When Garry Holley met his husband, Dave Pearson, he waited until after they’d moved in together to tell Pearson that he sometimes got up on stage in a wig and church-lady garb to perform rollicking gospel numbers. Holley, one of the founders of the Austin Babtist Women, will never forget Pearson’s introduction to the group.
“We had a gig we had booked some time earlier,” said Holley. “I didn’t know how to tell him his new husband wore polyester dresses, Dynel wigs, lipstick and knee highs. I packed all my stuff to go do this charity gig. He hauled us out there in his butch pickup truck. We got out of the truck and disappeared into this air- conditioned little trailer set up as a dressing room. About 45 minutes later, out popped Miss Modine [Holley’s stage persona] in all her radiant glory, hymnal in one hand and tambourine in the other. I would kill for a picture of the look on his face.”
So goes life for the Austin Babtist Women, a group of four men who perform their comedy act all over the country to raise money for HIV/AIDS, breast cancer and other charitable causes. Pearson eventually became part of the group and now performs as “Deacon Dave”— and he and Holley are still a couple, 21 years later.
The Babtist Women are nothing short of hilarious. With steely-gray beehive hairdos, eyeglasses, and a wardrobe that looks like it came from a grandmother’s closet, they strut, kick and cartwheel their way across stages with tambourines in hand. They’ve performed in campgrounds, churches and theaters, raising almost $7 million to date for various charities including AIDS Services of Austin, Project Transitions, Wright House Wellness, Breast Cancer Resource Centers of Texas, and Equality Texas to name a few.
That money goes to charities, mostly to organizations for HIV/AIDS and breast cancer, but also to those for elder care and leukemia prevention. The group has also done special shows to raise money for Bastrop fire victims and for the responders and families affected in the 9-11 attacks.
Holley said that when he sees clips of the group performing, he still laughs until it hurts. But while the Babtist Women clearly know how to show a crowd a good time, their genesis is tinged with tragedy.
The group formed in 1986 when the Texas Gay Rodeo Association (which all four original Babtist Women were part of) was holding its state meeting. The Austin chapter wanted to come up with some entertainment, and Holley, Philip Prock, Glen Hostetler, and Tim Jackson gathered in Hostetler’s doublewide to tap out piano tunes and come up with something.
What emerged was the Babtist Women, and the crowd went nuts, Holley said. The group’s name was deliberately misspelled to avoid offending Southern Baptists, and to reflect the regional pronunciation of “Baptist.” Soon the group garnered invitations to perform all over the state, and the natural next step was to donate the money they were raising to charities.
HIV was still new, and Hostetler didn’t yet know he had the disease, which would claim his life in 1991. But the group had already seen how HIV had started to decimate the gay community and decided to dedicate its fundraising toward a cure for the disease. Support from women in the community would later lead the group to also dedicate much of its fundraising to breast cancer organizations.
While the Babtist Women perform as a group of four, there have been 21 members over its 25-year existence. Four have died from AIDS-related complications.
“Being a bartender since 1978, I’ve known hundreds who have died from HIV,” Holley said, emotion choking his voice. “I’ve known so many people whose families shunned them. I was reluctant to make new friends for many years because I was afraid I’d lose them…when we started this, I swore to myself that I would not quit doing this until there’s a cure for HIV or I’m not able to do it anymore.”
The Austin Babtist Women were instrumental in raising funds to help build Christopher House, an inpatient hospice facility, and the group regularly donates funds to AIDS Services of Austin as well.
HIV hasn’t yet been eradicated, so expect to see the Austin Babtist Women raising hell on stage in Austin and around the country. As Holley says, the group’s motto is “have tambourine, will travel.”