Ashley Gaddis is new to Sioux Falls. Now of course, in most South Dakota towns, transplants are new to town for a good decade or two. But Ashley and her family moved west to the Queen City of the East about a year ago, around the Fourth of July, from St. Paul.
Ashley was active in LGBT community issues in the Twin Cities. She said Twin Cities residents do joke about Sioux Falls and its rural remoteness. (From Grand Avenue, all of South Dakota looks like Harding County.) When she moved here, she wondered “Who are going to be my people? Where are my friends going to be?”
Brand-spanking new to town, Ashley and family went to the Sioux Falls Fourth of July parade. Up the street come marches from the Center for Equality, carrying the rainbow banner (whose multicolored stripes represent America even better than the red and white we so proudly wave). Here they are, Ashley thought, full of joy. These are my people. Boom—Sioux Falls was home.
Ashley’s moving experience shows us why it’s important that we include diversity in our communities, that send the message publicly that, though all are different, all are great, and all are welcome in our state. Ashley needed to see those rainbow standard bearers, marching in equality with their fellow South Dakotans, to know that she could be a South Dakotan, too.
And now, still new to town, Ashley speaks of her new home with eyes and voice as sparkling and eager (oh, and waving hands—you know I love that!) as any proud South Dakotan.
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Center for Equality president Thomas Christiansen noted in his remarks to Sioux Falls Democratic Forum yesterday that South Dakota has the seventh-highest percentage of residents who identify as LGBT (eighth, if we include nation-topping District of Columbia). According to Gallup, we are gayer than California and New York.
Christiansen said the Sioux Falls Pride Festival has seen “amazing… pheonomenal” growth, drawing around 8,000 to 10,000 people this year. He and other speakers from the Center for Equality said South Dakotans are doing a better job of welcoming and accepting LGBT neighbors; the Legislature, which Christians said “has been pretty cruel to the LGBT community and specifically to transgender constituents,” seems not to represent the general public attitude. However, the Legislature isn’t winning: they proposed four anti-LGBT bills this year, and with the help of the ACLU and other allies, all four bills were defeated.
Center for Equality board member Monica Serling-Swank, a Sioux Falls native and “proud South Dakotan,” said South Dakota’s LGBT residents need more allies. She and her wife were plaintiffs in Rosenbrahn v. Daugaard, South Dakota’s hard-fought marriage equality lawsuit. “I’m tired of hearing ‘same-sex marriage’,” said Serling-Swank. “The word is ‘marriage.’… when my wife dies, I have the same rights as you do… because we built our lives together… we made the same commitment.” She called on all of us to respect that commitment and fight for equality for everyone.
Reina Parker, a rainbow-mohawked mom*, struck a note of hope. Born and raised in Sioux Falls, Parker said that ten years ago, she did not feel safe here. She had a panic attack the first time her girlfriend tried to kiss here in public. But today, Parker feels safer. She still catches a few homophobic slurs, which she says seem to vary in direct proportion to bigots’ blood alcohol content. Yet she says she and many LGBT neighbors feel safe in their daily lives. Lots of local businesses and big corporations here support their LGBT employees, and many local businesses were willing to hoist the rainbow flag for Pride Week. “I have never felt more comfortable and more proud of being homegrown in Sioux Falls,” says our neighbor Reina.
The Center for Equality and our fair state still have work to do. But we’re getting more inclusive, and inclusivity is a key to South Dakota’s survival.
Correction 2016.07.01 22:11 CDT: Ashley straightens me out—I originally misidentified Reina Parker as an entirely different name. I regret the error.