GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A drag show involving people with Down syndrome is looking for a new home after the plug was pulled by Peter Meijer, congressional candidate and owner of the venue where the event was supposed to take place.
However, the organizers released a letter from Meijer pulling his support.
“You’re using vulnerable people to promote a charged cultural issue and I don’t care what that issue is, something I agree with or disagree with, it just reeks of exploitation,” Meijer told 24 Hour News 8 Friday.
Also on Friday, the organizers of the event held a community forum to talk about the performance and about the challenges they face at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
The event is organized locally by DisArt. They say they have been speaking with Tanglefoot for nearly a year.
“Peter has been working and in conversation with Ted Lott and Paul Amenta since the beginning and know DisArt was going to do a production there,” said Jill Vyn of DisArt.
They say Meijer’s decision fails to consider that people with Down syndrome can and have the right to express themselves artistically. They believe his attitude infantilizes them.
“It is, of course, understandable, and people have the right to be concerned. But when that concern turns into censorship, that’s when organizations like us really need to pay attention very closely,” said Chris Smit, who works with Vyn at DisArt.
They say the stage built in the art studio was built specifically with the disabled in mind.
Now, they have to start all over in finding a new venue with two weeks to go before the show.
At the Friday forum, the organizers spoke about the event along with the Drag Syndrome participants via Skype from England.
“It’s helped me meet more people, make good friendships and it’s also helped me accept and fully embrace who I am as a person,” said Ben Kleyn, who was in full garb including a mask which he uses to create the character, Siren.
But not everyone was supportive
“We’ve come further than P.T. Barnum in the early 20th century, where he was displaying people with disabilities, people who were different and that was wrong,” Kathleen Ray of Rockford told the crowd of about 100 people. “We believe God created man and woman and there’s a lot of this misunderstanding of who we are. God doesn’t make mistakes. He made us the way we are.”
Those who support the event say there is more than concern for vulnerable people behind the opposition.
“It is verging on discrimination, homophobia, transphobia,” said Bradley Haas of Beauty Beyond Drag, which is providing three local performers to join those from the U.K.
Meanwhile, Meijer is seeking the Republican nomination for the congressional seat held by independent Justin Amash.
“Suggesting that acting for political gain is highly disingenuous and offensive where they’re the ones who are trying to make this a political statement,” Meijer said
Meijer said he only recently found out about the drag show.
When he heard of it, he talked to Down syndrome advocates, experts and parents who were concerned.
He says his letter to the ArtPrize officials was meant to be private and it is they who have enflamed the controversy.
“If there is even a one in a million chance of exploitation, I think that’s too high of a risk to take and not something I can support,” Meijer said.
Organizers of the event say they are not surprised they were controversy and, in fact, sparking discussion was the point of all this.
“We are, actually, pretty happy that we are having this conversation,” Smit said.
“What we’re surprised by is his strong response to the specific event and in particular to artists with Down syndrome coming from the UK,” Vyn said.
Area advocates for people with Down syndrome are staying neutral but say it is important for people to understand that people with the syndrome are not all the same.
Some have the ability to form consent, while others don’t. They say the decision is highly individual.