I probably couldn’t have told you Pierre (pronounced “peer”) was the capital of South Dakota before deciding to go to Pride there. Fort Pierre, where Pride was held, is a “suburb” of Pierre, just across the Missouri River and in a different time zone. The entire area has a population just over 15,000, making it the second-least populated state capital in the U.S., even though it’s the ninth-most populous city in South Dakota.
I was thrilled Katrina had time off and felt like accompanying me to South Dakota. It meant Wally could come, too. It’s rare I have company on these trips so I was eager to be a good host. I found a spot at the Cow Creek State Recreation Area, just twenty miles from Pierre, to camp in the night before Pride so I wouldn’t have to ask Katrina to sleep in a random parking lot with me.
I reserved what turned out to be a great campsite, solitary, at the end of a tiny peninsula, overlooking a pleasant lake. There were a lot of flies and smoke from a Canadian wildfire cast a middle-Earth like haze over the view, but we had a nice dinner and Wally played fetch under the setting, apocalyptic sun.
In the morning, as I was packing up the van, Katrina was throwing the ball for Wally. I came around the corner of the van to discover Katrina on the ground, holding her ankle. She had twisted it pretty bad. Wally was very concerned.
We got her in the van and started discussing options. We could drive home, about eight hours as the Cookie flies, but it would be uncomfortable and disappointing. We decided to head into Pierre for ice and ibuprofen then see how she felt in an hour. We had breakfast, then found the Pride venue only to discover the event would be held entirely indoors.
With Wally banned and Katrina injured, the best option was to find a hotel room where a Law & Order marathon in air conditioning might distract from the circumstances while I attended Pride. Nobody felt like driving home right away. After I made sure Katrina’s foot was iced and elevated and Wally was snuggled up to aid her healing, I headed back to Pierre Area Pride.
Pride was in the Event Center at Drifters Bar and Grille. It was one large room with a handful of vendors/organizations lining two walls. There were about a dozen round banquet tables staged in the middle, with a small dance floor/performance area to one side. The tables were bedecked with complimentary Queer flags and stickers, and there were flyers with QR codes to tip the Drag Queens. There was a small Drag “closet” in the corner to aid anyone feeling less than festive.
Pierre Area Pride first took place in 2018 in a hotel across the river. It’s put on by a small number of volunteers who form the board for Pierre Area Center for Equality (PACE), a non-profit, also born in 2018. The group decided to do something for their community after someone’s social media inquiry about holding a Pride in town generated a number of negative online comments. Pride is still an act of resistance, especially in small towns. The organization lacks a physical location but strives to be an online support resource for the area’s LGBTQ population and tries to throw four events a year.
By this point on my tour, I could easily identify the Pride organizers in the bustling event center, even though they were not wearing matching T-shirts this time. I picked out the ones walking briskly, looking as if the entire fate of Queer history was riding on their shoulders and praying their Queers would show up on time for once in their lives. As I took in the scene, catching a contact high from everyone’s earnestness, I remember supposing our Queer legacy, at this surreal and precarious moment in history, in not insignificant ways, does depend on the devotion and organizational skills of small groups of individuals in places like this.
It’s critical to be visible in the capital city of a red state, no matter how small. For the Queer community in a small town, Pride is often the only opportunity all year to gather in a loving, supportive space and meet other community members. The organizers not only have to be brave enough to be out in a small town, but resilient enough to withstand the criticism and harassment that results from being a visible leader. Their event has to be morally uneventful or those same critics will use even the smallest controversy to prevent any future public Queer event in their town. It’s a lot of pressure.
And then I show up, adding one more time commitment, one more element of potential judgement or exposure. And they are always nice to me. I want them to know I recognize how important they are. I drive all that way just to talk to them. Every single small-town Pride organizer I’ve met has wanted me to know how special their community is and why it’s so important to affect change where they are. Fort Pierre was no exception. I was introduced around, shown to a table, and promised interviews, just as soon as they had time.
