk to the train from [the bar]. I couldn’t get all my friends there every single week. I can’t even do that now at SoFo. And, I don’t know, for whatever reason [the straight bar] decided not to continue]. So after six months, on my birthday show too. I had that place fucking packed! 200 people, and [the bar] made so much money! So that was like [August of 2015].

And then I was working with my theater company, but then Snow White ended. So drag was just done for me. I had this closet full of clothes, I was ready to pack it all up and be done with [drag] and then I remember in 2016 I got a call from the girl who bartended and now managed the tavern, and she said, “Hey! I want to bring back Bingo!” So we decided to do it every other week. I did that from December 2016 through September of 2017. I had made lots of friends from that gig and then I started filling in at @mosphere Bar[4] when my drag sister started getting a gig there, and I would fill in for her when she had nights off. Now that I started doing hosting in a gay bar, and I was like like, “What is this magical world I’m in? I can make dick jokes and pussy jokes.”

At [Tavern on Little Fort] I realized that I was not a hundred per cent comfortable because of the audience. If you’re in a little tavern or in a little pub, you’re not expecting a bearded lady to come up to you and be like, “Hey, wanna play Bingo?” A lot of people got scared off! I’m super grateful for that opportunity, it laid the groundwork and gave me a lot of ideas. So, I became part of the rotation at @mosphere for a while, and then I filled in occasionally for my other drag sister, Alexis Bevels, she already [hosted Drag Bingo] at the Glenwood up in Roger’s Park, and she was starting to take over at SoFo. Atmosphere decided to end their Bingo program.

However, Alexis ended up getting a show every other week at a different bar, and she’s like, “Hey, I can’t do this a every single week, would you want to share it? And then we’ll [alternate].” It was a gay bar and I didn’t have to host every week, that took a little bit of the pressure off. Now that I’m at SoFo, I am doing shit there that I never thought I’d do, like: just some of the crap that’s coming out of my mouth, for one; some of the things I’m asking people to do; some of the games I’m asking people to play; the reactions I’m getting from people. I’ve never felt happier doing Bingo than I have at SoFo. It’s like at this point, all the stars have aligned.

MDA: So you said you perform at SoFo currently. How would you describe that bar?

SB: It is kind of a gay neighborhood bar. It’s like a gay Cheers (1982-1993, USA, Charles/Burrows/Charles Productions). Everybody knows your name; you know all the bartenders. Just go and have a beer after work, it’s super chill. The bartenders and the rest of the staff are all also really invested the programming too and want it to succeed. Everyone there is just really open and collaborative, and they let me run with these ideas and be a fool, and they support it. It’s the same thing as my day job: it’s different going into a place you love to work versus going into a place where they’re just paying you and you’re just going. It’s not that I didn’t love doing it at the straight bar or at Atmosphere. I think that familiarity, like that Cheers-type vibe, is kind of what lends itself to that. I know most of the people who come in every week, and they know me too.

MDA: Can you tell me a bit about the people that come in to play Bingo with you?

SB: I’ve gotten the regulars, I’ve gotten the people who followed me from @mosphere, and then the occasional just random group of people who are like, “Bingo? What? I had no idea!” But, I will say this about them, I mean Bingo’s not for everybody, but people get really passionate about playing Bingo. Like, when you need B1 and I call B2, you’re like, “Damn it!” I, on multiple occasions have to explain to people, “You know that I have no control over this, right? You know this is a game of chance. I am just merely the arbiter of said Bingo balls.” I always try to be my semi-charming self when people come in. I’ve never met somebody at any of my gigs who decided to play Bingo that didn’t have a good time. Even if they didn’t win, they’re not like, “Ah crap! That was a terrible evening.” I see that if they’re sitting down to play, they want to be engaged, and they want to be active. And my experience with the specific people who come in to SoFo and play Bingo is just that they’re all a crazy bunch of bastards.

