Republican Peter Meijer under fire for barring drag performers with Down Syndrome

By: - August 23, 2019 11:39 am

the Tanglefoot, Grand Rapids | Nick Manes

Updated 1:41 p.m.

Republican congressional candidate Peter Meijer has banned an international troupe of drag performers who also have Down Syndrome from performing at his Grand Rapids venue.

Meijer, who’s seeking the GOP nomination for Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District in a crowded 2020 field, owns the Tanglefoot, an art space in Grand Rapids. The Tanglefoot will host an installation for Project 1, an exhibition planned by the ArtPrize organization next month. 

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Meijer informed the Project 1 organizers earlier this week in a letter that he could not allow Drag Syndrome, an acclaimed United Kingdom-based group of people with Down Syndrome who perform in drag, to use the space for their planned performance. 

In Meijer’s letter released by DisArt, the group that was organizing the performance, he cited his fear of the performers’ “exploitation.” He wrote that “setting aside the content, the involvement of individuals whose ability to act of their own volition is unclear [and] raises serious ethical concerns that I cannot reconcile.” 

The Drag Syndrome performance in Grand Rapids next month was set to be the group’s first in the United States, and it immediately became a target for right-wing organizations. DisArt, a Grand Rapids-based disabled advocacy and artist group, slammed the decision to exclude the performance in a statement released Thursday evening. 

“It didn’t matter that these Artists have long-standing, successful, internationally acclaimed careers,” DisArt organizers Christopher Smit and Jill Vyn said of Meijer’s decision. “All that mattered was their disability.”

ArtPrize, the nonprofit organization founded by the powerful West Michigan DeVos family, also stated its support for the performers.

“The ArtPrize organization has always supported free artistic expression by all participants and has not denied or screened individuals,” the organization wrote in a statement. “Consistent with this, we believe it would be inappropriate to limit the participation of performers who have Down syndrome.”

In an interview with the Advance on Friday morning, Meijer dismissed the notion that his decision was political or rooted in bigotry or ableism. He said he arrived at the decision after having multiple conversations with several local and national LGBTQ groups and disability organizations. 

Meijer reiterated his concern that neither he nor the audience could be fully certain that the performers are acting of their own full free will. He said that he decided to exclude the event because of his personal responsibility as the property owner. 

Peter Meijer in Grand Rapids | Nick Manes

“Some members at the national level with the disability advocacy community, they view the question of self-determination as presumed until there was evidence to the contrary,” Meijer said. 

“I think that’s a rational position for them to take,” Meijer said. “But when it comes to what can I tacitly support and allow them to post on my property, if there’s even a one in a million chance that this is exploitative — that the performers aren’t necessarily understanding the consequences of their actions —  that’s not a risk I could take.”

The DisArt organizers, in an interview with the Advance, criticized Meijer’s explanation and said they encouraged him to speak with a broader group of disability advocates. 

“The problem is that there are individuals and organizations who are nervous about folks with Down Syndrome and what their capacity is, whether they’re exploited or not,” Smit said. “The six artists we are working with are all professional artists who have been doing this for quite some time and who have chosen to do this under their own agency.”

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Requests for comment sent by the Advance to local and national disability advocacy groups were not returned on Friday morning. 

The announcement last week that Drag Syndrome would be performing in Grand Rapids caught the attention of far-right groups like the white supremacist blog the Daily Stormer and Fremont-based fundamentalist Christian group the American Decency Association. 

The American Decency Association urged readers to contact the funders and underwriters for Project 1, which include local corporations like Amway, Herman Miller and retailing giant Meijer. Peter Meijer is an heir to that company, but has no direct involvement in its operations.

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Speaking with the Advance Friday morning, the congressional candidate said he didn’t want his business decision to cancel the performance to become a part of his campaign.* But he also acknowledged the charged nature of the cultural moment.

“We live in interesting times,” Meijer said. “This is not a culture war I wanted to pick a side in, and this is not a controversy I wanted to be involved in, but clearly the organizers did.” 

Disclosure: the reporter’s partner is involved in a separate performance at the Tanglefoot venue as part of the Project 1 exhibition.

This piece was updated to clarify Meijer’s comments.

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Nick Manes
Nick Manes

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.