Pierre started their Pride with a Drag Story Hour. This relatively new tradition is simultaneously a display of community tenderness and responsibility and a favorite focus of conservative condemnation. I have never witnessed a child who didn’t love Drag Queens reading them a story. I watched those Queens in South Dakota teleport Disneyland to Mid-Western children sitting on dusty laminate flooring surrounded by beige partition walls. This sinister magic is the target of legislation and armed protest nationwide.
The Queens then helped everyone dress up from the “closet” in the corner to set the mood for an all-ages Drag Show for about 40–50 attendees. After a short dance party, the family-friendly portion of Pride was over and there was a dinner break before the adult entertainment began. I was able to sit down with two of the organizers as well as eat some tasty nachos.
Sarah Kanz is a Pierre Area Pride board member. She shared with me she identified as Ace in high school, and told me she suffered from debilitating low self-esteem then. She drove to her first Pride in Sioux Falls (South Dakota’s big city) by herself after graduation. She spent a long time planning her outfit. She told me that experience, being around Queer community, changed how she felt about herself and her possibilities in life.
She came to this Pride in a fun, rainbow-striped mini-dress, donning very sparkly eye shadow. She loves Drag. She made her boyfriend watch Paris is Burning. He’s a fan now, too. She told me most people she knows in town aren’t outwardly homophobic, but you still have to be careful. A good friend of hers was gay-bashed recently at a bar.
Apparently, the river dividing Pierre from Fort Pierre, also delineates the transition from Central to Mountain Time. The bars in Fort Pierre stay open an hour later and draw a rowdy crowd. Sarah said when the state legislature is in season, it brings sex workers to town. Militias drove into town when there was a small BLM demonstration in 2020. She painted a picture for me of an incidentally important small town, animated by a frontier masculinity that is never as charming or philosophical in real life as it seemed in Road House.
Sarah then introduced me to a controversy I hadn’t realized was swirling about this year’s Pride. A small, conservative lobbying group in Rapid City, South Dakota (almost 200 miles away) had posted a video to Facebook warning Pierre area residents the gays were marketing their agenda to children again. Drifters had received harassing emails and phone calls. The local YMCA, which had donated some Y swag for Bingo prizes, lost members and were accused of forcing children in their summer programs to attend Drag Story Hour. A counter-event, a “pray-in,” was organized by two local churches, but took place in a park two days prior to Pride.
Most concerning was the potential threat of violence hanging over the event. PACE hired security. Teams were posted at the two possible entrances to the venue. Josh Penrod, PACE co-president, feels the intimidation may have kept some people away this year. Josh works for the YMCA and was the one who asked them to donate. He told me he was stepping down from the board after this Pride.
He said the YMCA was very supportive despite the pushback. His manager talked with everyone who came in to see a manager about their discomfort. Some Y members even brought their kids to Pride to show support.
Josh was born and raised in Pierre. He says the intensified political climate surrounding anti-LGBTQ legislation, especially in the small capital city, has made it even harder to be Queer there. Prior to the legislative push, Pierre had more of a “live and let live” attitude.
South Dakota’s was the first state legislature to pass a Trans “bathroom ban” for K-12 public schools way back in February, 2016. This was a couple months before North Carolina passed a similar bill and caused a national controversy. South Dakota Republican governor, at the time, Dennis Daugaard, vetoed the bill in March 2016, claiming the bill “does not address any pressing issue concerning the school districts of South Dakota.” He actually had meetings with concerned parents and Trans youth opposing the bill prior to his decision.
It’s hard to remember a political reality where a Republican governor could veto a Republican bill he found unnecessarily controlling and punitive. It’s also difficult to recall the intensity of outrage expressed by corporations, celebrities, and college sports at the North Carolina “bathroom ban”. Remember how the NCAA boycotted the state until they repealed their bill?
Probably not. It’s nearly impossible to remember what was politically possible before Trump’s election later in 2016. Prior to then, there was very little legislation seeking to curtail Queer civil rights. Same-sex marriage had just been legalized the year before.
