BY SHARON GITTLEMAN
DETROIT – AIDS robbed Joe Verran of a loved one two decades ago and struck another in 2002.
Then he began fighting back.
“I lost my uncle to AIDS 23 years ago,” said Verran, 32, a Ferndale resident. “I started the AIDS benefit four years ago because my partner at the time had just been diagnosed positive. I felt I needed to do something.”
Verran put together a drag show held at the Rainbow Room in Detroit to raise money for AIDS care agencies.
This year, he and the 44 other entertainers in the show raised $4,827 for WINGS Social Group, an organization that offers free and reduced cost sports and theater outings, retreats, potluck dinners and other activities for people with HIV/AIDS.
Verran will present the check to WINGS during his Cher party at 10:30 p.m., on May 20 at the Rainbow Room in Detroit.
“There are a lot of folks with AIDS having problems working who don’t have a lot of money to go out,” said Verran. “WINGS provides the means for them to still feel like they’re a part of our community and not feel like they have to be boxed in at home and isolated from the rest of the world.”
Verran joined in on the fun at the event, appearing as Dolly Parton’s alter ego, Jolene.
“I grew up loving Dolly Parton since I was old enough to remember her singing on the radio or watch her on TV,” he said. “I’ve met her many times as Joe, but she’s seen me twice as Jolene and gets a big kick out of it.”
Parton sometimes works Verran into her show when he’s in the audience.
“She sang the song Jolene for me,” he said. “At the end of it, she had the band kick up another verse and sang, ‘drag queen, drag queen, drag queen, drag queen.'”
What’s the secret to looking like Dolly?
“Lots of foam and lots of hair,” he said, laughing.
While he thought the entertainment at the show was fantastic, it meant even more for the 220 people who come to WING’s get-togethers, said WINGS Positive Social Opportunities Network Board Member Mike Green, 53, from Chesterfield Township.
“It’s our life — our future,” he said. “Our mission is to bring HIV people together for social events outside of the bar. It’s a place where you don’t have a fear of your status.”
The organization provides an annual outing to Higgin’s Lake on Memorial Day weekend, where attendees stay in cabins and are free to enjoy boating, swimming, water volleyball, campfires and other activities.
“The meals are prepared and served on the beach,” he said. “We try to make it as low-cost as possible because we have a lot of people on disability.”
The 10-year-old group also sponsors weekend trips, bowling leagues, parties and support groups.