Dive Brief:

  • South Dakota’s regent board will devise a policy to “enhance the protection of minors” during campus events, following strong conservative backlash against a drag show at one of its universities.
  • The governing board, which controls the state’s six public four-year universities, voted unanimously at a December meeting to move forward with the policy, despite not having language drafted for it.
  • The Gender and Sexualities Alliance, an LGBTQ student organization at South Dakota State University that sponsored the drag show there, billed it as “kid-friendly” and appropriate for families to attend.

Dive Insight:

The new policy represents the latest in campus culture wars, which have also included fights after conservatives objected to critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework that describes racism as systematic.

A conservative movement has demonized drag shows performed in front of children. Republican policymakers have suggested drag artists are exposing children to sexually explicit routines and even gone so far as to accuse them of grooming young people. 

Drag supporters say the art form is not intrinsically sexual, that it only serves as a way to break gender norms and that no evidence exists showing children have been harmed at a drag show. 

Still, several state legislatures, including those in Tennessee and in Missouri, have recently introduced bills intended to curtail drag shows. 

Conservatives quickly registered their objections to the South Dakota State drag show. One Republican state representative, Jon Hansen, said on Twitter that he wrote to South Dakota State President Barry Dunn, telling him it was inappropriate for children to take part in the event. 

“Drag, as you likely know, is mostly cross-dressing men masquerading around as hyper-sexualized women, often times in scant lingerie,” Hansen said. “Drag is hyper-sexual by its very nature, and kids should not be invited to partake in this.”

So intense was the uproar that Dunn in November made a public statement clarifying the student group organized the event and did not dip into university funds to do so.

In December, the regents chimed in. The regent president, Pam Roberts, said in a statement then that the board asked university presidents to temporarily block minors from attending campus events sponsored by student organizations.  

“We respect the First Amendment, but none of us are happy about children being encouraged to participate in this event on a university campus,” Roberts said. 

Late last month, the board held an impromptu meeting to discuss the controversy. During that meeting, regents voted in favor of a new policy, directing their central office to craft one.

A board statement did not reference when regents will make a finalized version of the policy public. It said that in the interim, officials “will review all upcoming events involving the presence of minors on campus to confirm adequate protocol and safeguards are met.”

Another Republican state senator, Julie Frye-Mueller, told the regents at an earlier December meeting she intended to file a bill restricting drag shows in the state.