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Drag troupe for those with Down syndrome was set for US debut until Republican owner of venue nixed show. Now ACLU is complaining.


'If members of the group were to perform an orchestra recital, chances are he wouldn't have canceled the performance'

Image source: WXMI-TV video screenshot

A few months back TheBlaze noted a drag queen troupe consisting of performers with Down syndrome — which calls itself "Drag Syndrome."

The U.K. outfit was launched in March 2018 because choreographer Daniel Vais wanted people with intellectual disabilities to have an outlet to perform. The troupe sported Lady Francesca (Francis), Horrora Shebang (Otto), and Gaia Callas (Danny) — as well as a drag "king" Justin Bond (Ruby).

"When people see us perform, they recognize the immense talent in front of them and the sheer quality entertainment of the artists," Vais told the Mighty, adding that "people with Down syndrome have the extra chromosome to excel in the arts, culture, and anywhere else."

Coming to America

Drag Syndrome recently was set to make its United States debut at an art exhibition in Grand Rapids, Mich., the New York Times reported. But the paper said there was backlash from community members concerned that the performers were being exploited.

Among the detractors was Peter Meijer, a member of the family that owns Meijer supermarkets in the region, the Times said.

Meijer — also a Republican congressional candidate — happens to own the venue where Drag Syndrome was slated to appear, and the paper said he put a stop to the show last month, as he wasn't sure the performers could give their "full and informed consent."

Enter the ACLU

With that, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights against Meijer, claiming he discriminated against the Drag Syndrome performers due to their disability, the Times reported, adding that the complaint also called him out for sex discrimination since the performers would be in drag.

"If members of the group were to perform an orchestra recital, chances are he wouldn't have canceled the performance," Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney at ACLU of Michigan, told the paper.

Kaplan also told the Times that the complaint is mostly intended to make a statement — but he added that if the case is referred to the state's Civil Rights Commission, a discrimination finding could elicit a fine.

DisArt, the local nonprofit that organized the drag show, found a new venue for Drag Syndrome, the Times said, and since the first performance on Saturday sold out within hours a second one was added for Sunday.

The nonprofit added in a statement to the paper that the Drag Syndrome performers are "consenting adults" who have "paved their own way into this career, a process that has not been easy, but nonetheless successful."

Meijer speaks out

"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 his letter to officials heading up the Drag Syndrome show, the Times said, adding that he told a local news station he believed the performance was meant to "further an activist message."

More from the paper:

In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Meijer said that he did not take his decision lightly, calling up about three dozen people beforehand ("probably irresponsibly, for the sake of my campaign," he said). They included members of the disability advocacy community, parents of children with Down syndrome, members of the LGBT community and national groups dedicated to Down syndrome, he said.

After his decision was publicized, he was the subject of a backlash of his own.

"I have been called a bigot, an ableist, a homophobe, and a transphobe," Meijer told the Times. "I fundamentally don't understand how someone can take my very good faith concern about the potential for exploitation and spin that into discriminating against people with a disability."

Christopher Smit, the other director of DisArt, noted to the paper that the group talked with Meijer and believed his decision to nix the show was premature.

Smit added to the Times that he wanted to Meijer to speak with one of the performers, but Meijer said he made his decision before that was able to happen and that his legal counsel was concerned about a possible protest at the building.

And while an official at the National Down Syndrome Congress told Meijer that competence among those with intellectual disabilities should be presumed unless there's evidence to the contrary, the paper said Meijer insisted his "standard of proof" was higher as the venue's owner.

Dennis McGuire, a Down syndrome behavioral expert, added to the Times that adults with Down syndrome are typically mature enough to make their own decisions.

"Anyone who knows people with Down syndrome understands that they love to perform, and they're really good at it," McGuire told the paper. "They're so openhearted, and they love music and dancing and theater."

Here's a report about the dust-up that aired before Drag Syndrome found a new venue:

(H/T: NewsBusters)

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