The Pierre Area Center for Equality had a packed house for their Autumn Pride drag show on Nov. 20, but the event was more than just a bit of fun, entertainment and celebration — it was a chance to offer a safe space to be among friends.
PACE board secretary and volunteer Bree Oatman said the event raised needed funds for the Youth Acceptance Klub, known as YAK, but the money was just an added benefit to promoting pride among the LGBTQ community.
“It was primarily to have a pride event in Pierre because we weren’t able to do one last year because of COVID, and we postponed one this summer also,” she said. “So mainly, this was an opportunity to be able to provide a place for people to celebrate and have a good time.”
Oatman said the Autumn Pride at the Missouri Avenue Event Center had an all-ages show first and later a 21 and older show. She was pleased with how many people showed up.
“It was good,” Oatman said. “It was a good turnout. We had quite a few youth come, which was great, and they had a blast.”
The 21 and older show drew a large crowd as well, with around 50 people filling the event center’s main room.
Sitting near the main stage, Dena Baker and her husband, Corey, said they were excited to hear there was a drag show in Pierre. The two recently marked their first year living in Pierre together.
“The show has been excellent,” Baker said during the intermission between the all-ages and 21 and older shows. “We had a really good time from the first part of the show with a lot of the young adults here participating. Actually, they got up on stage and dancing and having a great time.”
Baker, born and raised in Fort Pierre, recently returned after living in the Northeast and Minnesota.
“Coming back from living 40 miles from New York, it’s awesome to see this happening in our little town of Pierre, South Dakota,” she said.
Oatman said an event like the Autumn Pride drag show is important because it provides a safe space for expression and socializing within their community.
“The whole point of people doing drag is really to just be able to express themselves in terms of who they are and to basically just celebrate their lives as being queer,” she said. “Any of these events, basically, just help normalize the fact that LGBTQ people are our neighbors, people that we go to church with, people we work with, they pay taxes, they work, they raise kids. They do all the things that everybody else does.”
The drag show, similar to a one-person live theater performance, also contributed to creating a much-needed safe space for Pierre-area youths to relax and socialize with their peers.
Money raised from the show went to funding YAK, and Oatman said the program is critical for Pierre and the surrounding area.
“There’s a lot of homophobia and transphobia in South Dakota, and the Pierre Area Center for Equality is the only organization in town that is working to promote equity for people,” she said.
Oatman said promoting equality goes beyond just the LGBTQ community but also other groups through advocacy, connecting people with their elected officials, assisting parents with communication or providing safe spaces.
“That’s all really important just even as a life-saving measure in our community,” Oatman said. “Because if you look at suicide rates and incidents of self-harm and depression, those occur in much higher frequency among LGBTQ people because of the discrimination that they experience and the violence that they experience. Because of fear and hate.”
She said her hope was the fear was due to ignorance and the unknown, which PACE could confront through relationship building.
During Oahe Days in June, she recalled an incident involving three boys at the group’s booth where they were making bracelets and had small hand-held pride flags.
“They’d just walk by and say, ‘That’s pretty gay,’” she said. “And we’d say, ‘Yep, it is,’ and they’d just wander off.”
But Oatman said they repeatedly did it for several hours, culminating with the boys shredding one of the small flags and dropping it in front of the adult volunteers and stomping on it.
“And that was pretty traumatic for the people at the event,” she said. “By that point, the teens that were helping us at the event weren’t there, luckily.”
Oatman said an upset volunteer wanted to throw the shredded flag away initially, but instead, the group mended it to use as an educational tool.
“That for me, especially because my daughter knew who those kids were, that event and the things my daughter talks about on a regular basis made me want to create a space for teens to be able to come where they didn’t have to worry about homophobia and transphobia. And they could just hang out and be teens and laugh and just do all the things that teens want to do without having to feel like they have to hide who they are.”
PACE president Joshua Penrod said events and safe spaces are important for people within the LGBTQ community.
“It’s very common when talking with other people that they feel really insignificant to other people within the community,” he said. “They feel like there’s not a lot of people for them to be around with and that the lack of support and events really affects their viewpoint on the community. So having a drag show like we did was really uplifting for them, but it’s also a safe space for them to go out and be themselves and have a fun time.”
Penrod, 30, was born and raised in Pierre and said it wasn’t easy growing up in the area without resources like YAK and PACE or events like Autumn Pride.
“Pierre never had a pride until we had our first one about four or five years ago,” he said. “And growing up in the community, it was really hard because there wasn’t people advocating for LGBTQ+ people or even students. We were pretty much on our own.”
Penrod recalled other kids bullying him growing up for being “effeminate.” And living openly wasn’t something he felt comfortable with at that time.
“Hell no,” Penrod said. “I was scared. I didn’t realize how bad it affected me until later after I turned 25. I didn’t realize how bad I was bullied and how bad it affected me until I was looking at a yearbook with an old classmate and best friend of mine, and I saw my bullies’ faces in the yearbook. And I was like, ‘Oh. Oh no. I was really bullied.’”
Oatman said providing teens with a safe space to socialize without being bullied is YAK’s goal. But the effort takes resources.
The club currently uses space provided by the First Congregational United Church of Christ, but Oatman said the group is working to get non-profit status and hopes to get a dedicated building to call home.
Until then, she said the group is raising funds and takes donations from furniture, snacks and drinks to books for the kids to read. Oatman said someone even donated a mini-fridge for the club.
She said people interested in contributing to the club could contact PACE through Facebook or First Congregational UCC.
“They’re just normal teens,” she said. “They just want to be themselves and be happy about who they are and have space to do that.”