Legislators Grill Head Of Wyoming Health Over $3,000 For Drag Show Event

The Joint Health, Labor and Social Services Committee grilled the head of the Wyoming Department of Health on Monday about $3,000 the agency gave for a drag show fundraiser.

Leo Wolfson

May 01, 20248 min read

The Stilettos is a Laramie, Wyoming-based drag queen group that helps put on the annual Drag Queen Bingo event.
The Stilettos is a Laramie, Wyoming-based drag queen group that helps put on the annual Drag Queen Bingo event. (Via Facebook)

The Joint Health, Labor and Social Services Committee on Monday approved a motion to draft a bill that would prevent the Wyoming Department of Health from giving money for “sexually explicit” events.

The move came in response to the agency approving nearly $3,000 in public money for a Drag Queen Bingo event designed to draw awareness and support for people living in Wyoming with HIV/AIDS. The sold-out event was held Saturday in Laramie.

The event was hosted by Wyoming AIDS Assistance, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting men, women and children living with the disease.

State Rep. Sarah Penn, R-Fort Washakie, brought the motion.

“If something does happen and it comes to our attention after the fact, we need to at least be able to say we need that money back,” Penn said. “I think that provides some guidelines so that when people are receiving these grants that they understand that if certain parameters, if certain aren’t met, they may lose their funding.”

Stefan Johansson, director of the Department of Health, received a blistering peppering of questions from certain Republicans on the committee about why his agency provided the federal money. Johansson explained that the money wasn’t for the drag show aspect of the event.

What’s It For?

Rep. Jeanette Ward, R-Casper, disagreed and said she sees it as a very cut-and-dry situation.

“My constituents and the public are very upset that what appears to have happened is that taxpayer dollars went to pay for a drag show,” she said.

Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, opposed the motion and questioned where the line on “sexually explicit” would be drawn. He mentioned an annual event held in Jackson where women model locally made bras as a fundraiser for the St. John’s Hospital Foundation Women’s Care Fund.

Although that event hasn’t received state money in the past, Yin said it could make sense for it to do so if it wanted to promote testing for certain diseases at it.

“How sexually explicit are we talking about when we talk about using funds at an event that’s supposed to be used for prevention no matter what the event is?” he asked. “Where is the line, or is it only LGBTQ?”

Explicitly Inappropriate

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, also expressed concern that a law seeking to address this matter might be too broad and instead be better handled with an agency rule.

Ward responded that she would view a proposed law as addressing any sexually explicit behavior. She mentioned the Wyoming Constitution’s support for “morarily” and discouragement of “vice.”

“So, taxpayer funds going to sexually explicit material of any kind is inappropriate,” she said.

Penn said although on its surface the event may have seemed like an exercise in prevention and awareness building, she believes the advertising it put out sends a different message, providing a disclaimer that it was R-rated and not for children.

“Complete with salty language, dirty jokes and booze-a-plenty, parental discretion is strongly advised!” a promotion for the event read.

Penn believes this description took credence away from the health-oriented focus originally promoted.

Wyoming AIDS Assistance also inaccurately listed the Department of Health as a sponsor of the event beforehand.

Zwonitzer and Johannson said the Department of Health often gets listed incorrectly as a sponsor at events.

“Maybe there needs to be some type of stipulation that when you give out a grant, please do not advertise an agency as putting this on,” Zwonitzer said.

Johansson also made it clear that the Department of Health had no role in putting on the event and takes an agnostic stance on social and cultural issues. It does however actively support efforts to prevent and mitigate disease spread in Wyoming.

“There is, I believe, a role there,” he said.

Whose Money?

Penn also clarified that the prohibition would include both federal and state money. The federal grant money was given through the WDH’s Communicable Disease Program.

Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, said she views federal and state money as one and the same as they’re both funded by the taxpayers, and the former is often disbursed by the latter.

Ward also questioned Johansson whether he finds the use of public money for sexually explicit events inappropriate. Johansson said he does, but emphasized that the event was not limited to the drag show alone, as disease prevention and treatment promotion were also provided. Because of such, he said the event fit within the parameters of the federal grant money.

“It was for the specific activities that the mission of Wyoming AIDS Assistance and our communicable disease unit share to help folks with HIV, AIDS and STDs,” he said.

Johansson mentioned how the grants are federally administered for the treatment and prevention of HIV, AIDS and other STIs. These grants range in size from $100 to $1,499.

Wyoming AIDS Assistance received two of the maximum $1,499 grants, equating to nearly $3,000 in grant money. These funds were spent on rental of a ballroom and advertising.

The organization also said it was offering free rapid HIV testing before the event.

Johansson said although the grants are supposed to be targeted at prevention and treatment for youth and adolescents, Saturday’s event was only intended for adults.

Who Approves?

Johannson also confirmed Monday that the Department of Health is supposed to approve all promotional materials for events it provides grants for but was unsure if this took place for the drag show event.

Penn questioned Johansson whether the money could be revoked.

Johnasson said the funds are allocated through a reimbursement and have not been paid out yet to the group, but did not indicate they would be denied on face value. The group will submit its funding request to the Department of Health, and anything not covered under the guidelines of the grant is supposed to be rejected.

Presence Of Alcohol

Johannson said there is a difficult balance to navigate when the department may support groups for certain reasons that may take other actions found to be offensive by some.

Penn said she found the description of the Drag Queen Bingo “discombobulated” when considering alcohol was served. Alcohol is considered a major risk factor for the contracting or spreading of HIV by multiple major health agencies, as it often leads to unprotected sex.

“We have an event that says this is focused on prevention and yet we know that the event is also promoting these types of behaviors,” Penn said. “We’re using taxpayer dollars, and I don’t think the taxpayers are agnostic on this.”

Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, equated the “booze-a-plenty” enticement to the Hell On Wheels float at the Cheyenne Frontier Days parade.

“Those are the kind of things we’re concerned about,” she said.

Johansson said he’s unsure if the serving of alcohol at this event reinforced negative behavior and reiterated to the committee that the money wasn’t intended to support alcohol and was solely dedicated to the disease prevention efforts.

“There’s tricky questions here,” he said.

Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, wouldn’t accept this answer and accused Johansson of passing the buck.

“This lies on you sir,” Bouchard said to Johannson.

Zwonitzer rose to Johansson’s defense, saying he auctioneers at many charitable events that also serve alcohol.

Rep. Tamara Trujillo, R-Cheyenne, found fault with this argument and said comparing a school or hospital fundraiser to an educational event about HIV and STIs is not apples to apples when considering the consumption of alcohol often leads to the spread of these diseases.

“Does it make sense to have an educational meeting and notification event with alcohol on the one thing that’s causing the problem?” she questioned.

There are many other reasons for the spread of sexually transmittable diseases besides alcohol, such as bacteria, the sharing of contaminated needles and the use of contaminated body piercing or tattooing equipment, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Moving Forward

Johansson said his department has no policies for what exact activities community organizations can offer at events that receive grant money, but will review their policies in relation to funding events with alcohol consumption moving forward.

Penn said she hopes more scrutiny is given to grant disbursements in the future and consideration given to rejecting reimbursements if an event doesn’t reach certain standards.

“I think we should have specific standards in place if we’re spending other people’s money,” she said.

Leo Wolfson can be reached at leo@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter