GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As dozens of people headed in to a drag show featuring performers with disabilities, protesters lined up outside to object to possible exploitation.
The Drag Syndrome show, whose performers have Down syndrome or other disabilities, was held at Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids Saturday for the first day of Project 1 by ArtPrize.
The protests were peaceful but polarizing, with organizers of the event confronting the group huddled outside the theater holding signs that read “Stop Exploiting.” Critics raise concerns about whether the performers with Down syndrome are being exploited.
“Do they really have full reason and understanding of what they’re participating in?” protester Doug Murphy wondered.
Another opponent, Tom Root, takes this controversy personally as he has a son with Down syndrome.
“That’s why am here so I can enlighten other people as to my experiences with my son,” Root said.
“How can you make an educated decision if you’ve never met them?” an event organizer asked the protesters.
Before the curtain rose, Drag Syndrome artist Justin Bond told News 8 “it feels great to show them my talent and what I’m good at.”
“They’re very independent. … They do what they want to do,” The Lady Dior, a local drag artist, said.
By intermission, the crowd was buzzing about the one-of-kind show that had them on their feet.
Saturday’s show was sold out. Another one will be held Sunday.
Drag Syndrome was originally going to be held at Tanglefoot on the city’s southwest side, but building owner and Republican congressional candidate Peter Meijer said he would not let the show go on at his venue, also citing concerns about potential exploitation. He wrote in a letter to ArtPrize that “vulnerable populations” like those with disabilities “should be protected.”
“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,” Meijer’s letter reads in part. “I cannot know, and neither can an audience, whether the individuals performer for Drag Syndrome are giving, or are in a position to give, they’re full and informed consent.”
DisArt, the Grand Rapids organization facilitating the show, partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan to file a civil rights complaint with the state against Meijer. The complaint argues Meijer knows the performers have the ability to make an informed decision but chose to ignore that.