A brief timeline of events in LGBTQ+ history across South Dakota
1990s: Free Americans Creating Equal Status (FACES) Era
1995: The South Dakota State House passed a bill to ban recognition of same-sex marriage. Barry Wick, a Rapid City native, calls gay activists from around the state who travel to Pierre and were able to kill the bill in Senate committee. Later, Barry Wick of Rapid City, Lawrence Novotny of Brookings, Larry Schut of Sioux Falls and others created the statewide organization Free Americans Creating Equal Status (FACES) of South Dakota.
1996: South Dakota Legislature passed a bill banning recognition of same-sex marriage.
Free Americans Creating Equal Status (FACES) opens an office, community center and library in Rapid City.
1997: FACES conducted a tour across South Dakota hosting public forums. The Sioux Empire Gay and Lesbian Coalition and Free Americans Creating Equal Status (FACES) of South Dakota opened a community center in Sioux Falls in the late 90s which closed after a year due to lack of funding. Tom Heald of Rapid City started an online e-mail service monitoring state and national media for LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit stories and letters to editors and distributing the information.
2000: FACES closed due to internal board struggles and embezzlement.
First statewide LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit organization and presence of lobbying the legislature.
The Amendment C Fight
2000 (est): The South Dakota State Legislature passed a law banning recognition of same-sex marriages performed outside the state. This sparked an uptick of local activism by the Center for Equality in Sioux Falls and Rapid City.
2005: The first gay lobby day is held at South Dakota State Capitol building.
2005: South Dakota Legislature places on 2006 ballot Constitutional Amendment C that recognizes only marriage between man and woman. Activists were unable to kill the bill. Democratic Senator Ben Nesselhuf of Yankton and Republican Senator Stan Adelstein of Rapid City fought the bill. Later Lawrence Novotny of Brookings, Kathy Knobloch of Sioux Falls and David Fischer of Aberdeen create South Dakotans Against Discrimination (SDAD), a ballot question committee to fight Amendment C.
2006: Vermillion native Jon Hoadley is hired as campaign manager. (Hoadley is now a state senator in Michigan.)
2006: SDAD engages in fund-raising, public education at events and fairs. Amendment C also passed by a 4% margin making South Dakota’s “Good Neighbors Don’t Discriminate” campaign the most successful fight to date against a marriage amendment in the Nation.
Milestone: First time successfully pulling together groups from around the state to advocate for LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit issues.
Lesson learned: Support from allies across the state is an integral piece of successful advocacy efforts.
Equality South Dakota’s Founding
2007: Kathy Knobloch obtained a grant from the Gill Foundation to host an organizing meeting in Chamberlain in May (Friday night to Sunday afternoon). This event brought in a consultant to facilitate a group of about 50 attendees interested in LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit advocacy. Equality South Dakota was later chartered as a 501(c)4, 501(c)3 and PAC.
2008: Equality SD PAC becomes actively involved in 2008 and 2010 primary and general legislative races by endorsing candidates. Greg Kniffen runs as the first out gay person to run in the state.
2009: This was a big year for Equality South Dakota.
Equality South Dakota Institute obtained a grant to hire staff to work on the Fairness Project where the organization worked with businesses and governmental entities to add sexual orientation and gender identity to their nondiscrimination policies.
Equality South Dakota held its first legislative summit and legislative reception.
Karen Mudd became first board chair and transitioned to the Equality South Dakota executive director. The organization later capitalized on legislative advocacy by recruiting a lobbyist. Karen would hold this position for one year.
2010: Angie Buhl O'Donnell was elected to the State Senate (D15) as the first openly bisexual person in South Dakota and first person elected to public office in the state within the LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit community.
2011 (est): Equality South Dakota introduced a bill to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the State Human Relations Act which failed in committee.
Equality South Dakota founded and more LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit South Dakotans become politically active. First openly bisexual person elected to office with Angie Buhl O’Donnell as District 15’s State Senator.
Lessons learned: At times it is difficult to advance politically due to the extreme conservative political make-up of the legislature and local government.
Revitalization of Equality South Dakota after being inactive between 2012-2013
2014: This year was met with a renewed vigor for the fight to secure equality in South Dakota. Equality South Dakota was able to secure a grant to host community building events across the state to support the fight for marriage equality featuring plaintiffs in the state’s case. Media relations and an increased capacity for public relations lead to a surge in engagement at Pride events across the state. This year, Equality South Dakota PAC proudly endorsed three major races in the election:
Rick Weiland, U.S. Senate
Corinna Robinson, U.S. House
Susan Wismer, South Dakota State Governor
2014 also brought in a slew of religious exemptions bills (Senate Bill 128 and House Bill 1521) by the state legislature. Senate Bill 128 sparked activism by residents in Rapid City, the home of Sen. Phil Jensen, who was later confronted at a Cracker Barrel by high school students. A locally planned rally followed leading to the eventual end of the bills.
2015: This was a big year for Equality South Dakota. In 2015 we saw increased funding for programs from PFund and worked to elect legislators from around the state. We were also able to successfully stop three anti-LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit policies. Later on in 2015, we were able to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage with the ACLU of South Dakota and the Center for Equality. We also co-hosted a successful Lobby Day in Pierre and helped coordinate the Dakota’s Equality Summit.
2016: Big legislative fight over HB 1008, bathroom bill, which was passed by Legislature and vetoed by Governor after meeting with transgender individuals. SD receives national recognition over our victory.
Equality South Dakota PAC endorses 25 candidates in 2016. Most lose and legislature becomes more conservative.
2017: Equality South Dakota partners with the ACLU of South Dakota, the Human Rights Campaign, Center for Equality, Black Hills Center for Equality and Transaction South Dakota on a united legislative front. Equality South Dakota hires Zach Nistler as legislative organizer to help defeat bad policies. These collective efforts lead to the defeat of bathroom bills but Senate Bill 149 passed, which now allows child placement agencies to discriminate based upon their religious beliefs.
2018: Equality South Dakota partners with Equality Federation as part of a matching fundraising
grant to build capacity for Equality South Dakota and to hire a staff assistant. This position, held by Jeremiah Johnson, led to an increased capacity for fundraising and advocacy.
2019-2020: Equality South Dakota played a supportive role in the defeat of several anti-LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit bills proposed by the state legislature.