A Michigan conservative has been slapped with a civil rights complaint days after shutting down a drag show for people with disabilities.
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights alleging that Peter Meijer, a Republican candidate for Congress, discriminated against the disability advocacy group DisArt when he denied the organization space for an event. A performance from the U.K.-based troupe Drag Syndrome was set to go on at the Tanglefoot amphitheater in Grand Rapids, but Meijer pulled the plug at the last minute.
In a letter, Meijer cited concerns that the performers, whose artistic achievements have been recognized by Queen Elizabeth II of England, were being exploited.
“The differently-abled are among the most special souls in our community,” he wrote.
In addition to putting the show’s future in jeopardy, the ACLU claims the last-minute cancellation discriminated against the artists on the basis of both sex and disability.
Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan's LGBT Project told NBC News that Meijer’s “decision to cancel this performance is based on a misperception that adults with Down syndrome lack the capacity to understand or agree to participate in drag performances.”
While Michigan has yet to pass a statewide law forbidding bias on the basis of LGBTQ+ identity, the Civil Rights Commission announced last year that it would interpret the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include prohibitions against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. The 43-year-old civil rights law offers protections on the basis of characteristics like religion, race, color, national origin, and sex in housing, employment, and public accommodations.
As the complaint proceeds, the show went on this weekend at a new space: the Wealthy Theater in Grand Rapids. Although the event was protested by conservative groups, demand for tickets was so high that DisArt was able to add additional performances.
A drag show featuring artists with disabilities has found a new home after the property owner pulled the event over concerns that performers were being exploited.
The U.K.-based troupe Drag Syndrome was all set to mount its first-ever show in the U.S. this Saturday as part of Project 1, a public art festival that will be held in Grand Rapids, Mich. from September 7 to October 27. As part of the seven weeks of scheduled programming, the group was set tvyno perform at Tanglefoot Studios, an outdoor amphitheater that’s uniquely equipped to meet the accessibility needs of people with disabilities.
Tanglefoot owner Peter Meijer took issue with the event, however. Meijer, the grandson of retail chain magnate Frederik Meijer and a Republican candidate for Congress, claimed in a letter to festival organizers that people with Down Syndrome must be “protected” from exploitation.
“The differently-abled are among the most special souls in our community,” he wrote, comparing people with disabilities to “children.”
Representatives from DisArt, a Michigan-based advocacy group which is spearheading the event, called Meijer on August 19 to discuss his fears that people with Down Syndrome are not, as he claimed, “in a position to give their full and informed consent.” DisArt Co-Founder Chris Smit explained that Drag Syndrome is an internationally celebrated group of performers who have put on shows at the Tate Modern in London and been recognized by Queen Elizabeth II.
But the subject is also personal for him. Smit, who has spinal muscular atrophy, told Meijer that living with disability is a uniquely individual experience which affects everyone differently.
“Some people, unfortunately, fall back on this idea that disabled people can't think for themselves,” he tells Out. “All that does is stop any sort of possibility for cultural growth and cultural flourishing disabled people. This is not the first time in history a group of people have been marginalized and grouped together in order to keep everybody else feeling comfortable about their own misconceptions.”
In total, the two parties spoke for over an hour and a half. While Smit says the conversation was “productive,” he reached out the following day to give Meijer a list of people he could further speak with to expand his view of disability culture and the free speech rights of artists. Smit never heard back.
Within hours, Meijer reached out to Project 1 to say his decision was final, leaving the event without a venue with less than two weeks to go.
Organizers and performers say the blow was devastating. DisArt hit back at Meijer in a statement saying his actions were tantamount to “discrimination.” Justin Bond, one of the members of Drag Syndrome, recorded a video claiming the controversy was just another reminder that far too many people think having Down Syndrome is “terrible” and that performers like him don’t “have what it takes” to put on a show.
“But I think we do have what it takes because we deserve the right to be in drag and to perform,” he said.
What was, perhaps, most troubling was that even if organizers did find a new space to hold the event, the lengths DisArt went to in order to accomodate the broadest possible range of attendees’ needs would be hard to replicate. The group had done everything from installing temporary hearing loops to allow people who use hearing aids to hear what’s happening on stage, to implementing audio descriptions for people who are blind or visually impaired.
Meeting those accessibility needs was particularly important to DisArt, as the organization wanted the performances to be not only by members of the disability community, but for that community as well.
“What we have learned through experience was that if you balance that the people on stage who have disabilities with a large number of people in the audience with disabilities, it changes from an experience of exploitation to an experience of celebration,” DisArt Managing Director Jill Vyn tells Out. “We've adjusted lots of things specifically at this site to make sure that the disability community was in attendance.”
“A lot of people are worried about spectacle,” Smit adds. “Spectacle depends on the gaze of the audience being different from the so-called ‘spectacle’ on stage.”
With time rapidly ticking down before the event is scheduled to take place, DisArt announced on Friday that it had found a new venue. It will now be housed at the Wealthy Theater, a movie theater and performance space built in 1911 to host vaudeville performances. The time and date are unchanged.
Organizers with DisArt have launched a GoFundMe campaign to help its team ensure the space is able to meet the accessibility needs of the community. To date, the campaign has raised over $400 of its $15,000 goal.
Despite the difficulty of getting the space ready in just four days, DisArt has been encouraged by the support they have received from the community. A woman in Utah wrote to say that she and her children, all of whom have disabilities, have been inspired by the fact that the artists with Drag Syndrome “strength to do what [they] love.”
“Keep it up because the world will be better for it,” the woman said. “Nothing is impossible if we put our minds to it. This is about more than just a few people, but a worldwide community.”
Vyn says letters like these have been “coming in from all over the world.” She claims the positive feedback made the ordeal worth it.
“Drag for me allows there to be a freedom of bringing your whole self together through an expression of art,” Vyn says. “We have talked to a lot of people in our disability community who feel a sense of needing to play the part of what other people expect them to be like or act like. Any time we can create opportunities where the disabled voice can be the loudest in the room, I get really excited about those opportunities.”