Since then, the volume and sophistication of anti-LGBTQ bills has compounded every year. Any less extreme Republicans who may have resisted implementing this unnecessarily aggressive anti-Queer campaign are increasingly being replaced by party hard-liners who are either true believers in eradicating “transgenderism” or are devoted to the political efficacy of an “anti-woke” strategy.
Dennis Daugaard was succeeded by Kristi Noem in 2019. She’s one of those updated Michele Bachmann Republican women so popular with conservatives. They all look like maniacal realtors.
Kristi has been more than willing to champion the whole slate of anti-LGBTQ legislation. She had a bit of a hiccup in 2021 when she tried to limit the scope of a Trans “sports ban” to elementary and high schools with a partial veto. She had been worried about the corporate fallout, particularly from the NCAA. She immediately issued executive orders effectively implementing the intent of the legislation. In 2022, she made up for her lackluster Transphobia by personally re-introducing anti-Trans legislation to the State House. A Trans “sports ban,” including at the collegiate level, passed and was signed into law, but her Trans “bathroom ban” died in the State Senate.
In 2023, South Dakota became the sixth state to pass a comprehensive gender affirming care ban for Trans minors. The law took effect July first. It hasn’t been challenged in court because South Dakota is in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals along with Arkansas, whose gender affirming care ban is still being litigated. The closest option for care is Minnesota.
I spoke to Jack Fonder, Community Health Advocate for the Transformation Project in Sioux Falls. His job is finding resources for Trans youth and their families seeking care now the ban has taken effect.
Jack is a Trans man. He came out in his mid-thirties. He helped start the Pride network at Citibank when he worked there before his transition. Through this work, he attended a conference where he saw a Trans man speak and was moved. He realized who he was.
The Transformation Project was founded by Susan Williams, South Dakota mother of two, one of whom is Transgender. When her child came out to her, she searched for resources and support and found little available in South Dakota. She also founded the Transformation Project Advocacy Network in 2020 in response to the increasing legislative attacks. Jack started there by volunteering and was eventually hired.
He told me South Dakota was a test state. Due to its sparse population (one of six states with less than a million people) and the relative remoteness of its capital, it made an attractive target for ambitious conservative groups. Trans advocates have to bus in protesters from Sioux Falls when anti-LGBTQ bills are being debated (a three-hour drive.)
He told me conditions have gotten worse because of the legislation. It brings up issues that most people wouldn’t have thought to get upset about. He said Sioux Falls is probably the best place for Queer community, but it’s still not great. He lives near there with his family in a neighborhood that isn’t very friendly. He’s chooses to be out because there was no representation for him growing up. And he stays because he’s passionate about fighting for Queer youth.
When I asked about Kristi Noem and her influence, Jack said, “no comment.” He informed me of an active law suit with the governor and he couldn’t say anything. I looked it up. Jack’s position at the Transformation Project was funded by a grant from the South Dakota Department of Health. It was terminated after a quarter for failing to meet quarterly filing requirements, but the organization was completely caught off guard and maintains they were in compliance.
A spokesman for Noem told a conservative media outlet that the Governor’s office had been reviewing all contracts with the DOH and Kristi Noem does not support the work of the Transformation Project and the contract shouldn’t have been approved in the first place. The Transformation Project has been the target of conservative ire since the incident was first publicized. The litigation is still pending.
The break in Pride between all-ages and adult time was nearly over and I had desperately wanted to interview the headlining Drag Queen, Dixie Divine. Even though she was from Rapid City, she helped organized Pierre Pride. With only a few free minutes remaining before showtime, she agreed to sit with me.
Dixie is a bearded Queen. She puts on shows in Rapid City as well as all over Nebraska and Wyoming. She’s lived other places, like Denver and Las Vegas, but returned to a smaller mid-Western town to fight for small-town Queers in conservative areas. That is why she moved there. She helps organizers in other small towns put on Prides. We both teared up when she was telling me her story.
She feels Drag is a vital resource for Queer liberation. She has mixed feelings about RuPaul, but credits Drag Race as a unifier. Middle-aged women have watched it and become allies. They show up to Prides to see the Queens. They may have developed empathy for the community through personal stories shared by favorite contestants on the show. Dixie organizes shows in small towns so the people who come to see her can meet the Queers who actually live in their community.
