South Dakota State University hosted a “kid-friendly” drag show, on state property and in a taxpayer-funded building, that may be illegal under the state’s “harmful to minors” legislation, yet the state’s Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has not taken any steps to rectify the situation.
Noem has failed to hold accountable the school’s governing body, the South Dakota Board of Regents, whose members Noem has the power to fire. Noem also has not called on the state’s attorney general to enforce South Dakota’s “harmful to minors” laws. Furthermore, it is a governor’s job to make policy suggestions for state lawmakers, yet she has failed to push for bills that would ensure children are protected from similar events in the future.
At the Nov. 16 event, which was orchestrated by the Gender & Sexualities Alliance student group, student organizers encouraged attendees, which presumably included children, to “Show [their] support for the drag queens by bringing $1 or $5 bills to tip.” After backlash from locals, the student organizers, university president, and local ABC-affiliate newspaper jumped to defend the lewd performance.
In a piece subtly defending the event, Dakota News Now reporter John Gaskins wrote that the event featured “age-appropriate attire, music, and behavior.” His source? One of the drag queens.
A South Dakota State University student, who attended the “kid-friendly” drag performance and wishes to remain anonymous, told The Federalist the show was anything but child appropriate. “[The drag queens] were twerking and then also shaking their chests at people,” the student said.
Devin Basart, one of the drag queen performers who goes by the stage name “Devondra Shakers,” claimed in the local paper that he and the other performers are “educating children to love who you are.” However, The Federalist’s student source said “there wasn’t anything educational at all about the drag show.”
University President Barry Dunn deflected criticisms over the event by pointing out that the performance was sponsored by the Gender & Sexualities Alliance student group, not the university, and that students have a right to host any kind of event they chose.
While it’s true student groups can host a drag show, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have a right to host a drag show for minors. According to Steve Haugaard, a current South Dakota legislator and former speaker of the state House of Representatives, there’s a case to be made that the “kid-friendly” drag show is illegal.
Under South Dakota law, a “show or other presentation which depicts nudity [or] sexual conduct” are deemed “harmful to minors,” and it is illegal to “sell or give to a minor an admission ticket” for such a performance. Drag shows are arguably, by their nature, prurient, meaning excessively sexual and deviant, and the South Dakota legislature considers prurient material and displays “harmful to minors.”
The Federalist reached out to Dunn to ask whether he believes the university should be hosting sexually inappropriate performances for minors on university property but did not hear back.
There’s already some precedent for labeling drag shows prurient and therefore inappropriate for children. Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson introduced legislation that would place drag shows in the same category as topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, and strippers and would prohibit drag performers from hosting shows on public property that are either child-accessible or aimed directly at kids. Similar legislation has been drafted, introduced, or passed in Florida, Texas, Arizona, Michigan, Idaho, and Montana. While GOP leaders in other states are taking steps to protect children, very few are doing so in South Dakota.
Turning Her Back on South Dakota Children
South Dakota State University exists on a state land grant and a significant portion of its operating budget — 27 percent — comes from the state. The school is governed by the South Dakota Board of Regents, whose members are appointed by the state’s governor. Noem has the power to remove members of the South Dakota Board of Regents and could have threatened their dismissal for doing nothing to stop the drag performance for children at the school.
Noem could also hold the state attorney general accountable for not enforcing South Dakota’s minor protection laws. In the past, Noem has called on the attorney general to do his job for different reasons, so why she is unwilling to do so in this instance is unclear. As governor, it’s Noem’s responsibility to make policy recommendations for state lawmakers, so she could push state representatives and senators to introduce legislation similar to that in other states.
Given Noem’s unique power to effect change in this case, The Federalist emailed her office and, citing the aforementioned state law, asked whether she planned to shield children from future lewd performances, particularly when they utilize public resources.
Noem’s office did not say whether the governor had any plan to protect children from other drag events by pressuring state lawmakers to enact new legislation, holding her board of regents accountable, or calling on the attorney general to enforce the “harmful to minors” laws already in place.
Instead, the governor’s Communications Director Ian Fury simply responded that “If” the drag event “violated” the law, “[the law] should be enforced, and violators should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” Then Fury referred The Federalist to the South Dakota attorney general’s office and the Brookings County state attorney, adding that these were the “appropriate place[s] to follow up.”
The Federalist asked Fury whether Noem’s office was at least probing into the legality of the “kid-friendly” drag show and if Noem was addressing other state-funded, minor-inappropriate events in the state since this particular show was not the first child-targeted drag event to use South Dakota taxpayer resources. Earlier this year, the state’s Vermillion Public Library hosted a “Drag Queen Storytime” for children “to celebrate Vermillion Pride.”
In his reply, Fury made no mention of a plan to rectify the past events or protect children from similar performances in the future. Again, Fury referred The Federalist to the attorney general’s office.
Republican State Rep. Chris Karr is one of very few state elected officials who has done anything to address the “kid-friendly” drag show. “As a legislator, I have a responsibility to protect our students and families whenever possible,” Karr wrote in a letter to Dunn before the event. “As the Chair of Appropriations, I have a responsibility to monitor the utilization of State resources and ensure the best use of taxpayer dollars. This event raises questions regarding these priorities and responsibilities. This clearly sounds like an event for adults.”
Karr told The Federalist he is working with another state representative to address the drag show and other similar events.“I’m an appropriations guy, so I’m not typically the guy out fighting based on policy statutes,” Karr said, “but this situation I just felt was way over the top.”
According to Karr, the real question we need to ask when contextualizing the event is, “Why do [they] want to have kids there? If [they] want to have an adult drag show, have an adult drag show. What’s the reasoning for having kids present?”
Unfortunately, it appears Karr is one of few leaders asking these pertinent questions or attempting to protect kids from gender-confusing and inappropriate events. As of now, Noem and state legislators have yet to step up to the plate and protect the safety and innocence of South Dakota children.