Going back to what I said before, I’ve never met a nicer bunch of people as customers. There was an incident with a customer when I first started, and the owners said to me, “We really want this to be a safe haven for everybody and for everyone feel welcome.” And I took that to heart, I’ve always wanted that in my life, and so I feel like we have our own little Tuesday-night community. Whether they come every week or once a month or once every six months, I just appreciate that they all buy in to what I’m selling.

MDA: What do you think keeps people coming back to Bingo, or what do you think draws people into Bingo?

SB: Like I said, people just want mindless escape sometimes. It’s fun, and they get to be active, socialize, and drink. Part of it is also because people just like SoFo. People are very, very loyal to that bar and what I’m trying to do is forge connections with the people who come in. I’m not just this [host], I love talking to people and engaging with people, and I think that’s part of why people return. People feel like, “I didn’t just come here, you like that I’m here, and you want me to be here.” I think my engagement with people encourage them to come back—at least I hope it does. I don’t want anyone leaving ever feeling uncomfortable because that’s what I would want if I was attending. I know there are just some people who just come in for Bingo now, so I guess I’m doing my job!

MDA: That’s cool! So I’d like to talk about what you do hosting Bingo. What are some of your ritualized practices surrounding the game of Bingo?

SB: I without fail will always continue to make an orgasm noise whenever O69 comes up. You can’t take that away from me. You can’t tell me not to do it. At my core, when it comes to Bingo, I’m dick jokes and dad jokes, and sometimes I get some dad dick jokes in there.

I’ve also got my list of games and my list of special things we can do, like a “Wild Bingo”[5] or a “Speed Round” things like that. And I have my little boards that I use to show what pattern we’re going to do (see Figure 5). I take it seriously. I want to be prepared and make sure I have all my ducks in a row, to make sure that everyone else knows what they’re doing, knows how to play, has a fair chance of winning. And that just might be me coming from an acting background like, “You have to know your lines, you have to know you’re blocking, you have to know you’re choreography.” Like, I don’t choreograph anything I say or do, it literally is all off the cuff. I mean, I’ve got my little rhymes and things engrained in my head, like “O66, sucking all the dicks!” I think it kind of goes along with just the preparedness of wanting to make sure people have a good time and people are entertained.

Figure 5. Demonstration Pattern Sofanda Booz uses to show the Bingo pattern to the audience.

In terms of rituals, there’s a lot of times where I’m just like, “Okay, let’s put on this makeup and this wig and this dress and let’s hope for the best, let’s hope I don’t break my ankle, let’s hope I don’t get too drunk.” So a lot of hoping is involved with it too. But, I mean I know I’m there to do a job, so I’ve got my little arsenal of tools and I’ve got my know-how in my head of things that I can say and do. And I think just preparedness-wise, the biggest thing is going back to when I get there: engaging people and talking to people and making sure that people know that they’re welcome and that I want them to play, and I want them to win, and I’m cheering for them! I’ve always wanted people doing that for me when I’m playing Bingo, and I want them to feel comfortable. So, I mean, If I’m uncomfortable, they’re uncomfortable, and visa versa.

MDA: You talked about your arsenal and I know part of that is that you have these cards with different patterns on them, can you talk about some of the patterns that you play during Bingo and how you introduce them?

SB: Oooh boy! This is the R-rated part of the interview. Not that my swearing hasn’t been. When I started my career, it was “Dirty Bingo with the Bearded Lady and His Bevy of Beauties.” I researched all of these different Bingo boards. And I’m like, “Well what else can I do? What else can I draw? How can I do this?” And I’m like, “Okay, easy enough, I can draw a dick, so let’s draw a dick on here.” I don’t know why I drew it in purple, but I did, and I’ve had it in purple for years. So I have this “Big Purple Dick” (see Figure 6) and I’m like, “Look at my big, hard, purple dick!” Sometimes I’ll be feeling frisky and it’s like, “Okay, I’ll give you more than one way to win.” Hold it up, it’s a hard dick; hold it down, it’s a soft dick. And part of the reason I do that is to diversify people’s chances of winning, for one, and two I do something where people don’t just yell “Bingo!” when they win with me—unless I’m drunk and forget, which does happen—with every special board, there’s something special to yell out. Like when the dick is hard, you have to yell out, “I’ve got a hard on!” Or if it’s soft I always yell out “Flaccid! Flaccid!” like Meryl Streep in Death Becomes Her (Zemeckis [dir.], 1992) which is one of my favorite movies of all times.

