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Civil Rights

ACLU Files Case on Behalf of Drag Syndrome

— September 20, 2019

A civil rights lawsuit is filed on behalf of drag performers with Down syndrome.

The ACLU of Michigan has filed a civil rights complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights against congressional candidate Peter Meijer for allegedly “discriminating against drag performers with Down Syndrome,” court records indicate.  Meijer would not allow the UK-based troupe Drag Syndrome to use his Tanglefoot Building in Grand Rapids during the ArtPrize Project 1 exhibitions.  The ACLU contends that “Meijer is relying on harmful stereotypes about disabled people.”

Meijer said he is worried about “the risk of perception of exploitation,” a view he said is shared by disability advocates. He plans to challenge the complaint, saying, “I did what’s right, and I’m not going to back down from that or apologize for it.”

Meijer said he “agreed to allow the nonprofit SiTE:LAB to build a performance space in the Tanglefoot to be used by several acts during ArtPrize, which runs from Friday through Oct. 27.  DisArt, a Grand Rapids-based arts and culture organization, arranged some of the programming and booked Drag Syndrome.”

ACLU Files Case on Behalf of Drag Syndrome
Photo by Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash

Meijer said he spent time consulting with disability advocates, LGBTQ organizations and other groups in the area about the booking, stating, “What was especially moving to me was the local disability advocates viewed Drag Syndrome as counter-productive to their goals of fostering a greater sense of inclusion and belonging among people with developmental disabilities,” he said.

Meijer said he reached out to the organizers of ArtPrize with his concerns. Then on Aug. 21, he sent an email that said Drag Syndrome could not use the Tanglefoot, which was soon after leaked.  “It’s been a very extreme reaction, but it goes to show the toxic political environment we’re in today,” he said.

According to the complaint, “Meijer’s letter to the Art Prize organizers read, ‘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.’  He also said, “The performers ability to act of their own volition is unclear,” and he didn’t’ know whether they “are giving, or in a position to give, full and informed consent.”

Meijer’s decision was based on “harmful myths and stereotypes about the capacities of people with Down Syndrome,” the ACLU said in its complaint.  Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU’s LGBT Project, said, “He makes an assumption about people with disabilities, in this case Down Syndrome, that they lack the agency and capacity to understand what it means to perform drag and give informed consent to perform drag.”

Meijer responded he questions whether the ACLU’s viewpoint is that “anyone at any point should be forced to host anything, whether or not it’s exploiting a vulnerable community,” adding, “I’m very curious to know what this means for private property owners.”

The ACLU’s complaint asks the Michigan Department of Civil Rights “to find that Meijer discriminated against DisArt based on the disability of the performers and the nature of their performance.  It also asks that he pay for the costs associated with Drag Syndrome having to provide an alternative performance venue.”


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ACLU: Peter Meijer discriminated against drag performers with Down Syndrome

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