Under brilliant blue skies and a sea of rainbow balloons, thousands of people turned out to celebrate Pride in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, last weekend. As temperatures climbed into the high 90s, attendees sweltered in their sequined outfits, and sweat mixed with body paint. Still, the mood was both joyous and defiant in this state where, as in others across the country, LGBTQ people have been coming under attack.
“Just seeing everybody coming down, just showing their spirit, it made me almost cry,” attendee Peyton Yates told local station KELO. “I love that Sioux Falls is showing how much pride they have. It gives me hope for the world.”
This was just the third-ever Pride parade to be held in the streets of Sioux Falls — indeed, in all of South Dakota. And yet, things also felt different this year — more urgent, more uncertain. This rural city of fewer than 200,000 people may seem like an unlikely place to encapsulate this unusual Pride Month, but the political and cultural crosswinds have been pushing through it, as they have across the US.
“We’re all very aware of what’s happening around the country,” Sioux Falls Pride Marketing Director Rachel Polan told BuzzFeed News.
To celebrate Pride in America in 2022 is to be on edge and alarmed. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, they have increased security, and marshals are taking active shooting training. In Atlanta, young activists canceled an in-person rally for trans rights after receiving a “credible death threat.” And in Seattle, extra police and security officers will be on hand to patrol this weekend’s celebration after a man was arrested and charged with a hate crime for threatening the first-ever Pride event scheduled in Anacortes, 90 minutes to the north. Authorities had been looking for the man since early June, when he was accused of threatening a neighbor and her wife by yelling, “It used to be legal to kill gay people!”
South Dakota is no different. Two of the 31 suspected white nationalists arrested for allegedly planning to disrupt an Idaho Pride event the previous weekend were from Sioux Falls. News of that incident caused the Sioux Falls planners to increase security for their own event. “I was a little nervous,” Pride President Matt Neufeld told BuzzFeed News. “Immediately, the board came together and we were texting back and forth and coming up with a plan.”
Extra police and trained volunteers kept watch for any troublemakers, while authorities combed social media ahead of the big day for chatter by potential disruptors. The Pride festival — complete with stalls, performances, and a drag queen story hour event for children — had also been moved from a city park to a parking lot, where hired security could restrict entry if need be.
But the threats go beyond acts of violence. Amid a series of new laws targeting the LGBTQ community in South Dakota, Sioux Falls Pride recently registered as a 501(c)(4) organization with the IRS, which will allow them to spend the rest of the year engaging in political lobbying to fight back.
Given the political climate, Neufeld said this year’s parade was an act of visibility, not just celebration.
“With all of the legislation going on in South Dakota and around the country … [it was important to bring] more awareness towards our community and our members that are feeling more attacked and under the microscope,” Neufeld said. “[Pride] is more important now than ever.”
Neufeld is not alone in sensing that things may be backsliding. After a decade of remarkable advancements in civil rights for the LGBTQ community that saw the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the legalization of same-sex marriage, and an important rise in the cultural prominence and public acceptance of transgender and nonbinary Americans, it feels to many in 2022 that the march of progress has suddenly been halted. Some 70% of LGBTQ people feel discrimination has increased in the last two years, according to a survey by media watchdog GLAAD that was released Wednesday.
"I would honestly be lying if I said I weren't afraid that it could all be, it could all go away," Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case on same-sex marriage, told BuzzFeed News following the court's striking down of Roe v. Wade on Friday.
He and others warned that, based on comments in Justice Clarence Thomas's abortion opinion, LGBTQ rights could be next. "It's time for people to stop being complacent. It's time for people to stop saying, well, that will never happen," Obergefell said. "Here we are. It has happened."
It’s not just a feeling. South Dakota is one of 13 states that have passed a total of 24 anti-LGBTQ pieces of legislation this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The LGBTQ advocacy group has counted more than 325 harmful bills pending in statehouses across the country — a record high that has activists busy and alarmed.
“Pride was born from protest,” said Cathryn Oakley, HRC state legislative director and senior counsel, “and I am certainly feeling this year that Pride is less joyful than it has been, at least for me, in the past, and that it is calling for protest; it is calling for folks to stand up and organize, and for our community to be mobilized — not just LGBTQ folks, but our allies, too.”
Oakley said she sees a “dissonance” between the lawmakers introducing the bills and the general public, who overwhelmingly support the LGBTQ community. What’s changed, Oakley said, are their opponents’ tactics.
“In the last several years, our community has absolutely been under attack, and we've been under attack from the same forces who have been attacking LGBTQ equality for decades and decades,” Oakley said. “The opponents' names are the same. Their tactics are actually sort of reverting back to some of the vintage tactics that they used back in the day.”
Following a strategy that has successfully centered schools and classrooms in fights over the pandemic and critical race theory, opponents of the LGBTQ community have also made children central to their latest moral panic. South Dakota, Alabama, and Georgia have all followed Florida’s lead in legislating so-called Don’t Say Gay laws, which restrict references to LGBTQ people in classrooms. Elsewhere, a national Catholic political group is urging parents nationwide to check out any books featured in library Pride Month displays and not return them unless such displays are taken down.
Oakley says these opponents are also working overtime to leverage public ignorance or apprehension over emerging issues — such as transgender athletes competing in women’s sports or medical treatment for trans children — to wage a broader fight.
“They're not truly interested in what medical best practice is surrounding trans youth. They're here because they do not believe that LGBTQ people should be allowed to be LGBTQ,” Oakley said. “I don't think it counts as a culture war when some people are just trying to live their lives on one side and other people are trying to prevent them from doing that.”
