The ACLU of Michigan has filed a formal complaint of discrimination against Republican congressional candidate Peter Meijer. This comes after Meijer made the decision to bar London-based act Drag Syndrome from performing at his venue, the Tanglefoot Building, during Grand Rapids’ annual ArtPrize event.
Drag Syndrome, a troupe of performers with Down Syndrome who do drag, was slated to perform as part of a larger drag show that included local performers from Grand Rapids. The show was organized by DisArt, an organization that says it's dedicated to promoting the voices of artists with disabilities.
Meijer says he spoke to “close to three dozen people” in the process of coming to his decision to bar Drag Syndrome from performing. He says those people included people from the LGBTQ community, artists, and people from the local disability advocacy community, and he says they affirmed his original gut feeling and ultimate decision in barring Drag Syndrome from performing.
“One thing's for sure, and I'm not going to back down. I'm not going to apologize for doing what's right. I'm not going to apologize for the decision that I made, and erring on the side of protecting a vulnerable population with a history of abuse and exploitation,” says Meijer.
Jay Kaplan is a staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT project. He says Meijer’s decision was based on the stereotype that people with Down Syndrome lack the agency to make an informed decision about performing drag.
“Many people with disabilities have the capacity to both understand and participate in the performing arts, including drag, and there's a great deal of intersectionality: people with disabilities also have sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions,” says Kaplan.
“These are performers who have performed around the world, they’re known for their drag performance, and this is the particular art that they do. And even after having that information, he chose to stick by his position,” Kaplan says.
In addition to his concerns about potential exploitation, Meijer says he’s concerned about the potential implications for private property in this case.
“I think the notion, the idea that a private property owner has zero rights in terms of what he chooses to voluntarily host on his property, is to me, a fundamentally pretty troubling conclusion,” he says.
“Obviously, he does own the building, but he rents out studio space to other people, and he is allowing performance arts to go on in his facility that are open to the public and are available to anyone in the public to come see, and so we believe that the Tanglefoot does constitute a public space,” Kaplan says.
Now that the formal complaint has been filed with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, the department will investigate the claims and a commission will decide whether to bring charges against Meijer.