Drag show featuring persons with Down syndrome to occur in Grand Rapids; locals 'horrified'

Drag Syndrome, a drag troupe featuring persons with Down Syndrome.
Drag Syndrome, a drag troupe featuring persons with Down Syndrome. | Screenshot: YouTube

Controversy has erupted in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after a congressional candidate prohibited a venue he owns from being used to host a drag show featuring performers with Down syndrome.

As part of the Project 1 exhibitions for the ArtPrize arts festival that takes place every year in the western Michigan city, the London-based "Drag Syndrome" — a troupe of drag performers who have Down syndrome — was slated to perform at Tanglefoot Building, owned by congressional candidate Peter Meijer, a Republican running for the seat currently held by Justin Amash. Earlier this year, Amash left the Republican party to become an Independent.

According to the Detroit Free Press Friday, Meijer explained that he barred the exhibition from his venue because the performers' "ability to act of their own volition is unclear” and that he did not know if they “are giving, or in a position to give, full and informed consent” to participate in a drag show.

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In a Thursday complaint to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union asserted that Meijer had unlawfully discriminated against people with disabilities, arguing that he had relied on harmful stereotypes about such persons. 

DisArt, the local arts group that booked the drag troupe and arranged for their participation in the arts festival, reportedly gave Meijer information about individual performers, saying they understood what they were doing. The ACLU is also demanding that Meijer pay for the costs associated with Drag Syndrome having to perform at another performance venue.

"He makes an assumption about people with disabilities, in this case Down Syndrome, that they lack the agency and capacity to understand what it means to perform drag and give informed consent to perform drag," said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU's LGBT Project.

The congressional candidate stood by his decision, telling the outlet that his concerns about the risks were shared by advocates for the disabled.

"I did what's right, and I’m not going to back down from that or apologize for it," he said.

Meijer is planning on challenging the ACLU's complaint.

The drag show has been rescheduled at another venue, the Wealthy Theatre, and a Saturday evening performance is now slated to occur and reportedly sold out.

Locals are calling upon the new venue to reconsider and scrap the event.

Lifelong Grand Rapids residents Ron and Nancy Krommendyk first heard about Drag Syndrome coming to town being discussed on a local radio show last month and were shocked, especially since they've always considered the ArtPrize festival as wholesome and family-oriented since its inception.

"I could hardly believe it, that this was going to be happening," Ron Krommendyk said in a Thursday phone interview with The Christian Post, "and that they were labeling it as 'art' or 'entertainment.'"

"It just seemed like such an abuse to me, to take people who are not able to fully understand what they're doing and to use them to have this type of 'art' displayed on stage," he said.

He is hoping the event will not go forward and that more will speak out against the exploitation of a vulnerable population.

"I was horrified," Nancy Krommendyk told CP, noting that she has had people with Down syndrome in her life for many years.

"They are all such innocent, beautiful, precious, loving, child-like people. And to see them put on stage to be shown in a sexualized manner when, while I know they may enjoy the attention they receive, in my heart I know they can't fully comprehend it because of their cognitive and intellectual limitations."

The Grand Rapids couple continued that they and others in the community are distressed about the message this sends about how to treat the developmentally disabled, particularly those with Down syndrome, and that this drag show normalizes such abuse.

Like Meijer, Nancy Krommendyk does not believe those with Down syndrome can give informed consent for something like this, mentioning again their child-like disposition.

"They can be so easily coached into saying that they understand what they're doing or that they know the ramifications because they're people-pleasers. This is a scenario ripe for manipulation," she said.

DisArt organizers told local news outlet WOOD-TV last month that the drag show is not about sexuality but raising the visibility of disabled artists; the performance is an invitation "for our community to move forward" and is about "ridding the culture of damaging stereotypes," they maintained.

Ron Krommendyk finds that framing deceptive because drag relies upon sexualized caricatures of women.

"And the disguising of it as an expression of 'art,'" he reiterated, "that was really underhanded."

"If their concern really was to have people with Down syndrome express themselves artistically, then why not have them do something truly creative? That could be done in so many other ways."

Nancy posed: "How about actual art being created by people with Down syndrome?"

A LifePetition was launched Wednesday calling upon the Wealthy Theatre to cancel the event, citing the risks of abuse and the "diminished capacity to consent" of the cognitively impaired drag performers. As of Friday afternoon, it had garnered over 4,000 signatures.

"Using one group of vulnerable people — especially, in a highly sexualized way — to advance the cause of another group of people can only, rightly, be called unjust and irresponsible," the petition reads.

"Also, one never knows how this message might be received by people who do not have the best interests of the Down syndrome community at heart, and who may see this as a green light to sexually exploit one of their members."

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