Figure 6. Big Purple Dick pattern.

So even with the things that they call out, I refer to my own knowledge of pop culture, and movies, and television, and drag, and, current events, to keep people on their toes and make sure that they’re engaged. I like doing all these different boards and switching it up all the time and not having the same program because: one, I like the mentality of people coming in and not knowing what will happen; and then two, having to listen and make sure they’re paying attention. Other good ones I’ve done… “Five whores in a corner” (see Figure 7) is a fun one, so it’s a corner (of the Bingo card) and then the two on either side, and I usually pick out the staff, they’re two whores, and then myself, I’m another whore, and then if I know somebody in the bar, they’re the fourth whore, and then you’re competing to be the fifth whore. It’s just silly stuff. I’m not going to lie, I have gone to other queen’s Bingo, and I have playfully repurposed some of their own boards or done my own spin on it. There’s only so many abstract designs you can draw without it being ridiculous on a Bingo board.

Figure 7. “Five Whores in a Corner” pattern.

I want people to know what they’re getting into when they do it. At SoFo, it’s not called “Dirty Bingo!” anymore. We rebranded, and now it’s “See You Next Tuesday.” I felt it went along with the brand. Alexis was on board too. I think it also opened ourselves up to have more fun and do other things like lipsyncs, and a ring toss on a dildo.

MDA: Can you tell me a bit about these?

SB: So again with Alexis and I coming in, SoFo wanted to diversify the night, and they’re like, “well we want to have it not just be Bingo. We want it to be something more than that.” So we came up with this concept of like, “See You Next Tuesday” because the other thing that came up was that people are always asking like, “Oh, well when’s Bingo?” “Well it’s called ‘See You Next Tuesday.’” I mean if you can’t figure it out then you have bigger problems. ‘See You Next Tuesday’ officially started beginning of February in 2018. Alexis actually hasn’t been here for any of it, so I’ve had three weeks so far to do my own thing. And there’s honestly stuff that comes to me in the moment that I’m just like, “Let’s do this!” I thank god for those audiences because I tell them to say stupid shit when I’m on a microphone, or I ask them to do stupid shit, and people do it! It’s awesome!

MDA: Can you give me an example?

SB: So like I told you O69, favorite ball of all time, absolute favorite! So I’m just like, “Huh, so we always call this ball, we don’t do anything with it. Why don’t we do a contest? Whoever wants a free shot, show me a dick pic that somebody sent you within the past week.” And then everyone just kind of looked at each other, and they’re like, “Eh, I don’t really want to do that.” And then one person stood up, and I’m like, “Nobody? C’mon! A bar full of predominantly gay men! Somebody has a dick pic on their phone.” And like eight or nine people came up. And, so I’m standing there in this 1950s style housewife dress with a bunch of men shoving their phones in my face with dick pics, like, “What about this one?” I was like, “Woah! What have I just unleashed here?” But again, I think the initial reaction from people was shock, and they’re like, “What?It’s Bingo! People aren’t expecting that. I think it’s because of the environment I’ve created, people are comfortable enough to come up and do that. Plus people like alcohol, and they want a free shot, so that helps too!

And I’m just trying to also just change it up. I’ve been to Bingo where [the host is] like, “B1, 1 under the B,” and call that out like clockwork every single time, and I don’t like that. I want to make sure you’re paying attention and that you are fully engage in everything I’m doing, so that’s why I’m always trying to throw little curve balls and stuff like that. And plus, it give people an opportunity to win more and do more. Even if one person wins and everyone else loses, everyone still feels good, or like, “Oh that could have been me!” or “I can win too!” So it also kind of bumps up morale in this little Tuesday night Bingo community that we have for the evening.

