Our Neighbors to the West: Tenacious and Resilient

by Ho Nguyen, Program Officer

Working for an LGBTQ foundation based in Minneapolis, MN, with a regional reach spanning the upper Midwest (IA, MN, ND, SD, and WI), Jessica and I recognized that there was only so much we could learn from here. In order to discern the political, social, and overall landscape of each state, we had to hit the road. We wanted to meet with fellow LGBTQ community members that are entrenched in building networks and communities, as well as combating homophobia, transphobia, violence, discrimination, and isolation in our five state region. Our inaugural road-trip began in North Dakota and South Dakota due to the hostile political climate and lack of non-discrimination laws and policies.

One car, two states, four cities, and 1500 miles later, this is what we learned:

Fargo, Bismarck, and Grand Forks, North Dakota, August 2015 – We made our way to Fargo, Bismarck, and Grand Forks meeting with activists, organizers, trainers, teachers, politicians, groups and organizations. Aside from the universities, the LGBTQ groups and organizations in ND are all volunteer lead and run and there is only one organization that has a physical space. We learned that the LGBTQ organizations are being asked to be all things to all people from providing LGBTQ cultural competency materials, to creating support groups, to effecting policy change.

The hostile political climate, transphobia and homophobia in rural and urban North Dakota keeps LGBTQ people isolated from each other. With no legal protections, LGBTQ people face employment and housing discrimination. The isolation and oppressive conditions have made organizing difficult; therefore community members stated wanting access to leadership and organizational development skills.

Sioux Falls, South Dakota, September 2015 – Local leaders described the political and cultural landscape of the state as divided into three areas including East, West and indigenous communities. This division is attributed to locations of industry and the Missouri River. Hearing this, Jessica and I decided to focus our time in one area, Sioux Falls, to dig deep into LGBTQ communities considered a part of the East side of the state.

Sitting down with some of Sioux Fall’s LGBTQ residents they shared that their media coverage is conservative and therefore South Dakota is often portrayed as doing worse than other states. They also recognized that this is specific to white LGB communities and doesn’t take into account Native and indigenous communities or communities of color.

Much of the organizing efforts and policy work has shifted focus from LGB to centering Trans* communities. Organizations in Sioux Falls are collaborative and have developed clear visions and plans for their work. What we heard was a desire for operating support over skill building needs, although that is needed too.

Final thoughts – Our report is not meant to paint a sad picture of our neighbors, instead it is to illustrate the realities of LGBTQ communities and varying challenges people face in our region. It is also to show that the philanthropic field, as rich and robust as it may be in Minnesota and throughout the United States, we know that for every 100 dollars in philanthropic giving, only 24 cents goes o LGBTQ communities. We can do better.