She understands why Queers move away to bigger cities, but it makes her sad and a little mad. “Who’s going to do the work? Who’s going to make that community?…I need and want people to fight.” Dixie doesn’t see herself as a leader. (I do.) It’s clear she’s passionate about her work. “We may not always leave with a full cup, but we generally leave with a pretty full cup. We get a lot of love.”
Dixie disappeared to get ready for the second half of the entertainment. I ran out to the van to go and pick up Katrina. I was supposed to take her out for dinner, but I got so busy interviewing everyone, she got hungry and hobbled over to a seafood restaurant on the river without me. Yes, I felt terrible.
I got Katrina and Wally back to the hotel with some fresh ice and apologies. She said I had to go back for the end of Pride so I went. The controversial Drag Bingo game was almost over by the time I got back. It was a strictly over 21 crowd. They even checked my ID.
It was obvious from the size of the crowd (doubled from daytime) and their cheers that the evening’s Drag Show was what everyone had been waiting for. There were five Queens in rotation and each was met with enthusiasm and dollar bills. At the end of the show, Dixie brought all the Pride organizers up on to make sure everyone knew who they were and how hard they worked. She told the audience, if they needed anything, they could contact anyone on stage. This was their community.
As I was leaving, I had a chance to speak briefly with the owner of Drifters who’d popped her head out of the kitchen to watch the show. I thanked her for her support and asked her about the controversy caused by the religious group in Rapid City. “The closer it got, the more resistance I got. The more I dug my heels in…These are my people. This is my heart. What I’ve gone through these past weeks compared to what this community goes through, it’s nothing. A well-rounded society is important to me.”
I made it back to the hotel just in time for four more episodes of Law & Order. I was sad Katrina had missed Pride, but I’m so grateful for my life and my partner who supports my corny obsession with small-town Prides, even when she’s stuck in a random hotel room with a sprained ankle and a spoiled dog.
Upon returning home, I attempted to interview representatives from several organizations. The founder of Watertown Love, an LGBTQ+ support organization in Watertown, SD was featured in an episode of my favorite make-me-cry-every-damn-time Queer show, We’re Here. We kept exchanging emails and having scheduling conflicts. The same thing happened with Uniting Resilience, a Native Two Spirit, LGBTQ+ organization in Rapid City. Both seemed like amazing communities with fascinating stories so I hope to catch up with them some day.
I was able to talk with April Carillo, a professor and academic researcher in Vermillion, South Dakota. They are also the Vice Chair of Equality South Dakota and on the board at the Transformation Project.
April identifies as non-binary and Queer. They moved to Vermillion to teach. They spent much of their adult life in the Bible Belt and feels like they’ve “leveled up in oppression” moving to South Dakota. They point to “so much nefarious shit with ‘mid-Western nice.’” I detected some East Coast inflection and cadence to their voice and confirmed a passive-aggressive communication style can feel sinister and destabilizing to the uninitiated.
From their viewpoint, the culture in South Dakota is restricted, culturally and economically. They say they’ve never seen this level of hopelessness in twenty-year-olds. “Even the normative kids feel beaten down…It’s like 1984 here.” I didn’t know if they meant Reagan or Orwell, but the sentiment seemed clear. They feel constrained in their teaching. They don’t use neutral pronouns on campus.
They travel to the capital when LGBTQ issues come up for debate and spend most of their free time working on the boards of advocacy organizations. They feel the anti-LGBTQ sentiment ramped up in South Dakota following the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationally in 2015.
That was the same year well-funded, national conservative political advocacy organizations began refining their anti-LGBT, legal and cultural strategy to operate as a fulcrum to move the bulk of their conservative agenda. They used focus groups to choose Trans and Gendernonconforming folks as targets, especially youth. Teams of lawyers wrote and deployed a slate of anti-Trans bills, curating willing legislators in every state. They started with South Dakota.
