By Jorge Dorantes
The air rings in the night as dozens of heels pound against the ground. Sequins glimmer and gowns sweep through the air as, one by one, a mixed group of primped and scruffy men shuffle off a bus and into the cold October rain headed toward Downtown Olly’s.
It is Halloween night and the Indy Pride Bag Lady Queens are in the midst of their largest fundraiser of the year, the 35th Annual Bag Ladies Bus Tour.
Close behind with cameras in tow follow Melody L. Dunn and her crew of seven. Dunn, co-founder of Indianapolis-based production company Mermaid Moon Productions, works intently through the chaos, rain, and moving buses to capture every moment of the tour.
“It was really tricky filming the bus tour,” Dunn said. “It’s raining, the bus is moving, people are moving, we’re moving – it’s a challenge.”
For the past year, Dunn and her crew have steadily worked, documenting the charitable efforts of the Indy Pride Bag Lady Queens for a documentary, “Sequins Required.”
The film explores the 35-year history of the Bag Ladies as one of the oldest HIV/AIDS fundraising organizations in the country. It features interviews with former and current Bag Lady Queens as well as the 2014 and 2015 bus tours.
The project coalesced following a conversation between Dunn and former Bag Lady Queen Ivanna Morehead (Tom Sizemore). Following the successful completion of several short narrative film projects and other commercial work, Dunn was on the hunt for a topic for a documentary. Morehead suggested filming the bus tour – which later expanded into a yearlong project and the documentary, “Sequins Required.”
“It was amazing how reticent still some of them were to talk,” says Dunn. “Because the ones that started this don’t think they did anything spectacular. For them, it was originally about just trying to get awareness out there of the HIV/AIDS epidemic of ‘80s. This is the story of how trying to help someone became a 35-year legacy.”
Since the initial bus tour in 1981, the Indy Pride Bag Lady Queens have raised funds to benefit various Indiana health and LGBT organizations, including the Damien Center, Indiana Youth Group, Step Up, the Indiana AIDS Fund and – its 2015 benefactor – the Gregory Powers Direct Emergency Financial Assistance Fund. During the 2015 bus tour alone, the organization raised over $40,000.
The Bag Ladies are a troupe of men – and a few women – dressed in variations of drag ranging from the butch and scruffy to the primped and effeminate. Each year, the Bag Ladies host a variety of community events and fundraisers benefiting different charitable organizations.
Six months to a year from the following bus tour, Bag Ladies can choose to run for the honor of being awarded the title of “Bag Lady Queen” by running a campaign to raise the most money benefiting the selected charitable organization of that year.
Traditionally, the Bag Ladies consisted of gay older men – who in this respect were the original founders – but that demographic is quickly changing.
“The average age of the queens was probably about 50 when I started,” said Gary Brackett, Coordinator of the Indy Pride Bag Ladies. “Within the last 10 years, we’ve brought that age closer to 40. There are a lot more people in their late 20s and early 30s that are riding the bus and participating.”
Brackett hopes that through “Sequins Required,” younger people will be further encouraged to participate with the organization.
“You’ve got to bring in young blood, because old people get tired,” laughs Brackett. “When you wear high heels at 50, it hurts your feet a lot more then it did at 30.”
“Sequins Required” is currently in the final stages of filming and entering the post-production stage. Dunn hopes to complete work by May in time to submit to various local and national film festivals.
As Dunn and her crew near completion, the Bag Ladies are helping spur efforts along by donating all proceeds from their next fundraiser, “For the Love of Queens,” to Mermaid Moon Productions. The fundraiser, Sunday, Jan. 31, at Talbott Street Night Club, will feature performances by past and present Bag Lady Queens.
“We normally don’t donate to non-charitable organizations,” Brackett said, “but in this case, we’re making an exception as we hope the film will bring more visibility to our organization and perhaps even make somebody else across the country decide to start their own organization like the Indy Pride Bag Lady Queens.”
Editor’s Note: “Sequins Required” is in need of raising approximately $40,000 to complete the film – every little bit helps.
Freelance journalist Jorge Dorantes is a senior at IUPUI studying journalism and visual media.