MDA: You’re kind of touching on this, when you’re hosting do you do anything to get people to explore their gender and/or sexual identities?

SB: I always try and promote a level of openness. As long as people are safe and having fun, anything goes. I just want people to have a good time. One of the things I do that has yielded a myriad of results is “Storytime,” which is just one of my favorite things to do. Storytime is: I have a blank board, I get a volunteer from the audience who’s willing to tell a story, I have now started telling people, “You have to limit this story to about 60 or 90 seconds. Tell me a story about something like a sexy story or an embarrassing story or something stupid that happened to you today.” And the reason I had started doing that at “Dirty Bingo” back in the day at a straight bar—and I got some good stories from straight bars—was just so people [contributed].

Like it’s one thing to get up there on a microphone and be making all these jokes about sex or talking about sex. And it’s because I’m comfortable with sex, but I also want everyone else to be comfortable too. So it’s a little opportunity for somebody to share a little bit about theirself. There’s no shame in anything that anybody has ever told. I would say 99 per cent of the time, whatever story they’ve shared, I mean, usually yields some laughter from the crowd or some kind of big reaction. But I want to normalize sex. There’s nothing wrong with it. We all have sex, we all have our own identities that we need to not be ashamed of and be proud of. Storytime is part of my little opportunity to kind of give somebody else the spotlight for a minute to do the same thing that I’m doing in drag.

I’ve started implementing the “Wheel of Divas”[6] occasionally (see Figure 8). In Bingo, if we have a tie, we’ll spin the wheel and then do a “Lipsync for Your Life.” I will say, some of the people who get up there and lipsync are like the biggest, butchest guys that all of a sudden will pull out these dance moves and put out this word-for-word lipsync, and I’m like, “Where did you come from? And, please don’t take my job!”

Figure 8. The Wheel of Divas on the Bingo setup.

I think drag has broken down so many barriers in terms of gender expression and gender identity. Like I said, I don’t think of drag in terms of gender anymore, I think of it in terms of expression. If going up there and lipsynching also gives you an opportunity to be a different person for 90 seconds or explore something within yourself that wants to come out or that isn’t around every moment of every single day, great! I like when people take chances and just release that part of themselves and just have fun.

MDA: When you’re hosting Bingo what do you do when two or more people call “Bingo” at the same time?

SB: Like I said, I have this arsenal of tricks inside my head, and I don’t always know what I’m going to do. I used to be overly prepared. I used to have themes every week at the straight bar, and I used to be like, “I’m dressed like a Disney princess and we’re going to have Disney themed trivia questions.” And I used to have people each grab a boob, or if there was more people, then they’d grab a boob or a butt to use as buzzers. But again, I’ve really been challenging myself to not just do that.

On Fat Tuesday, I had a big, giant dildo from my personal collection that is just far too big to be inserted inside anybody, so I decided to use it as a prop instead. It’s huge! It’s like a Coke can thick, and like two Coke cans long. So I use it as a prop. So on Fat Tuesday we had beads, so then, when we had a tie people did a ring toss on the dildo.

MDA: What do you think makes Drag Bingo unique from other types of drag performances?

SB: That’s really the only world I’m in right now. I’m not performing, and I’m not acting. I do drag performances, like pop-up performance as part of SoFo now during breaks, but I’m not out there at the drag race at Roscoe’s (a gay bar in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood) trying to compete. I’m not at Berlin (a club in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood) [as] part of their midnight shows. I enjoy going there to see that. I’ve always said I have a tremendous respect for drag queens, and I think everybody brings something different to the table. And I went and I saw a local pageant for Hamburger Mary’s. Amazing performers! And the thing that threw me was the interview portion. There were some people that were amazing performers, and when you put them on microphone, they could barely formulate a sentence. I think it was the nerves, clearly, but also they lead me to really value myself and what I do and have a new appreciation for myself. I look at those girls doing the splits and beating their mug for days, and doing some of the shit they do; and I’m like, “I could never do that.” But then I look at myself and I’m like, “I know for a fact that there are some of those girls who cannot do what I do.”

