DETROIT, Mi. (PM) — The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a civil rights complaint against a Republican West Michigan candidate for Congress who is alleged to have discriminated against Down Syndrome drag performers.
Peter Meijer allegedly discriminated against the performers when he refused them admittance to the Grand Rapids Tanglefoot Building as a venue for their drag show performance during Project 1, according to the complaint filed Thursday with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
Over the past year, a small troupe of drag performers with Down syndrome has taken the stage in London, Stockholm, Oslo, and Montreal, adopting flashy alter egos and basking in the crowd’s applause. They call themselves Drag Syndrome.
The London-based troupe’s next stop was their United States debut: Project 1, an art exhibition in Grand Rapids, Mich. But after the event was advertised this summer, community members became concerned that the performers were being exploited.
That faction included Peter Meijer, an heir to a supermarket empire and a Republican congressional candidate who controls the venue where the group was to appear. Last month, Mr. Meijer declined to host the performers, questioning whether they could offer their “full and informed consent.”
On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights against Mr. Meijer, claiming that he was discriminating against the performers because of their disability and on the basis of sex, considering they would be performing in drag.
Meijer is one of at least five Republican candidates contending for the 3rd Congressional District seat of Rep. Justin Amash of Cascade Township, a former Republican who declared himself an independent in July.
Meijer told organizers in a self-written letter that allowing the performance could lead to “the potential exploitation of the vulnerable” and that the players’ “ability to act of their own volitions is unclear.”
“The differently-abled are among the most special souls in our community, and I believe they, like children and other vulnerable populations, should be protected,” he wrote in his letter.
The original production was set to take place on an artist-designed outdoor amphitheater at Meijer’s building called “Critical Infrastructure.” It was slated to highlight accessible elements such as special seating, sign language, captions, audio descriptions, and sensory kits, specifically constructed for the individuals with Down Syndrome.
The complaint filed on behalf of DisArt requests the Department of Civil Rights to determine Meijer discriminated based on the “disability of the performer and the nature of their performance due to stereotypes regarding gender expression.” The complaint solicits payment for the expense of obtaining a new venue.
Meijer stated he plans to challenge the ACLU’s complaint.
ArtPrize posted a statement to its website on Thursday saying in part:
“Alongside a great deal of positive response, the news of Drag Syndrome’s participation has recently motivated groups to coordinate a campaign of communications calling for their performance to be canceled. The ArtPrize organization has always supported free artistic expression by all participants and has not denied or screened individuals. Consistent with this, we believe it would be inappropriate to limit the participation of performers who have Down syndrome.”
Christopher Smit, another co-founder of DisArt, said Meijer’s move is part of a larger sociological issue.
“We have been very protective and very discriminatory against disabled people,” Smit said. “So I’m sorry to say but we weren’t that surprised by it. What we were surprised by though, was the way in which his attitude against sort of impinges on the rights of these six performers directly.”
In a press release, Smit said, “Exclusion is discrimination, it is self-preservation, it is exploitation for political gain. It is not protection.”
In a New York Times interview, one of the Drag Syndrome performers, whose stage name is Justin Bond, said that being on stage in character made him feel powerful. He said he loved the transformation, the makeup, and the wig, and that his dancing was a crowd favorite. “We deserve the right to be ourselves and be in drag,” said the performer, who is 20. “That’s what we do best.”
For Otto Baxter, a performer whose drag name is Horrora Shebang, drag performance is only a small part of his artistic career. Baxter, 32, is an actor who has been involved with several small-scale films and participated in a dance residency at the Royal Opera House that was organized by Culture Device, a dance organization that started Drag Syndrome.
“We’re going to continue doing it whether you like it or not,” Baxter said of the drag performances.
Dennis McGuire, a Down syndrome behavioral expert who helped establish the Adult Down Syndrome Center in Illinois, said in an interview that while he appreciated the concern for these performers, adults with Down syndrome are typically mature enough to make their own decisions.