October 22, 2018
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A Real Solution, Here

Wally Paynter heads the Tri-State Alliance, an organization dedicated to gay rights.

When Wally Paynter arrived in Evansville more than two decades ago for a college education, he learned he could help the community fight a deadly virus and save lives. With a network of Christian leaders and local politicians, he’s doing more than that.

On the tables in front of the 20-year-old college student are 8,000 condoms and 2,000 bottles of lube. The plan: Place four varying sized condoms in a clear, plastic bag with a lube tube to create condom kits passed out free to patrons at local bars and coffeehouses. Selected for those wanting to raise America’s colors on July 4 were hundreds of tri-colored condoms — red, white, and blue. Alongside the college student with the cropped black hair are a wide-ranging cast: gay teenage boys; straight, middle-aged black women; and county health department employees. One man brought his grade school son, who places business card-sized fliers in the plastic bags. They all are part of an assembly line, a machine mass-producing disease prevention.

Before the student can begin stuffing lube tubes into bags, she must make an introduction. “You know you are gay when you know Wally Paynter,” she says to her friend. She calls across a meeting room on Central Library’s first floor to Paynter. The 43-year-old health department employee comes over, and the three are all smiles for a brief moment until Paynter heads back to assigning jobs to different volunteers and directing people into lines all while adding quips and asides.

During the two hours it takes to make 2,000 condom kits, volunteers come and go, giving any time they can spare, and just before everyone finishes, Paynter sits for a rest. He’s sweating, though the makeshift workshop is a comfortably cool, air-conditioned temperature. He’s a tall man with tiny glasses, and he moves with purpose. He slips out for a phone interview with a radio station in Bloomington, Ind.

The following Friday, Paynter places the 8,000 condoms into his car, and he’s off to bars to unload them. On Saturday night, he hangs with gay teenagers at a youth group for the Tri-State Alliance, an educational and social service organization for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals (LGBT) that he also heads. He plays Bingo, goes to movies, or indulges at ice cream socials with the LGBT youth of the Tri-State. And there goes the weekend of a middle-aged gay man in Evansville.

ONE PERSON PAYNTER first depended on to aid in condom kit production was his mother, Pat. When the TSA started the kits in the early 1990s, “this little white-haired lady,” Paynter says, would watch TV, make condom kits, and deliver the kits to bars in her town of Carmi, Ill. “She’s the church organist and works for public aid, and she says, ‘Here are the condoms,’” he says. Paynter credits Pat for his zeal for activism. In the 1970s, she led protests in Springfield, Ill. Women from her office dressed in black robes, carried a papier-mâché coffin down the streets of downtown Springfield, and sang tunes about the death of social services. (During the time of the interview, Pat battled complications of muscular dystrophy in the hospital. She is recovering, and Paynter adds, still has a sharp mind.)

Her influence carried with Paynter when he attended the University of Evansville in 1985. As an active member in student government, he pushed for changes in campus life such as condom access and 24-hour visitation in the dorms.

“It was a different time,” he says. “It was controversial to talk sex and sexuality.” Paynter learned how to talk to people against his stance.

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