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ACLU: Peter Meijer discriminated by denying art venue for Down syndrome drag performers

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has filed a civil rights complaint against a Republican West Michigan candidate for Congress who is alleged to have discriminated against drag performers with Down syndrome.

Peter Meijer discriminated against the performers when he denied them access to the Grand Rapids Tanglefoot Building as a venue for their drag performance during Project 1, according to the complaint filed Thursday with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.  

Peter Meijer

Meijer is one of at least five Republican candidates vying for the 3rd Congressional District seat of Rep. Justin Amash of Cascade Township, a former Republican who declared himself an independent in July. 

Meijer consulted with various advocacy groups prior to making his decision, which he defended Thursday despite continued criticism that he said was "emblematic of the toxic discourse we have today."

The issue has been politicized despite efforts to handle it privately, said Meijer, who added that he refused to "stop or apologize for doing what is right.”

"It’s a shame," he said in an interview with The News on Thursday. "It’s a sincere shame that this toxic discourse, the name calling and the legal threats, that that’s what this has come down to.”

Meijer, who owns the Tanglefoot Building, has rented it out in the past for public events and had agreed to donate the space and equipment for the Project 1 event, which begins Sept. 7 and ends Oct. 27.

The venue will serve as a site for Project 1, a contemporary art exhibition produced by ArtPrize whose "Crossed Lines" theme explores what unites and divides a city, said spokeswoman Jaenell Woods.

DisArt, a Grand Rapids-based group that promotes work by artists with disabilities, scheduled several programs for Project 1, including the Disability Drag Show featuring members of Drag Syndrome. 

In August, Meijer told Project 1 organizers that Drag Syndrome, a United Kingdom-based group of drag performers with Down syndrome, could not perform at the building, according to the complaint.

Meijer told organizers in a letter that allowing the performance could lead to “the potential exploitation of the vulnerable” and that the performers’ “ability to act of their own volitions is unclear."

“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 wrote in his letter.  

The Disability Drag Show will now take place at Wealthy Street Theatre, Woods said. 

The decision resulted in a wide variety of costs to redesign the production and stage for a different venue, said Chistopher Smit, co-founder and co-executive director for DisArt.

The original production was set to take place on an artist-designed outdoor amphitheater at Meijer's building called "Critical Infrastructure." It was slated to feature accessible elements such as special seating, sign language, captions, audio descriptions and sensory kits.

Meijer's decision was made without consulting the performance artists themselves and was largely based on their status as people with disabilities, Smit said. 

"These are adults who have professional careers in the arts and who have accolades and awards that many artists would only dream of," he said.

Meijer has spoken with DisArt officials twice over the phone to discuss the decision, during which they assured him the performers had both the “agency and capacity” to consent to the performance, said ACLU attorney Jay Kaplan.

“We hope through an investigation there will be a determination that this action and the reasons for the action by Mr. Meijer violated the civil rights law,” Kaplan said.

The complaint filed on behalf of DisArt requests the Department of Civil Rights to find Meijer discriminated based on the “disability of the performer and the nature of their performance due to stereotypes regarding gender expression.” The complaint seeks compensation for the cost of finding a new venue.

Meijer said he plans to contest the ACLU's complaint. 

"I’m not sure what precedent it sets for a private property owner to be forced to host something on their property," he said. "I was never going to make a dollar off of this. The fact that I’m being threatened, extorted to pay more money after I donated the space, it's an understatement to say I’m incredibly disappointed."