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Drag show featuring people with Down syndrome in UK sparks concerns of exploitation: 'People with Down syndrome like sex'

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Composite screenshot of Mashable Twitter video

A new promotional video for a U.K. drag show company, which has been around for several years, has sparked outrage over concerns that the performers, all of whom have Down syndrome, are being exploited.

On January 4, Mashable, a U.K. media and entertainment company, tweeted a nearly ten-minute video intended to promote the drag show, known as "Drag Syndrome," a "drag collective featuring highly addictive queens & kings with Down-Syndrome," according to its website. The cast of "Drag Syndrome" is composed of ten "artists": Davina Starr, Frozita Honkong, Gaia Callas, George the Lord, Gymma Black, Horrora Shebang, Justin Bond, Lady Francesca, Lady Mercury, and Nikita Gold. As with any drag show, the performers dress up as members of the opposite sex and dance provocatively on stage alongside those who do not have physical disabilities.

"Sometimes drag is an idea you want to communicate," asserts the creative director of the show, Daniel Vais, who, as Shay Woulahan of Reduxx notes, does not appear to have Down syndrome.

"I didn’t plan to work with artists with Down’s (sic) syndrome," Vais said in October 2018. "It found me."

Vais founded "Drag Syndrome" earlier that year as part of a larger project called Culture Device, which purportedly aims to "use improvisation and experimental electronic sound to push the boundaries of choreography, whilst giving a professional platform for performers with [Down syndrome]." And the troupe has had notable success. It is currently participating in RuPaul’s DragCon UK 2023 in London, an event at which the group performed in 2020 as well. "Drag Syndrome" has also gone on tour throughout Europe and boasts over 550,000 TikTok followers.

Despite the fame, the group has also sparked outcries of exploitation, considering that those with Down syndrome "have intellectual disability or low IQ, which includes difficulty learning and trouble with activities of daily life," according to the Mayo Clinic. Woulahan found that most of the Twitter comments about the promo video, entitled "Born to dance with an extra chromosome," have denounced it.

"This is evil beyond words," said one popular response. "They're exploiting vulnerable people. This is evil and disgusting," added another.

Because of his misgivings about the show, Peter Meijer, the owner of the Tanglefoot Building in Grand Rapids, Michigan, canceled a "Drag Syndrome" performance scheduled at his establishment in 2019. "The involvement of individuals whose ability to act of their own volition is unclear raises serious ethical concerns that I cannot reconcile," Meijer wrote in a letter announcing the cancellation. The group eventually found another venue at the last minute, though whether the group ever actually performed at the scheduled time is unclear.

Still, the performers themselves insist that, by donning drag, they are merely expressing their true selves.

"It can be a challenge to express yourself sexually," said Otto Baxter, aka Horrora Shebang, in 2018. "People misunderstand that people with Down syndrome like sex," he added.

Screenshot of Mashable Twitter video

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