I know a lot of drag queens in the community, but I don’t think I’m viewed on the same level as them, but I don’t think they’ve also given me a chance. Like, I know a lot of these queens that go to other gigs, support each other’s shows. Drag queens don’t come to my Bingo—except for my friends that are drag queens, the few. So, like I said earlier, with all drag queens are, there’s a level of insecurity and need validation. And I have that, definitely. But I see what I’ve done over the past few months and where I’ve come in my journey—especially with Bingo—and I realize that I don’t really care anymore. There’s going to be people who like what I do, and there’s going to be people who look at me as a booger and think that I’m not a drag queen. I don’t really care.

I am confident in what I do. I love what I do! I love being up there. I love making people happy and making people laugh. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I don’t want to be one of those girls, I want to be a hostess. I love hosting and I love talking to people and hearing what they have to say. So, I’m okay with the differences, but I don’t know how many people in the drag community really celebrate the differences. I feel like especially a lot of young queens or people who are very stuck on what it is they do still think that what I do isn’t as valid as what they do. It’s disappointing sometimes, but I think about it this way: I try to keep an open mind, I try to be not that discouraged by it, but the times I do get discouraged by it I’m like, “Well, do you have a regular gig? Do you get paid on the regular to do drag? Or are you going out and getting fifty bucks for a show?” I’m like, “Somebody wants me to be there, and somebody’s paying me to be there, and somebody recognizes my talents and recognizes me as a valid performer and is encouraging me and they can see it because of the reaction of the people who come there.”

So, I mean, if I don’t get validation from other drag queens, I couldn’t really give a shit. The only validation I really want is from the people in the bar that night. I get so stupid gushy-mushy on the microphone sometimes. I think I did a couple weeks ago, I almost started crying like, “You guys mean so much to me!” And it really does. I mean I work a day job that’s not easy, and my favorite parts of the week in order of importance: on a Tuesday: being in drag; hosting; making people laugh; drinking; having a good time; actual day job; waking up; process of getting in drag is at the bottom of the list. I hate getting in drag! It’s not fun. Drag is not comfortable. The other thing that gets me is that drag is not easy, and why somebody else can’t recognize that just because I’m not doing the same thing you do does not mean I am not putting in a shit-ton of effort to do what I do. So, like I said, we’ll agree to disagree and move on with our lives.

MDA: So knowing that drag isn’t easy and having the experience to make that call, why host Bingo in drag?

SB: Like I said, I went to school to be an actor. I got my Bachelors of Arts in acting. I moved to Chicago to be an actor and perform because it was truly the only thing that made me happy for a long time. And it evolved, and I’m a very social person, and I love hearing people’s stories, making new friends, learning from other people’s experiences, and I also still love having a creative outlet.

I don’t know how this happened, but I started dating somebody six months ago, and I feel like on our first date, I told him, “By the way, you should know…” I always lead with that on a first date because some people aren’t into dating drag queens. He’s a dancer, and a performer, and an actor, so he understood, but it took him a while to come see me. He’s now become somebody who’s also exploring the world of drag and also exploring what he wants to do, and has also become a creative collaborator with me in terms of costuming, and wigs and everything in between.

I’ve ebbed and flowed away from the world of drag many times over the past few years, sometimes not even doing it for six to eight months at a time in between gigs. He helped me remember why it was I started doing it . I like hosting was because it fills a void in me, that passion that I had for acting and that passion I had for performing and for making people laugh, it’s back and it’s this whole new world that I feel lucky to be a part of it. Really lucky because, like I said, there’s people out there who bust their butts and don’t get daily gigs.

MDA: So what advice would you give to somebody who’s looking into getting into Drag Bingo or wants to host drag bingo?

