Michigan ACLU files complaint after GOP candidate cancels drag show

A British drag troupe featuring performers with Down syndrome was set to perform at an art space owned by Republican congressional candidate Jim Meijer.
Image: Horrora Shebang
Horrora Shebang, whose real name is Otto Baxter, at a Drag Syndrome performance.Damien Frost
By Tim Fitzsimons

The ACLU of Michigan filed a civil rights complaint Thursday alleging sex and disability discrimination after a GOP congressional candidate canceled an event featuring British drag performers with Down syndrome.

Peter Meijer, running in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, canceled a performance by Drag Syndrome at Tanglefoot, an art center he owns in Grand Rapids, scheduled for Saturday.

In a letter explaining his decision last month, Meijer said that, “like children,” adults with Down syndrome deserve protection. He also said he feared the event would be “exploitative” and even questioned whether they could give “full and informed consent.”

But when Drag Syndrome's performers flew from the U.K., where they're based, into Michigan on Thursday night, they had their own words for Meijer.

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“There’s no way I’m letting you treat us that way. We deserve to perform, we deserve to be who we are, and live our lives as we are,” 20-year-old drag king Justin Bond told WOOD 8 TV in Grand Rapids. “It doesn’t matter if we are disabled, or [from a] different country, that’s what we have got to do and that’s what we are here to do.”

Daniel Vais, the troupe’s creative director, told WOOD he did not expect this "controversy" and "hate" toward Drag Syndrome's performers.

“It’s an excuse,” Vais said of Meijer's stated reason for canceling the performance. “They’re just saying, ‘Oh, we protect them,’ so they push them away from society and high culture, so there’s a hidden agenda there, I think.”

For his part, Meijer doubled down Thursday night after news of the ACLU's complaint.

“Fair to say I didn’t expect Down syndrome Drag shows to be a defining issue of my congressional campaign," he wrote on Twitter. "Come what may, I won’t apologize for doing what’s right.”

Jay Kaplan, director of the LGBTQ program at ACLU Michigan, filed the complaint against Meijer with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and said he hoped that this would be a “teachable moment” about the agency of disabled adults.

“Individuals are individuals, and I think that Mr. Meijer’s decision to cancel this performance is based on a misperception that adults with Down syndrome lack the capacity to understand or agree to participate in drag performances,” Kaplan said.

“Maybe Mr. Meijer isn’t necessarily willing to admit or agree that he based his decision on stereotypes concerning people with disabilities, and as we said before, some misperceptions about drag that we believe also deals with gender stereotypes,” Kaplan continued.

Even so, in August the troupe promised that “the show will go on," and it will. The troupe has secured a new venue and will perform on Saturday before a sold-out crowd. Drag Syndrome will also host an encore performance in Grand Rapids on Sunday for which tickets are still available.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Peter Meijer as Justin Meijer.

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