DisArt directors/founders Christopher Smit (left) and Jill Vyn. Photo by Brian Esler, courtesy of DisArt.

Performers from a London-based avant-garde drag troupe, Drag Syndrome, and their partner organization, DisArt, are rallying in the face of setbacks to their scheduled performance at this year’s ArtPrize, set to open on Friday, September 6. Drag Syndrome has a specialized focus on drag kings and queens with learning disabilities, including Down syndrome, and was originally slated to perform as part of Project [1] programming at a downtown venue, the Tanglefoot, which is privately owned by Peter Meijer — the grandson of Meijer Inc.’s founder and Republican Congressional candidate currently running against US Rep. Justin Amash.

In a letter to ArtPrize dated August 19, Meijer rescinded permission for DisArt performers to participate in the larger Disability Drag Show, scheduled to be performed at his venue on ArtPrize opening weekend. He asserted that he “cannot know, and neither can the audience, whether the individuals performing for Drag Syndrome are giving, or are in a position to give, their full and informed consent” for their drag performance. DisArt went public with the letter, citing it as the very type of discrimination based on disability that their work seeks to unravel. On August 22, ArtPrize released a public statement regarding the situation:

This group was invited and funded by DisArt, an arts organization based in Grand Rapids that advocates for disabled contemporary artists, to be a part of the community event schedule taking place during Project 1 to recognize artists with disabilities. Over the years, DisArt’s contributions to ArtPrize have included work by acclaimed artists both within Grand Rapids and internationally.

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.

The following day, Meijer publicly pushed back against, defending his stance in barring performers from his property based on their disability:

The notion that I am discriminating against the disabled is profoundly offensive- DisArt is exploiting individuals with Down syndrome to further an activist message, plain and simple. I have spoken with dozens of West Michiganders, from disability advocates to parents of children with Down syndrome, and they share my profound disappointment that these promoters are trying to gin up controversy at the expense of the vulnerable.

If this was a political decision, I would have gone public immediately. I didn’t. I handled this privately because I care about doing what’s right. But DisArt leaked my letter to ArtPrize so they could sell more tickets, and here we are.

Meijer has not responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment. He was not alone in his opposition to the troupe. The blog Activist Mommy also promoted the notion that developmentally disabled performers are not capable of giving informed consent for their participation in the show.

Undeterred, DisArt has successfully secured a new venue for the Drag Syndrome performance, and announced on Friday, August 30, that the drag show will now be held at 7 pm, September 7 at the Weathy Theatre in Grand Rapids. Free tickets to that performance have already sold out completely, prompting the possibility of adding a second show on Sunday, according to a statement made by organizers in a press conference live from UICA in Grand Rapids on September 3. DisArt Co-Founders and Co-Directors Christopher Smit and Jill Vyn addressed various aspects of the controversy and revealed plans for programming to address it throughout the 2019 run of ArtPrize.

“The owner of Tanglefoot property chose to bar three artists from performing in the Disability Drag Show by DisArt that was set to be performed there on September 7th,” said Smit. “He made this decision because the artists have Downs Syndrome. He made this decision with no direct knowledge of their abilities, he never consulted with the artists themselves, the creative director, or anyone with direct experience of these artists.” DisArt also emphasized their decision to support the artists who will continue to perform as scheduled at the Tanglefoot.

“We do not believe that boycotting or protesting artists is a productive way to act against the discrimination of artists,” said Smit, “Instead DisArt will continue with its performance and installation of voices on September 28th and 29th at the Tanglewood site.”

“We have been working to push a conversation in the contemporary art world about access,” said Smit. Vyn then took the mic to outline DisArt’s plans for the banned performers and additional programming in the coming weeks of ArtPrize.

“We must acknowledge and keep a space open for the rich and difficult conversation our community is having around issues of disability, identity, sexuality, exploitation, and discrimination,” said Vyn. “ … Which is why we are proud to announce three additional panel discussions to invite our community into a deeper conversation and understanding of these issues.”

These panels will be held at Little Space Studio located at 111 Division Ave S, Grand Rapids, and the first, Disability Drag and the LGBTQ Community, includes members of Drag Syndrome, Beauty Beyond Drag Productions, Grand Rapids Drag community members, and LGBTQ community leaders, and will take place on September 6, 4 – 5:30pm, preceding Drag Syndrome’s relocated performance. DisArt also partnered with the ACLU last week, and made the announcement Tuesday they’ll work on a discrimination complaint to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights against Peter Meijer, with plans to file the complaint on Thursday, September 5.

Update 9/3/19 5:41pm: An original version of this article incorrectly stated Peter Meijer’s relationship to Meijer Inc. We regret the error. 

Update 9/6/19 12:00pm: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights against Meijer yesterday, September 5. The ACLU claims the congressional hopeful was discriminating against the performers on the basis of disability and sex. A 20-year-old Drag Syndrome member who performs under the name Justin Bond, told the New York Times, “We deserve the right to be ourselves and be in drag. That’s what we do best.”

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...

3 replies on “Drag Show for Performers with Down Syndrome Cancelled by Congressional Candidate”

  1. The word ‘retarded’ is absolutely considered offensive and you don’t know what the abilities of this particular group is. No one seems to be concerned about exploitation with the groups 15 other themes over 10 years. So, your exploitation argument has no basis.

  2. What is the “sexual agenda” of a drag show? And by the way the term “mentally retarded” went out a long time ago. You can google what the correct term is.

  3. No informed consent is required to participate in Special Olympics. Is the exaggerated application of womens clothing to men with Down Syndrome the real issue? What kind of show did Meijer think they were going to put on? He could have done his homework and discovered it’s not that big a deal?

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