Gender Identity Summit closed to media, public

Row over health care training event sparked controversy, contract cancellation, harassment

By: - January 11, 2023 3:06 pm
(Illustration by Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

(Illustration by Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

The third annual Gender Identity Summit in Sioux Falls will be closed to the media and the public, organizers said Wednesday.

The summit is set to begin Friday morning. The agenda includes sessions on understanding gender identity, implicit bias, gender affirming care and creating a gender inclusive practice.

Paul Heinert of Sanford Health said Wednesday that the training event is only open to paid, registered guests.

“Sanford Health is dedicated to providing exceptional health care for all, including transgender and gender expansive individuals,” Heinert wrote in an email to South Dakota Searchlight. “This optional, educational opportunity with a strong focus on mental health will help providers better care for the unique needs of these patients, increasing inclusivity in the health care setting and improving health outcomes.”

The summit factored into a recent controversy sparked by an inquiry from a conservative media outlet to Gov. Kristi Noem last month. 

Summit co-sponsors The Transformation Project had been awarded a federally funded contract for a community health worker in 2022, but Noem spokesman Ian Fury told the outlet that Noem was unaware of the contract award. Her office canceled that contract and ordered a review of other state contracts – a move that drew the promise of a civil rights lawsuit from former U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, who said his firm Robins Kaplan will carry the case at no cost to The Transformation Project.

Transgender employee at center of contract controversy pledges to fight on

In a statement released after the contract cancellation, Executive Director Susan Williams said the group had been barraged with “non-stop harassing phone calls – including, sadly, death threats to our staff.”

On Wednesday, Williams told South Dakota Searchlight that the first two summits drew no backlash from the community. The issues that have emerged this year, she wrote, are a direct response to the article published last month about it in the conservative media outlet. 

The group continues to get “hate mail each day and harassment on the phone,” she said, and the death threat was reported to the Sioux Falls Police Department.

“The Summit has been the topic of chatter nationwide in specific news sectors and on sites like and, and for those reasons, appropriate security measures were taken for the day of the Summit,” Williams wrote in an email. “We are extremely disappointed by the events that have occurred in the last few weeks, but we are really looking forward to the event, and we know it will be incredibly meaningful to all who attend.”

The community health worker hired under the now-canceled grant, Jack Fonder, remains on staff. In the absence of the federal grant funding, the group has built a fundraising page to cover the cost of his position.

The group will see further financial support this month from Sno Jam Comedy Festival, a three-day event that draws comics from across the country to Sioux Falls and donates proceeds to charity. In August, festival organizers chose The Transformation Project and the Compass Center in Sioux Falls as the 2023 beneficiaries.




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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.