Nelson becomes first out LGBTQ+ man to be elected to SD legislature

32-year-old hopes to help deliver more inclusive laws
32-year-old hopes to help deliver more inclusive laws
Published: Nov. 9, 2022 at 9:42 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - A Sioux Falls man made South Dakota history Tuesday night by becoming the first out LGBTQ+ man ever elected to either chamber or the state legislature.

Kameron Nelson — who said almost everyone he encountered on the campaign trail was welcoming of him being openly gay — will represent District 10 in central Sioux Falls after receiving the second-most votes in a new district that sends two members to the House of Representatives.

Former state senator Angie Buhl came out as bisexual while in office, but not before being elected. Multiple non-heterosexual candidates have run for office in South Dakota, but Nelson is the first to win.

The Director of Major Gifts for Lifescape — a service that provides resources for children and adults people with disabilities — Nelson said he is “humbled” by the breakthrough, and by the whirlwind of attention from local media and national outlets like Out magazine and Advocate magazine.

”Well, I never felt like the gay candidate,” Nelson said. “I was the candidate for District 10, so all of my conversations were about what the voters needed.”

In particular, young voters, like Nelson himself. The 32-year-old grew up in Rapid City, graduated from South Dakota State University, spent much of his 20′s in Minneapolis, and moved back to Sioux Falls a few years ago for his current job and to be closer to family.

One of only eight Democrats to secure one of the 70 seats in his chamber, Nelson said that regardless of anyone’s political ideology, most people want to make sure they can support their family, that they’ll have good neighbors, and that they’ll feel safe in their homes.

“I know exactly what young people want to see in a place they want to build their lives,” Nelson said. ”It’s important to keep young people in South Dakota because they are our future. When we involve them in the process, when we give them the ability to be part of shaping what our community looks like, they’re more invested and they want to stay here. They want to spend time here. They want their kids to grow up here, and so we only exist when our young people stick around and make South Dakota their homes.”

Cody Ingle, a 31-year-old Indiana transplant, is one of those people, and ran with those same principles in mind as an openly gay candidate for both House District 6 in 2020 and the Sioux Falls City Council this past spring.

Ingle, who like Nelson did not hide his sexual orientation — nor made it the basis of his campaign — lost both elections, and said it was “really hard” to determine how much being openly gay hurt his cause.

But the Sioux Falls Pride secretary and treasurer is ecstatic about Nelson’s victory and hope it opens doors for more out LGBTQ+ candidates.

”It’s a win for South Dakota because we’re going to have a very smart and capable an intelligent legislator,” Ingle said, “and it’s a win for the LGBTQ-plus community because now we have somebody who we can see ourselves in, who is a representation of who we are in Pierre with lawmakers, creating those laws that can affect change. And I think that brings more hope for individuals to run these races, to see somebody who has won and to continue to fight and continue to want to be in local politics.”

Another effect of Nelson being the first face and voice for South Dakota’s LGBTQ+ community in Pierre, Ingle said, is visibility for “people who are uncomfortable around LGBTQ+ people that don’t really want to make an effort to change that.” This may even include some legislators, and Nelson said he is ready to go to the table with representatives that have in the past brought “a lot of bills that not only don’t prop us up, but actually work against us.”

Described by Ingle as personable, Nelson said that he has never felt that being a gay has been an obstacle for him, and that he was able to be his authentic self on the campaign trail, going door-to-door starting in July.

“However, that comes with a lot of personal privilege,” Nelson said. “I’m a cis gender white man who’s 6-foot-5. I can get away with ‘passing,’ as they call it. There’s a lot of folks in the LGBTQ-plus community that have a more difficult time than myself, so my experience is not the norm. There’s a lot of people who have been villainized for a very long time, and that’s got to stop.”

While Nelson said he is driven by many issues — including the income gap of residents in his district — he no doubt considers it a priority to introduce bills to make South Dakota more inclusive of lesbians, gays, transgenders, queers, and other non-heterosexual groups who feel ostracized in the state, mainly because of years of proposed and occasionally passed bills that he feels targets the the LGBTQ+ community.

The most recent is Gov. Kristi Noem’s “Fairness in Women’s Sports” law, which prevents transgender girls from playing girls sports at the high school level. As recently as Tuesday’s victory speech after she had seized re-election, Noem has touted that it protects females in South Dakota by allowing “only girls to play girls sports.” The ACLU of South Dakota called the law “shameful.”

Shortly after Noem signed the bill into law, Dakota News Now took a deeper look into why the LGBTQ+ community called it hurtful, and why South Dakota leads the nation in depression among LGBTQ+ people.

“The rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide in the LGBTQ-plus people, especially trans individuals in the U.S. — let alone South Dakota — are disproportionately high,” Ingle said. “Having bills that specifically target them creates a sense of isolation, potential loneliness, a fear of not coming out as trans. It restricts people from being able to live authentically.”

”When there’s an active legislation making you feel like you are an ‘other than,’ making it so you cannot live your life openly and honest, this a huge cause for concern for many people,” Nelson said. “They’re just going to look at different environments or towns, cities, communities to build their lives.”

Nelson said such legislation, and a culture of exclusion, drives away some of the best and brightest minds in the state away while discouraging other talented professionals from out-of-state to move to South Dakota. This includes both LGBTQ+ people, and those who feel it is important to live in an inclusive city and state. That hurts South Dakota’s reputation, economy, and quality of life, Nelson said.

So, he plans to propose legislation that will allow same-sex couples to adopt children, and another bill that will protect all LGBTQ+ people in the all workplaces in the state.

“There’s a lot that goes into it, so we need to make sure that everyone is protected and we’re no longer on the defense,” Nelson said.

And in a state that has been an epicenter on discussions about freedom and liberty over the last two years, he feels that concepts like adoption rights for same sex couples and employment protection are unifying ones, not divisive — that far more people can relate to him and his community than one might think.

”Most South Dakotans want to be able to live their lives as they see fit,” Nelson said. When you have the ability to love who you love and feel free and open in your own home, that’s really powerful.”