Down syndrome drag show ouster prompts civil rights complaint

Project 1 by ArtPrize

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Grand Rapids group says it plans to file a formal complaint with the state against Peter Meijer for excluding a drag show featuring people with Down syndrome from the building he owns.

DisArt announced Tuesday that the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is helping it file the formal complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

Drag Syndrome was scheduled to perform at Tanglefoot as part of the Sept. 7 kickoff for Project 1 by ArtPrize. But Meijer, who owns the building, sent a letter to ArtPrize last month saying he would not allow it, citing concerns about the “potential exploitation of the vulnerable.”

peter meijer letter on drag syndrome
Peter Meijer’s letter to ArtPrize regarding the Drag Syndrome show that was scheduled to be held at Tanglefoot, which he owns. (Courtesy DisArt)

“Mr. Meijer singled out these groups of performers because of their diagnosis of Down’s syndrome and assumed they lacked the capacity to understand about performing drag and the ability to consent,” Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Michigan who specializes in LGBTQ issues, told News 8 Tuesday.

The civil rights complaint states that Meijer knew the performers have the ability to make an informed decision and consent but chose to ignore that.

Meijer said he became aware of the show just before canceling it. A Republican candidate for Congress, he denied that politics played any part in his decision.

But the ACLU says Meijer can’t just pick and choose which people he will allow.

“It is indeed his building, but he’s opened it up to the public,” Kaplan said. “(Meijer) seems to have a problem with the idea of performing drag or that people with Down’s syndrome should not be performing drag and that raises issues about gender stereotyping.”

DisArt organizers say the harm is in the message that people with Down syndrome can’t perform in this event.

“We want to make sure that any person with a disability that has the expressed interest and desire to perform artistically, that they have the right to do so,” DisArt administrator Chris Smit said.

Organizers said the point of Drag Syndrome is to spark conversation and even controversy. On that front, it has been an undeniable success.

“Success would have been to just have the show and just have a wonderful sort of vibrant act of artistic expression for all of us to be a part of and unfortunately that didn’t happen,” Smit said.

But Meijer’s decision has sparked an examination of the self- and artistic determination of people with disabilities.

“This has given us all a moment to sort of take a deep breath, think about how we treat people, think about how we define things like Down’s syndrome and think about how we as a community can live together better,” Smit said.

The show will feature three performers with Down syndrome from the United Kingdom alongside three local performers who have other disabilities, like Jerimiah Wolver, who has borderline personality disorder.

“I know a lot of us very flamboyant and very over the top, but it is art, that’s how we express ourselves, so I don’t see anything wrong with that,” Wolver said.

Fellow performer Ben Kleyn has autism.

“I just chose to listen to the artists and they get really excited about what they do and they are obviously doing it because they want to, so that’s good enough for me,” Kleyn said.

Drag Syndrome announced last week that it would perform at the Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids on Sept. 7. The show will be be streamed live online with captions. The first show sold out, so organizers are planning a second one starting at 6 p.m. Sunday. You can register online for the free event.

DisArt said it will also hold three community conversations regarding the rights of people with disabilities at Little Space Studio at 111 S. Division Ave.:

  • Disability Drag and the LGBTQ Community | Sept. 6, 4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
  • Disability Agency and Sexuality | Sept. 13, 4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
  • Disability Arts and Civil Rights | Sept. 20, 4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

Since 2016, DisArt has been working with ArtPrize and Project 1 artist Paul Amenta and architect Ted Lott to build the handicapped-accessible venue at Tanglefoot, a 135-year-old former flypaper factory.

One group, Curiosity Theater, pulled its show from Tanglefoot over the incident, but DisArt said it will still support artists and artwork there and other Project 1 venues.

“We do not believe that boycotting or otherwise protesting artists is a productive way to act against the discrimination of artists,” Smit said. “We offer our full support — our full support — to the artists that are allowed to perform at the site.”

Tanglefoot will host a multimedia project by DisArt and its collaborators on Sept. 28 and Sept. 29 as part of Project 1.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Know something newsworthy? Report It!

24 Hour News 8 Links