Central to this fearmongering has been a concerted, widespread effort by right-wing figures, most notably the press secretary of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, to link gay people to “grooming.” What began as a loose term for any age-inappropriate discussion with children about LGBTQ culture has more recently been used by trolls and bad faith actors to imply, or just outright contend, that gay people are seeking to molest children — a despicable and tired trope that has been dubbed “vintage homophobia.”
“I don’t even understand how they think that’s possible,” said Neufeld, the Sioux Falls Pride president. “Do they really believe that? Or is that just the language that they’re trying to use to scare people? Yeah, the groomer thing — that does shock me.”
Most recently, this has been extended to events featuring drag queen performances for children, whether at story-reading events at local libraries or brunches at restaurants. The explosion of attention on such events — NBC News found that mentions of drag queen story hour on Twitter increased 777% in the last month — has been promulgated by highly influential far-right social media stars like Chaya Raichik, the Brooklyn real estate agent behind @LibsOfTikTok, who will often highlight events she deems inappropriate to her more than 1.3 million followers on Twitter, and Christopher Rufo, a far-right activist who has turned his attention from CRT to gay people.
“Conservatives should start using the phrase ‘trans stripper’ in lieu of ‘drag queen,’” Rufo tweeted last week to his 380,000 followers. “It has a more lurid set of connotations and shifts the debate to sexualization.”
Ari Drennen, LGBTQ program director for Media Matters for America, told the Grid online news outlet that she feared this rhetoric swirling among the conspiracy-saturated right would soon turn violent, comparing it to the QAnon collective delusion. “If they’re going to give the location of Pride events while saying falsely, ‘Hey, this is where the pedophilia is happening,’ that’s basically exactly what happened with Pizzagate,” she said.
Before the group of white nationalists arrived at the Pride event in Idaho earlier this month, the function was highlighted by local conservative media and @LibsOfTikTok, among others. @LibsOfTikTok also drew attention to a drag queen story hour event at a library in Alameda, California, less than two weeks before a group of Proud Boys members turned up and began yelling anti-gay slurs. One of the men wore a T-shirt with an image of an AR-15 and the phrase "Kill your local pedophile." The incident is now being investigated as a hate crime.
Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO of GLAAD, has said that much as the link between lies about the 2020 election led to the assault on the Capitol, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric on the political right is manifesting a “dangerous climate.” GLAAD’s survey found that more than half of all transgender people feel unsafe walking in their own neighborhoods, and not without cause: In 2021, the HRC identified at least 57 transgender or gender-nonconforming people who were killed — a record high.
“There are folks out there who are primed to answer what they see as social questions with violence,” Oakley with the HRC said. “And to feed those folks the kind of rhetoric that politicians fed them this year is giving them a license to behave in exactly the way they want to, which is with violence, with anger, with disrespect. And that's the last thing that our country needs right now.
“It’s a really scary thing for LGBTQ folks, particularly who want to be able to gather and be together during Pride,” Oakley said.
This social and political regression for the LGBTQ community is not without precedent, according to Eric Cervini, a historian of LGBTQ politics who was a Pulitzer finalist for his book The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America. Cervini noted that 1970s conservative campaigner Anita Bryant rose to prominence by riding outrage in response to a Miami-Dade antidiscrimination ordinance.
Gay people being used as political scapegoats and distractions are nothing new, Cervini said, but he believes that much of the current pushback is coming from an older generation who feels threatened by younger people’s more accepting views.
“History itself is cyclical. Even progress itself is always three steps forward, two steps back,” Cervini said. “It’s going to happen. Whenever you see progress, folks are going to be disturbed by it.”
Cervini, 30, said he can’t recall a Pride Month in his lifetime that feels so urgent.
“Having studied previous Pride Months before I was even born, there are definitely echoes in a lot of the rhetoric and a lot of the scary stuff that we’re seeing,” he said. “But from my own personal experience, this is a very dark time to be celebrating.”
And still, the celebrations will go on. Tens of thousands will enjoy this year’s final weekend of Pride in New York City — the place where the LGBTQ rights movement was born. Organizers say private security will be on hand, in addition to local police, to keep people safe. Even in liberal New York City, the community is in danger. Last week, a man was jailed for five years for stabbing a trans woman he had called a “tranny” in Brooklyn, not far from where a man set fire to a queer nightclub in April.
NYC Pride spokesperson Dan Dimant said that this year’s parade felt like an “inflection point” where, after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, people were desperate to celebrate but still had no misapprehensions about the urgency of this moment. “It’s kind of the perfect storm,” he said.
But Dimant noted that since the very first Pride parade in 1970, the event had served as both a party and a protest, and this year was no different.
“This isn’t really new territory for us. I think that the political climate certainly isn’t consistent year after year. The headwinds sort of come and go, so to speak, but we find ourselves in a very challenging environment.” Dimant said. “We’ve been in this place before, and we feel that we’re prepared to deal with any threats that may come their way.”
Obergefell also vowed to spend the last weekend of Pride Month celebrating — and defending his civil rights — at his hometown parade in Sandusky, Ohio. "The people at Stonewall, they rioted, they threw bricks, because they were tired of being targeted," Obergefell said. "They said, 'We are here. We don't deserve this.'
"Well, it's our time to stand up and be loud and say, 'We are here. We don't deserve this,'" he added. "What we do deserve is to be treated equally, the same way as anyone else, and to enjoy the same rights. We deserve to part of 'We the people.'"●