Just days after hosting its annual on-campus drag show, South Dakota State University’s LGBTQ+ student group was targeted with a bomb threat.
On Nov. 25, SDSU’s Gender and Sexualities Alliance was contacted by the University Police Department to notify them that an email threatening retaliation following its Nov. 16 drag show was sent to a local news affiliate. Although the university declined to offer more information when contacted by The Daily Beast, citing an ongoing investigation, a bulletin on the Brookings college’s website said the email indicated that “an explosive device or devices were placed on the campus of South Dakota State University.”
“The email also threatened harm to potential survivors of the detonation,” the crime alert stated. “At the time of this warning, no devices have been located. The department will continue investigating the threat and pursing [sic] all leads.”
While the bulletin does not specifically name the GSA, four members of the campus group say that their faculty advisors were notified that their organization was the intended target of the bomb scare. They also claim that the university has yet to publicly acknowledge that the GSA was threatened and it took two weeks before UPD contacted LGBTQ+ students to discuss the incident directly with them. (A representative claims the college’s administration is “working with the appropriate law enforcement agencies and individuals involved.”)
“I didn’t find out from UPD,” Lindsay Tull, a member of the GSA, told The Daily Beast. “I found out from the Discord that we have for our board members. I was freaking out because I didn’t know how serious it was and if we were in danger. I was afraid for my friends and if something was going to happen to them.”
This wasn’t the first time that the GSA had been harassed because of its drag show, which drew widespread scrutiny from right-wing activist groups due to a description on the SDSU website billing the event as “kid-friendly.” The website for the Concerned Women of America proclaimed that the show was an “outright assault on our children,” while the Family Heritage Alliance explicitly called upon its followers to contact SDSU administration and urge them to pull the plug on the event.
“We can no longer afford to be silent,” read a post on FHA’s website. “It’s up to parents to protect their children and stop events like this. If parents band together and cause enough backlash, the hosts of these events may be forced to cancel them, as we’ve seen in other states.”
Republican lawmakers also took note, urging SDSU President Barry Dunn and the South Dakota Board of Regents to take action. State Rep. Chris Karr (R-Sioux Falls), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, wrote a letter to Dunn and Board of Regents Executive Director Brian Maher asking them “not to allow children to attend this event.” On Twitter, state Rep. Scott Odenbach (R-Spearfish) further called the drag show “unbelievable and unacceptable” and state Rep. John Hansen (D-Dell Rapids) added that “use of taxpayer funds or resources for this event is not appropriate.”
Dunn clarified in a public statement that the drag show was not sponsored by the university—meaning that no tax dollars were spent—but the damage had already been done. Even before the bomb scare, performers began receiving direct death threats on social media in the days leading up to the event. Campus police were called to provide extra security during the show, with an officer stationed at every door to check bags and to surveil the crowd for possible attacks.
“At the end of the night, we wanted out. We wanted to go home. Everyone’s nerves were a little rattled, and we’d put it behind us. But at the same time, it’s still there. It’s still in your head.”
— Joe McCulley
Joe McCulley, whose stage persona is Martina Shakers, has been performing in drag shows at South Dakota colleges for years and says this is the first time that he’s ever experienced pushback.
“At the end of the night, we wanted out,” McCulley told The Daily Beast. “We wanted to go home. Everyone’s nerves were a little rattled, and we’d put it behind us. But at the same time, it’s still there. It’s still in your head. It was sad because several of us had entertained there before. We always remembered these great times at this great university, but then it had a little sour note to it.”
The controversy was further inflamed when Libs of TikTok, a far-right social media account that often urges its followers to harass members of the LGBTQ+ community, reposted a video on Nov. 18 questioning whether the drag show was as “family friendly” as organizers claimed. In the past, Libs of TikTok’s posts have resulted in threats of violence against Pride festivals and Drag Queen Story Hour events, as well as children’s hospitals that provide gender-affirming medical care to transgender minors.
GSA members claim that the video that was posted on Libs of TikTok’s Twitter page doesn’t accurately reflect this year’s event. “What they did was they spliced together some content from this year with last year’s drag show, which was not advertised in any way as ‘family friendly,’” said Al Chute, a member of the campus LGBTQ+ group. “They tried to pass it off as it being part of the same show.”
The Daily Beast confirmed with McCulley that the footage posted on Libs of TikTok misrepresents this year’s lineup. The 37-second clip features two performers, one of whom is wearing a bodysuit made of straps over multiple layers of tights, creating a nude illusion. That performer was not part of the 2022 event, McCulley said.
According to organizers, the event took extra precautions to ensure the proceedings would be suitable for all ages, in light of the intense criticism the GSA had been receiving. Tips were collected in buckets to limit any physical contact between audience members and the drag queens performing on stage, and inappropriate language was bleeped from the songs played during the show. McCulley, for his part, performed a medley of Shania Twain hits: “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” “Honey, I’m Home,” and “Man, I Feel Like a Woman!”
“We had made sure that we were going to try and keep contact to an absolute minimum,” McCulley said. “I had even told the students beforehand: If someone is approaching you and you do not want them to get any closer, just hold your hands up in front of your body like an X and we will literally stop there. Not once did we have that happen.”
The GSA’s advisors were notified of the bomb scare exactly a week after the Libs of TikTok post went live, and LGBTQ+ advocates believe the fallout could set a dangerous precedent. During a Dec. 15 meeting of the Board of Regents, South Dakota state Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller (R-Rapid City) vowed to introduce a bill in the 2023 session cracking down on drag shows—mirroring legislation being pushed in states like Idaho and Tennessee. (Frye-Mueller has not made specifics of her plan public and did not immediately return a request for comment.)
Libby Skarin, policy director for the ACLU of South Dakota, worries about the potential for future threats if a bill seeking to ban public drag shows is introduced next year, especially in the wake of the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs. Just three days after the threats against the SDSU drag show, a gunman opened fire on a Colorado gay bar, killing five people and injuring at least 19 more.
“I don’t want to inspire panic, but the reaction that we’ve seen here in South Dakota and other places puts so much heat on these students who are just trying to have fun.”
— Libby Skarin
“Typically what has happened in South Dakota is we’ve started the bad ideas and exported them,” Skarin told The Daily Beast. “To me, this seems like a bad idea that has been imported into South Dakota from other places, and it is incredibly scary to watch that take hold here. It makes me concerned for any student group or drag show. I don’t want to inspire panic, but the reaction that we’ve seen here in South Dakota and other places puts so much heat on these students who are just trying to have fun.”
Ultimately, members of the GSA at SDSU feel the drag show was successful and remain optimistic about the event’s future. Around 300 people attended the evening’s festivities, by far the largest turnout for a drag event in the school’s history. So many students and local community members bought tickets, GSA members say, that organizers had to bring in extra chairs to make sure everyone had a place to sit.
But for some LGBTQ+ students, the contention surrounding the drag show was a reminder that they don’t always feel safe on their own campus. While Brookings is the first and only municipality in South Dakota with a citywide ordinance in place banning anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in areas like housing and public accommodations, many GSA members say that they aren’t out in all of their classes, fearing negative reactions from fellow students. They plan to increase security at future GSA events, in case of additional threats.
“It’s scary to be here,” Tull told The Daily Beast. “I don’t like people knowing that I’m queer, but I’ve challenged myself to dress more visibly queer because for the longest time, I’ve been afraid of people being able to tell that. It’s been a challenge for me, but I’ve had a good community on campus with GSA. That’s why I think it’s really important to have this, because you can bring people together in a really scary place.”