The year 2009 was a whirlwind for the ACLU of South Dakota and one of our major projects is moving forward at exceptional speed. Last year, the ACLU of South Dakota began work with Equality South Dakota on the "Workplace Fairness Project," a grassroots approach to address anti-LGBT discrimination. The ultimate goal is to amend the South Dakota Human Rights Act to add sexual orientation and gender identity to already existing discrimination protections. It was a long year, a hard year with a few major victories, but a lot of setbacks, and sometimes you had to wonder: "Is this worth it?"
Then in December, a major fight began to brew in Rapid City, one of the largest school districts in South Dakota. Before the Rapid City school board was an anti-discrimination policy that included sexual orientation. At the first public reading, what has been described by one school board member as a "mob" appeared, arguing against the inclusion of sexual orientation. Their arguments were the same old tired arguments that we have heard before but this time the arguments became even more sinister.
During the meeting, a South Dakota state senator (and now gubernatorial candidate) threatened to introduce legislation to cut off the district's state funding if they passed the anti-discrimination policy. Another state representative stated that he would bring a bill this legislative session that would forbid anti-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation and gender identity. Extremist rhetoric was in full force as they made their arguments against protecting LGBT students and staff in one of the largest school districts in South Dakota. But the story doesn't end there.
The ACLU of South Dakota and Equality South Dakota rallied our supporters, asking them to contact their school board members with accurate information instead of the tired old rhetoric of those who oppose the rights of LGBT citizens. At the second reading of the anti-discrimination policy the room was packed, but this time with supporters of the policy.
Teachers, students, pastors and parents spoke in support of the anti-discrimination policy, using the information we had provided them and their own personal stories. Over 26 people spoke in support of the policy with only about nine opposing it. The school board voted four to three to support the anti-discrimination policy. Last night, during the final reading, the board again approved the policy, this time by a four to two vote. Not only was it a victory for the LGBT students and teachers in Rapid City, South Dakota, it was the birth of a movement, where South Dakotans stood up and said LGBT discrimination has to stop.
Things are changing in South Dakota for its LGBT citizens and we look forward to the day when no one is discriminated against in our state because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. With the victory at the end of 2009 the year ahead looks a lot brighter. In South Dakota we are getting busy and we are getting equal!