Working on this series, I’m beginning to discern a structure to this national conservative project. I’m sure I’m missing pieces, and I don’t think it’s a grand, cohesive conspiracy, but I think there are regional and national relationships. One common observation I’ve heard from nearly every organizer I’ve spoken to is the legislation and anti-Queer sentiment isn’t coming from the general, conservative population.
Numerous people have told me their communities used to have a “live and let live” attitude and no one was talking about Trans people competing in sports prior to 2016. That makes sense. Politicians create moral panics to scare voters into voting for the people promising to end them. It takes vast resources and multi-level logistics to promote a successful moral panic. It’s easy to point to national, conservative groups like Alliance Defending Freedom or Focus on the Family, but specialty groups are essential.
There’s social media forces like Libs of TikTok and Moms for Liberty. There’s growing, affiliated militias like the Proud Boys and Patriot Front who show up to Drag Story Hours like it’s the only threat to their masculinity. But the controversy surrounding Pierre Area Pride was manufactured by a type of group I don’t know much about.
The group is Family Heritage Alliance, a name obviously cobbled together from larger conservative groups and designed to signal potential allies. They are a tiny organization, headquartered in Rapid City. The executive director is Norman Woods, and as far as I can tell, he’s the only paid employee.
I know from trying to find small-town Prides, they often don’t show up in general Google searches. It takes time and intention to find them. The video Family Heritage Alliance put together has some production value and, again, took time to put together. As far as I know, no one from that group attended Pierre Pride. The intent of the video seemed to be to instigate protests locally, in Pierre.
I’d heard of an effort like this in Arkansas, when an organizer told me there were flyers recruiting TERFS in his home town back in 2017. I ran into a similar organization called Mass Resistance in Wyoming, trying to recruit book-banners to show up to library board meetings in Gillette. Are there networks of conservative, regional, satellite organizations, lightly funded by larger, national groups, whose sole purpose is to stir up shit at a local level?
I’m not an investigative reporter, but I emailed Norman Woods to see if he would talk to me. He agreed to speak with me off the record. I think that means I can’t really tell you what he said? I can tell you it was eerie. He was calm and friendly. He seemed genuinely curious. He seemed just as cautious of me as I was of him.
I can tell you I think we can outsmart these people. I just don’t know if we can achieve the level of funding and coordination necessary within a timeframe to match my sense of urgency. I did use the opportunity to ask Norman a question I’ve always wanted to ask a true believer. I asked, “if the conservatives won, if you took over government and all the mechanisms of control, what would that look like? What is your end goal? How do you maintain control and override dissent?”
Again, I can’t tell you what he said, but I don’t need to. I don’t think they know. Maybe Betsy Devos has a clear destiny, but I think your average Christian Nationalist is just trying to win the battle in front of them. They’re operating from a position of fear.
The other thing I can tell you, because I found it on the internet, is Norman’s wife used to work for Kristi Noem as a policy advisor until Noem vetoed the sports ban. Kristi has also called for Norman to be replaced as Director of the Family Heritage Alliance. Norman had sent a letter criticizing Kristi’s laziness regarding a “kid-friendly” drag show at a university to a local publication. In a formal letter to the FHA, she said, “I’d encourage the Family Heritage Alliance to evaluate the purpose of your organization. Is it to promote family values, or is it to attack the most conservative governor in the country?”
Conservatives bicker, too. Would it be the “low road” if we figured out how to use their insecurities and interpersonal conflicts against them? They’ve been doing it to us for decades.
If you’d like more information or are interested in resource sharing or solidarity work, here are some links to your Queer community in South Dakota:
Pierre Area Center for Equality: pierreareaequality.com
Transformation Project: https://www.transformationprojectsd.org/
Watertown Love: Watertownlove@yahoo.com
Uniting Resilience: https://www.unitingresilience.org/
Equality South Dakota: https://www.eqsd.org/
If you’d like to not share resources, but are curious:
Family Heritage Alliance: https://www.familyheritagealliance.org/
Next stop: Maryville, Tennessee.