What began in Grand Rapids as an effort to promote advocacy of, and conversation about, artists with disabilities has turned into a controversy that’s gained national attention. At the center of the dispute are Republican congressional candidate Peter Meijer, who is also the grandson of the supermarket founder, and DisArt, a local group that planned to bring a troupe of professional drag performers who have Down syndrome to a performance space owned by Meijer. The American Civil Liberties Union became involved when Meijer banned the group from his venue.
“I knew that DisArt would be hosting performances,” said Meijer, of what was planned as part of ArtPrize Project 1, and for which SiTE:LAB had built an installation in space donated by Meijer. “That I had known about for months. I had seen some of the work that they had done around advocacy for individuals with disabilities and I was excited to be part of that.”
He was not aware that the disabled performers might have intellectual disabilities.
However, Meijer said that when, on Aug. 18, he learned of the nature of the performance — individuals with Down syndrome performing drag — he grew leery. After speaking to “over three dozen folks who I felt could know the issue better than I could,” Meijer informed DisArt that Drag Syndrome could not perform at Tanglefoot. Stakeholders Meijer consulted included disability advocates, artists, parents of children with Down syndrome and individual members of the LGBTQ community. By and large, he said, “they shared my deep concerns around the perception of exploitation around this event.”
In an Aug. 19 letter Meijer informed ArtPrize that he could not approve Tanglefoot’s facilities for Drag Syndrome. He has said repeatedly that he didn’t want this to be a political issue and attempted to handle the matter privately.
At the core of Meijer’s concern, as he states in the Aug. 19 letter which DisArt leaked to the media, was that, “The differently abled are among the most special souls in our community, and I believe they, like children and other vulnerable populations, should be protected.”
A response on DisArt’s website reads in part, “Exclusion is discrimination, it is self-preservation, it is exploitation for political gain. It is not protection.”
“They wanted the controversy,” said Meijer, regarding DisArt’s reason for leaking the letter.
Shortly after their dismissal, and attempting on their own to resolve the issue with Meijer, DisArt contacted the ACLU.
“We spoke with the organizers from DisArt, and looking at the facts and circumstances, certainly, his decision appears to be based on assumptions about people with disabilities, mainly people with Down syndrome,” said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan. “There also seemed to be that Mr. Meijer had concerns about the nature of the performance.”
Further, Kaplan stated that DisArt spoke with Meijer and provided him with specific information about the drag performers on two occasions, making it clear that these individuals do understand what they’re doing and have the capacity to consent. The Drag Syndrome performers have agents, have performed around the world, are paid for their work and so on.
Drag Syndrome is a project of a London-based experimental performance and dance company that works with individuals who have Down syndrome. As Artistic Director Daniel Vais explains in a Mashable article, “People with intellectual disabilities aren’t supposed to be performers or artists or anything but ‘cute.’” He says the performers have told him that people see them as childish, but they have the same desires, dreams and aspirations as anybody else.
Of their numerous and popular performances, this is Drag Syndrome’s first in the U.S. and the first time they’ve experienced backlash.
DisArt’s complaint filed with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights by the ACLU reads in part, “Mr. Meijer’s actions in blocking Drag Syndrome’s performance at Tanglefoot constitute discrimination in a public accommodation on the basis of disability (Down syndrome) and on the basis of sex (gender stereotyping) in public accommodations in violation of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.”
“It’s not to punish Mr. Meijer, but it’s really to call attention to this, that there are some protections under our state civil rights law and when you have a performing space that you make available to the public that’s considered to be a public accommodation, then you are subject to civil rights laws,” Kaplan said.
Is Drag an Issue Here?
Meijer especially pushed back on the notion the alleged discrimination has to do with it being a drag performance. Further, he wasn’t clear on the connection between “sex discrimination” and prohibiting a drag performance from Tanglefoot. When an explanation of the May 2018 Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s interpretive statement was provided, he commented, “It just really seems like a five-step removed argument that I don’t— I think it would be a different scenario if I said, well, ‘No women can come in or nobody who’s trans or non-binary,’ right?”
