The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan and a Grand Rapids-based organization are planning to file a formal complaint of discrimination against Peter Meijer, who is currently running as a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Michigan's 3rd Congressional District.
DisArt, an organization dedicated to promoting the voices of disabled artists, originally scheduled a performance of a Disability Drag Show for September 7 at the Tanglefoot Building, which is owned by Meijer. The show was set to feature three local performers alongside three members of the London-based Drag Syndrome, a troupe of performers with Down syndrome who do drag. However, on August 19, Meijer barred the performance.
In a letter, Meijer said he had consulted with “parents of the differently abled, people who had family members with Down syndrome, and members of the LGBTQ and artist community,” and expressed his worry that the performers were at risk of being exploited.
“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," he wrote. "To that end, I cannot allow Drag Syndrome to perform at Tanglefoot.”
Prior to Meijer's decision, DisArt co-founders and co-directors Chris Smit and Jill Vyn, spoke with him regarding his concerns over the show.
“We had a good conversation with him, prior to that decision, where we were very open with each other, Jill, myself and Peter, and we talked about the issues at hand,” Smit said.
After Meijer made the decision, Smit says DisArt and ArtPrize chose to share his letter with the public.
Vyn says exploitation comes when people aren’t allowed a decision to participate.
“The three artists that are coming from Drag Syndrome and the three artists who are local Michiganders participating, are all choosing to participate in the event, and have chosen drag as their expression of choice for their art,” Vyn says.
“We are making sure that not only are they empowered to make these decisions on their own and to perform in the ways that they want, but we ensure, through invitation and the development of our disability community, that the people in the audience support them as artists and recognize the power of their art to continue to push our community towards that awareness and understanding and belonging, so that everyone who is disabled has a choice of whether and how they want to participate and flourish in our society,” she added.
Jay Kaplan is the staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBTQ Project. He says the ACLU is in the process of filing a formal complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
“We believe he 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 said. “It’s based on assumptions about a group of people and about what they’re doing that trafficks in stereotypes: the idea that somebody with a disability, particularly someone with Down’s syndrome, would lack the agency, would lack the capacity to understand what they’re performing, and the idea that drag is something is bad, that is something that is dangerous, and is something that people with Down’s syndrome are not capable of doing.”
In his letter, Meijer wrote that he put the content aside and took a neutral position when making the decision to bar Drag Syndrome. Kaplan says he isn’t so sure about that.
“Mr. Meijer seems to be troubled by this performance," Kaplan said. "I don’t know that he would’ve cancelled it if the performers with Down syndrome had been playing the violin. It might not have been a concern to him, the capacity of the performers to do that kind of performance.”
Kaplan says that this case demonstrates the paternalistic approach that people sometimes take when it comes to interacting with people with disabilities. “It’s not for us to make decisions for other people and tell them, ‘you can perform this,’ ‘you can express your gender this way.’ It’s not for us to judge or decide, including people living with disabilities. They have gender identities, gender expression, and sexual orientations like all other humans.”
The complaint will go through the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, which will review the claims and conduct and investigation before the case goes before the Civil Rights Commission. The commission will then decide if there is enough evidence for a trial or for charges to be filed.
Kaplan, as well as Smit and Vyn, expressed hope that the complaint would be the start of a larger conversation about disability, identity, sexuality, exploitation, and discrimination. DisArt has scheduled a series of community conversations in Grand Rapids regarding those issues.
Smit says they want to make their community more open and welcome “[to] the people who, like drag syndrome and like our local performers, have chosen their art form to communicate to the world what their life is about and what they need to communicate as part of a group that has been oppressed for a long time. We’re hoping for a moment of learning and a moment of growth.” He adds, “we don’t want this to be one moment. We want it to be a milestone. We’d like it to be part of a movement towards something better for all of us.”
Neither Peter Meijer nor a representative from his staff could be reached for comment.
The Disability Drag Show will still take place on September 7, but it will now be held at the Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids at 7 p.m.
The community conversations will be held at the Little Studio Space in Grand Rapids on September 6, 13, and 20, all beginning at 4 p.m.