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Event poster for a performance by Drag Syndrome.
Event poster for a performance by Drag Syndrome.

GOP Congressional Candidate Faces Backlash for Ousting ArtPrize Performers with Down Syndrome

Peter Meijer—a Republican congressional candidate and a grandson of Fred Meijer, the late chairman of the Meijer Grocery chain headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan—is under fire for barring Drag Syndrome, a London-based troupe of performers who have Down syndrome, from his facility, where they were scheduled to put on a show as part of ArtPrize’s inaugural public art biennial, Project 1. Presented by DisArt, a nonprofit that supports people with disabilities, the Disability Drag Show was supposed to take place on September 7.

In a letter Meijer sent to ArtPrize executive director Jori Bennett on August 19 that was reviewed by Artforum, he declared that the decision to prevent the biennial participants from using his venue was made following “deep reflection on the nature of Drag Syndrome’s performance.” The letter continued with Meijer explaining that he consulted with “various relevant communities” before making the decision. He claims he spoke with people who have family members with Down syndrome as well as members of the LGBTQ community.

“Artistic expression is inherently political, and in making this decision I approached the issue from a content neutral basis,” Meijer wrote. “Setting aside the content, the involvement of individuals whose ability to act of their own volition is unclear and raised serious ethical concerns that I cannot reconcile. I cannot know, and neither can an audience whether the individuals performing for Drag syndrome are giving, or are in a position to give, their full and informed consent. To that end, I cannot allow Drag Syndrome to perform at Tanglefoot.”

According to DisArt, excluding the group from the biennial is discrimination, not protection. In a statement, the organization said: “It didn’t matter that these artists have long-standing, successful, internationally acclaimed careers. It didn’t matter that after founding Drag Syndrome, one of the original members was awarded an MBE [Order of the British Empire] by Queen Elizabeth II; that another performer has won a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival; that the artists are also accomplished actors and filmmakers, painters, dancers, singers and most important of all, human beings. . . . All that mattered was their disability.”

Meijer will soon have to contend with a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Jay Kaplan, the staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBTQ Project, confirmed that the organization is filing a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, which will review the claim and conduct an investigation before it determines whether the case can go before the Civil Rights Commission.

Remarking on the letter, Kaplan told Michigan Radio that the ACLU believes that “[Meijer] is denying this opportunity to this group of individuals due to their disability, and due to the nature of what they’re going to perform, their gender expression.” He also said that Meijer’s decision is based on several false assumptions about people with disabilities, such as they don’t have the agency to choose to be performers, the intellectual capacity to understand what they’re performing, and that drag is not something that people with Down’s syndrome should be taking part in. “I don’t know that he would’ve canceled it if the performers with Down syndrome had been playing the violin,” Kaplan said.

Artforum was not able to reach Meijer for comment on this article.