“I don’t view drag as the issue,” he said. “I view any type of what I would describe as charged cultural or political performance. I insert anything else. Take drag out, I insert anything else that would fall into that … framework.”
Asked to provide examples, Meijer said it could be political speech or a hot-button issue.
“When you have the messenger, when you have the performers come from a group that’s been a) historically subject to abuse, marginalization and exploitation and b) whose agency cannot be guaranteed,” Meijer said.
However, asked to clarify whether he meant the “charged cultural or political performance” referred to any performance by people with intellectual disabilities, he replied, “No, that drag itself, in that case, is culturally charged. Drag in general I would consider culturally charged.”
Meijer went on to explain that “charged” performance or expression to him means, “Anything that … may be sufficiently controversial to incite a protest probably … gets into a problematic territory, especially when you’re dealing with individuals with Down syndrome.”
As to the possibility of a protest, Meijer said that it was the ethical quandary that was first and foremost in his mind. Yet his responsibility as the owner of a private property with a commercial liability policy was not lost on him and when he became aware of the risks that exposed him to, those were “the nails in the coffin.” (In fact, a peaceful protest was held outside Grand Rapids’ Wealthy Theatre, where Drag Syndrome relocated their sold-out performances.)
Meijer sounded unsure whether he approves of any performance by individuals with Down syndrome at his, or any space, and how much of that has to do with drag.
“Let’s face it. The Drag Syndrome group was not really a thing when they were just a theater troupe,” Meijer said. “The reason why they’ve achieved fame, or infamy, depending on … who’s describing them, is because of that combination. And it’s a shame. Because I’m sure that they’re talented individuals.”
Asked if the members of Drag Syndrome could be performers in some other context, Meijer replied that “where that line is drawn, is, frankly, an open question.”
Kaplan is skeptical.
“Let’s face it, if this were a group of people doing a violin concerto concert on stage he certainly wouldn’t be questioning whether they have the capacity to understand what they’re doing, whether they’re being exploited,” Kaplan said. “He wouldn’t even enter into that inquiry.”
When the question was posed a different way, Meijer seemed to confirm his position that it was indeed the performers, not the content at issue: If DisArt had brought drag performers who had disabilities that were not intellectual — for example, hearing impaired — would Meijer have permitted that at Tanglefoot? Although he did not respond with a resounding affirmative, Meijer didn’t seem to take issue with that. Though he was quick to add,
“It’s not really the type of performance I would have attended or sought out.”
It seems that politics is part of the equation in multiple ways. Meijer’s Republican primary opponent savaged him on social media for even pausing to reflect once he learned of the nature of the performance, which the rival mischaracterized as “sex acts.”
Meijer believes he’s being targeted from the other side because he’s a conservative.
“I don’t doubt that there was a political factor in DisArt leaking the letter to the media,” Meijer said. “I don’t doubt that there’s a political factor in the Michigan ACLU filing a complaint. I think if I was coming from the left, with the same sincere concerns, it would be a very different response. The headline of so many of these articles reads, ‘Republican Cancels,’ ‘Republican Bans’ … and it plays into that stereotype, right?”
About that homophobic stereotype, on Meijer’s Facebook page, a post that appears on Aug. 28 is shared from the anti-LGBTQ group, Christian Constitutional Conservatives Who Stand for Life and Liberty. It is a mashup of images praising Meijer’s decision to ban Drag Syndrome under the banner: “Thank God That Such Men Live.” It also links to an article from Life Site News, an anti-LGBTQ online outlet, which refers to the performance pushing “an LGBT agenda.”
Meijer confirmed that he manages his own social media feed and did share that post from that group. He said he has received support for a range of reasons, and shared it because at the time it was the first affirming post of which he was aware.