A group of U.K.-based drag performers with Down syndrome have been barred from performing at an event space in Grand Rapids, Michigan on September 7. The group, Drag Syndrome, was scheduled to perform at the Tanglefoot building owned by Peter Meijer, a Republican congressional candidate running to unseat Rep. Justin Amash in Michigan.
Meijer canceled the event, citing “ethical concerns.” In a letter to Jori Bennett, the executive director of ArtPrize, which included the performance as part of its Project 1 initiative, Meijer said:
This is not a decision I have arrived at lightly. As the true nature of Drag Syndrome’s performance became clear, I consulted with various relevant communities to ensure my decision was made as free of personal bias as possible. I spoke with parents of the differently abled, people who had family members with Down’s syndrome, and members of the LGBTQ and artist community. In nearly every conversation, concepts were raised about the potential exploitation of the vulnerable.
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. Artistic expression is inherently political, and in making this decision I approached the issue from a content neutral basis. Setting aside the content, the involvement of individuals whose ability to act of their own volition is unclear raises serious ethical concerns that I cannot reconcile. I cannot know, and neither can an audience, whether the individuals performing for Drag Syndrome are giving, or are in a position to give, their full and informed consent. To that end, I cannot allow Drag Syndrome to perform at Tanglefoot.
A key complaint by Meijer is whether members of the Drag Syndrome troupe were able to give consent. However, a representative for Drag Syndrome told The Mighty that Meijer never spoke to the group.
Meijer never reached out to the artists and assumed the wrong things. Exclusion is discrimination, it is self-preservation, it is exploitation for political gain. It is not protection. The artists are internationally acclaimed with many years of stage and film experience, some have agents and managers. To declare they have no choice or that they are being exploited is a nasty act to deny their human rights and take away their dignity.
ArtPrize responded to criticism of the group, stating it supports “free artistic expression” of all participants.
“Consistent with this, we believe it would be inappropriate to limit the participation of performers who have Down syndrome,” the statement read.
This isn’t the first controversy the group has faced. In a recent video for the BBC, the group said its received hate mail over its work. Those criticizing their work remark it’s exploitative to have individuals with Down syndrome participate in the drag scene — a claim the performers continue to deny.
“I’ve always wanted to become a famous drag king,” Justin Bond, one of the performers, said in a video statement regarding the Michigan event, adding:
I don’t want people in America to think that [the creative director] is abusing us. He’s trying to make us become more famous as we all are. And I think it’s great what he’s doing. He’s doing a wonderful job supporting us and building us up to become famous drag kings and queens.
DisArt, the disability art group that invited and funded Drag Syndrome’s performance, also issued a statement, stating they would find a new venue for the performance.
The group also cited the discriminatory nature of Meijer’s remarks.
It didn’t matter that these Artists have long-standing, successful, internationally acclaimed careers. It didn’t matter that after founding Drag Syndrome, one of the original members was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth II. It didn’t matter that another performer has won a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. It didn’t matter that the artists are also accomplished actors and filmmakers, painters, dancers, singers and most important of all, human beings. None of that mattered in the decision to exclude their performance.
All that mattered was their disability.
A new location has yet to be announced.
This story has been updated to include a response from Drag Syndrome. The Mighty reached out to Peter Meijer, ACLU of Michigan, DisArts and ArtPrize, and has yet to hear back.