SB: First of all, I think you need to just put yourself out there and take a chance. If it’s something you really want to do and you see an opportunity, you have to take the opportunity. My very first gig, somebody said, “They want to do Bingo,” and I said, “I’m going to make this mine, and I’m going to turn this into something.” I mean you have to obviously do your research and know the programming of said establishment to see if it’s even a viable option. There’ll be opportunities that somebody moved away, and you’re right place right time.

And the other thing about it is, if you really want to host Drag Bingo, go see as much Drag Bingo as humanly possible. It’s like anything else, you’re not going to learn unless you immerse yourself in it. Like I have been to so many shows! I used to go to see [Angelique Munro], she used to host at Atmosphere before Christina Rose and I did, and then she went to a bar called Shakers, and then that gig ended. Terry Yaki would do it at the old Halsteds and then at Hydrate. My friend Debbie Fox would do it at Spin when she was filling in for [Angelique]. There are so many Drag Queen Bingos. Go see what they’re doing and then decide what you want to do.

If you want to do what it is that they’re doing, yes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but my advice is make it your own. I know some people do some Dirty Bingo and some stuff like that, but I don’t see people do it the way I do it. But, the other thing I need to do personally is go out there and see who else is doing Bingo and do my research, find out what’s changed, see if there are any new ideas that I can appropriate or switch into my own. And I don’t feel like any one person is doing any kind of revolutionary Drag Bingo.

It all depends on the establishment. It all depends on the prizes. It all depends on the clientele. It depends on the queen doing it, being engaging and funny. But just do as much research as possible. Put yourself out there. Why not? What do you have to lose?

MDA: Those are all the questions that I have. Is there anything else that you’d like to add that I haven’t covered?

SB: Like I said, I realized over the past few months, especially with the gig at SoFo, how much Bingo has actually become a big part of my life. There’s something about playing Bingo that’s just this basic shared human experience like, “We’re all in this together!” It’s just come to symbolize for me so much more than just being in drag; it’s also come to be just a part of who I am at this point.

People at work ask me about it all the time. It’s been a good outlet for me, and it’s been a good opportunity for me to explore who I am as a drag queen, who I am as a hostess, as a comedian. Because that time on the mic has given me this path of self-discovery, it means so much more to me than just calling out numbers on a ball. It’s something that actually is part of my history, and when I decide whatever day to stop doing drag or stop hosting Bingo or the place burns down, it’ll be sad, but I will never be too sad knowing that it has given me so much. And that’s that!

 

References

Ang, Audra. 1996. “Gay Bingo Nights Find Niche in Seattle.” LA Times, June 9, 1996. http://articles.latimes.com/1996-06-09/local/me-13232_1_gay-bingo.

Kiviat, Barbara. 2007. “How Drag Queens Took over Bingo.” TIME, May 2, 2007. http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1617013,00.html.

Caillois, Roger. 1958/ 2001. Man, Play, and Games. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Costikyan, Greg. 2013. Uncertainty in Games. Playful Thinking Series. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Flanagan, Mary. 2009. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

 

Notes

[1] The Kit Kat Lounge is a bar in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood that hosts drag shows every night of the week and drag brunches on weekends.

[2] The Call is a bar in Chicago’s Edgewater Neighborhood.

[3] “Genderfuck” is a term used for when a person juxtaposes the aesthetics and performances of masculinity and femininity into one look.

[4] @tmosphere, “atmosphere,” is a gay bar in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood on Clark Street.

[5] Wild Bingo is a fast-paced round of Bingo in which the first five balls count for all the spaces in accordance with the ones place value of the number. For example, if B1 is one of the first balls called, all players may mark off on their own sheets B1, B11, I21, N31, N41, G51, O61, and O71. The first player with a “blackout,” the entire card marked off, wins.

[6] The Wheel of Divas is a tool used to settle ties. Female popstar singers are written on the wheel. Upon a tie, Sofonda spins the wheel, and the two winners lipsync to a song by the diva whose name the wheel landed on.