Backtrack: Drags to Riches
In 1981, Coby Palmer, Ed Walsh, and Gary Johnson found out that the big Halloween bash they always attended wouldn’t be held that year. So they decided to have their own fun in costume, organizing a group of 70 or so men on three chartered buses for the first “Bag Lady Bus Tour,” a crawl of local gay bars. The partiers brought a trash bag full of clothes, and everyone changed outfits each time the bus stopped at a different place.
That first ride, Palmer says, was just about dressing up in “camp drag and having a blast.” When this photo was taken a year later, the tour had a purpose: raising money for people with HIV and AIDS, at a time when those acronyms were barely known to most people. Indiana didn’t even begin to gather statistics on HIV/AIDS until the end of 1982, but by then, Palmer had seen the devastating effects of what became an epidemic at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization in New York while on a summer trip there. He came back to Indy with a plan to turn the campy Bag Lady tour into a frontal assault on what he called “the plague.”
That year, as the Bag Ladies visited the city’s gay watering holes—Hunt and Chase (next to Market Square Arena), Shirley’s One Way (on Capitol Avenue, in a building now housing a law office), and the 21 Club and Talbott Street (both located on Talbott Street)—they also collected money for their suffering brothers. Half of the $2,000 raised on the 1982 tour went to the GMHC, the other half to Indianapolis groups.
By 1983, the need became more pronounced at home and the Bag Ladies expanded their efforts. They created a buddy system to help those suffering with HIV/AIDS—ferrying them to the doctor, buying groceries, and giving hugs. They helped fund The Buddy House, which provided housing for financially strapped people with the diseases, and they were instrumental in the founding of the Damien Center.
Since its creation, the group has raised more than $1 million for HIV/AIDS and LGBT charities, but lost some of its own members to the disease. Even during the worst of times, the Bus Tour has remained a bright spot.