Galvanized by a proposed state law to protect business owners who refuse to serve members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, about 200 people rallied for equal rights Monday night in Rapid City.
Standing beneath the U.S. and South Dakota flags at Main Street Square, people waved rainbow flags and homemade signs like "Love is love" and "It's about hearts, not parts."
"The main reason we're here is to fight against discrimination," said Joseph Geyer, a member of Gay-Straight Alliance at Black Hills State University. "We're tired here in South Dakota of being backwards and discriminatory."
Geyer, 24, grew up in Rapid City and came out during his junior year in high school.
"Nobody ever told me that I was wrong for it, but you grow up knowing it's something you shouldn't do," said Geyer, now a junior at BHSU.
"I struggled and fought against it for a long time, and I was finally able to tell myself who I was," he added.
Others cited SB 128 as they reason they came to the rally. Sponsored by Sen. Phil Jensen, R-Rapid City, the bill would legally protect business owners who refuse to serve gays and lesbians.
"There's already a right to refuse service," said Rena Patrick, a 25-year-old Rapid City resident. "And I don't think there should be a right to blatantly refuse service on the basis of sexuality."
The bill is scheduled for a hearing today before the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to the State Legislature website.
Two other Senate bills regarding sexual orientation, both sponsored by Sen. Ernie Otten, R-Tea, have died in this session.
One, which would have protected religious officials and organizations from legal action for refusing to perform or host a marriage, was killed in committee. Otten withdrew the other bill, which would have allowed businesses to refuse to provide wedding-related services.
David Patton, board president of the Black Hills Center for Equality, announced at the rally that a town hall meeting on equal rights in South Dakota will be held at 6:30 p.m. on March 13 at the Moose Lodge at 841 E. St. Patrick St. in Rapid City.
"The time has come for us to move forward for full equality," Patton told the crowd.
That hope resonated with 46-year-old Myrna Garhart, who was a military police officer in the U.S. Army. She said she's been getting a lot of looks since she put a "gay veteran" bumper sticker on her vehicle.
"I didn't let anybody know I was gay until I went into the service," said Garhart, who served in Germany. "And of course, that was a mistake ... back when I was in, it was not cool."
Garhart, a Black Hawk resident who works for the U.S. Postal Service and Wal-Mart, said she would like to someday get married in South Dakota.
But in 2006, South Dakota voters narrowly approved making gay marriage unconstitutional.
"Basically, we're in the closet here," Garhart said.