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.[pagebreak]
But during college, he had his own issue: coming out. The time — the mid 1980s — wasn’t the gay ’90s when coming out was vogue. It was a time when the only thing people knew for sure about AIDS was that those who contracted the new virus died, when AIDS was “gay cancer,” and when people were scared to be in the same room with an infected person.
In high school and college, Paynter made a mental inventory of people who said something anti-gay, realizing they were people who might disassociate from him. “That’s a scary thing. I could tell someone this one piece of info, and based on prejudice or a preconceived notion, it generates who you are.” But, “sex and sexuality is a part of all of us,” Paynter says, and he thought people should talk about who they are. He came out. A few people ended their friendships with Paynter because of it, and he now looks back at that time and thinks, “What’s the big deal?”
PAYNTER’S LOST FRIENDS and board members to AIDS. He has friends who are positive. “I feel like enough people are out there with HIV and AIDS that everyone knows someone,” he says. “They just don’t know that they know someone.” He talks about the disease so much that there’s a perception he’s positive. He’s not.
He’s passionate about education and prevention. About saving lives. More than 8,000 Hoosiers have HIV or AIDS. (The latter refers to the later stages of HIV, an infection weakening the immune system.) In a recent editorial called “A Real Problem, Here,” The New York Times noted, “The AIDS epidemic is spreading faster than previously thought, even as the American public’s concern about it declines. Such complacency may reflect a belief that AIDS is primarily a problem in Africa, or a feeling that AIDS has become treatable, so why worry about infection.” According for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, blacks represented nearly half the American population living with HIV, though blacks only represent approximately 12 percent of the total population. AIDS affects other minority groups, too, in disproportionately high numbers, and that’s one reason why more than just LGBT people gather for TSA’s condom kit-making sessions. When Paynter is asked who is most at-risk, he says, “Humans.”
In the Tri-State, the problem is fear. “Here, a lot of people don’t test until they’re sick,” Paynter says. More than half the people who test positive for HIV in Indiana receive the AIDS diagnosis within a year, says Paynter, and those results indicate they didn’t test until they were sick, which is typically six to eight years after they contracted the disease.
His weapon to fight this problem is his rallying cry, and what’s most unusual about this weapon: The cry is soft. “When Wally’s in the room, you know he’s there,” says the Rev. Kevin Fleming of First Presbyterian Church. “He’s just a big guy, but he’s a gentle giant. If he slapped you in the face with (a problem), you might not want to do anything about it. It’s just this gentle unveiling of a problem.” Fleming and Paynter work together on several services, including the AIDS Holiday Project, an annual effort to raise funds for an estimated 350 families impacted by HIV and AIDS.
The goal is relief. AIDS is a complicated disease requiring a regimen of drugs that could cost thousands of dollars every month, leaving low-income families with few options for essentials. For the AIDS Holiday Project, families ask at Christmas for the necessities: socks, underwear, a warm coat.
He also champions AIDS candlelight services throughout the Tri-State. When he launched a Facebook page for an April service in Carbondale, Ill., the page received only two hate messages: One stated, “I hope you die of AIDS.” The small number of hurtful messages made him optimistic. When he came out, AIDS was “gay cancer,” people were afraid to be in the same room with AIDS patients, and friends abandoned him because he was gay.
Now he considers two hate messages progress.
"THESE ARE NOT PROBLEMS in big cities on coasts,” Fleming says. “These are issues in beautiful Downtown mid-America. And who knew? Wally did, and he helped us get aware of it.”
One problem is AIDS, but another issue bothers Fleming: gay homeless teens. Twelve years ago, Paynter noticed a problem among gay teens, including now 25-year-old Joshua Crouch.[pagebreak]
When Crouch became a freshman at a small, rural high school in Mount Carmel, Ill., he was confident in who he was. “Whenever I decided something about myself,” Crouch says, “I was proud of that fact. When I was 6, I turned my bedroom into a library and rented out books to the neighborhood kids because I knew I was going to be a librarian. So, I always was adamant about who I was — and being that unabashedly.”
He was a kid with a passion for ballet. As a high school freshman, if someone asked if he was gay, Crouch responded honestly in a “small town where there still was so much confusion and anger toward it,” Crouch remembers. Threats came, followed by violence, and Crouch bolted for St. Louis as soon as he turned 16 with his two-door, stick-shift Ford Escort. He slept on friends’ couches until he reached the limits of their hospitality.
Looking for a solution, Crouch typed “gay teen” into an Internet search on a library’s computer and found TSA’s website. He arrived 20 minutes early to his first youth group meeting in the YWCA Tea Room where he saw Paynter unloading boxes of board games. “Come on in,” he said. “We won’t put you to work.”
The comfort he experienced among his peers inspired Crouch to move to Evansville and find a place with six occupants, ranging from 16-42, and eight cats. He bounced into an apartment with his then-boyfriend until the relationship fizzled. His couch surfing continued until, again, hospitality ran out. At the time, Indiana law prohibited teenagers from using homeless shelters’ services. Crouch was 17, and his Ford Escort became his home. Paynter noticed the normally outgoing Crouch was growing despondent.
Paynter “always was really open and honest,” Crouch says. “He sometimes could come off as a little blunt, but I always knew his honesty was guided by real care.” He told Crouch his living situation was unacceptable, and he constantly encouraged Crouch to continue his education or find work, and Crouch listened. After five different high schools and a missed semester, Crouch graduated, and today he works as a dance teacher at the D’Alto Studio of Performing Arts. “I can’t tell you the kind of joy overwhelming me when I was able to get the keys to my own apartment,” Crouch says, “and knowing there is no more sitting on a stoop somewhere.”
Crouch’s story is not unusual. Since 1998, Paynter estimates he has seen at TSA’s youth group meeting 10 homeless kids a year forced out of their homes either by their parents or fear of an unbearable situation. “This is not a time in a young person’s life when they need that kind of disruption,” Fleming says. “Their job is to get a good education and move forward. You can’t do that when you don’t know where you’re going to spend the night.”
After Paynter learned of this all-too-common problem, he called Patty and Dennis Avery, two well-known advocates for ending homelessness. Dennis, a then-state representative, and Patty, a longtime member of the Homeless Youth Coalition, asked the state to create an interim study committee on homeless youth. In 2008, a new law allowed shelters to provide minors unaccompanied by a parent “some basic services,” Patty says. One example: food. Plus, a shelter now can accept a teen’s overnight stay as long as they notify the Indiana Department of Child Services.
The new law benefits all homeless teenagers — no matter the sexual orientation — and Paynter continues to help members of the TSA youth group the way he helped Crouch. Paynter says, “It’s been counterintuitive to what my gut instinct is — but it’s the advice I give to teens and kids in college: If you think your parents might cut you off, maybe you don’t tell them at this point in time.”
FROM CHRISTIAN LEADERS to state officials, Paynter’s grown a network of support for his work with TSA. No night better exemplifies this than July 11 when TSA presents the third annual AIDS Celebrity Dinner, a night raising funds for the AIDS Holiday Project. A few on hand are U.S. representative Brad Ellsworth, state representative Gail Riecken, and city councilman Dan McGinn.
This hodgepodge of community leaders fights to change the city, but Fleming looks no further than Paynter: “Give me a hundred of him,” Fleming says. “I can change the world with a hundred Wallys.” With just one Wally, there seems to be a real solution, here.