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ArtPrize’s Project 1 is in full swing in Grand Rapids, and this year's citywide art celebration is all about what it means to belong.

Peter Meijer, however, isn’t feeling the love from his hometown. In fact, many are treating him like a pariah — and all for doing what he thought was a good thing.

Meijer wanted to get involved with ArtPrize and donated the use of the Tanglefoot building, which he owns, to the nonprofits SiTE:LAB and DisArt. In addition to the building, he donated use of the surrounding property, his equipment, utility costs, a dumpster and his employees’ time.

Meijer, an Army veteran and the grandson of retail giant Fred Meijer, is also one of several Republicans running for Congress to challenge Rep. Justin Amash.

He says he was happy to offer his space to these groups because he wanted to “promote a sense of belonging and inclusion for individuals with disabilities.”

“I can’t say I still feel that way,” he says.

That’s because once Meijer learned last month about one of the performances booked by DisArt, which promotes art by disabled individuals, he didn’t feel comfortable hosting the event at Tanglefoot. DisArt had invited a United Kingdom-based group called Drag Syndrome.

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

The group consists of people with Down syndrome who perform in drag. That raised red flags for Meijer, so he engaged with folks in the local disability advocacy community, including parents of children with Down syndrome, to see what they thought.

“From dozens of conversations over a couple of days, the near unanimous response was that my deep concerns over the potential for exploitation were widely shared,” he says. “And so I let ArtPrize know they couldn’t host this performance at my space.”

It’s now taking place at another venue.

DisArt, along with the ACLU of Michigan, filed a formal discrimination complaint against Meijer with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. They are claiming he violated the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act by discriminating against the group based on disability and sex. (Nevermind that the law hasn’t actually been updated to include sexual orientation and gender identity).

“You know I think they say, ‘no good deed goes unpunished’?” Meijer says. “Now that in addition to everything else, I’m looking at tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, I will certainly think twice about being involved with ArtPrize in the future.”

Can you blame him?

Meijer had justifiable concerns about hosting this particular performance on his private property. It’s not as if he were trying to ban Down syndrome individuals from the venue altogether.

You can bet his political persuasion played into the backlash.

Using anti-discrimination laws as a tool to force private property owners to host events they believe are exploitative or vulgar is a troubling trend.

“I guess one of the most disappointing things is how few of the critics attacking me actually want to look at my underlying concerns,” Meijer says. 

He’s been called a “bigot,” “ableist,” “homophobe,” “transphobe,” “scumbag,” to name a few.

Meijer plans to fight the complaint, and to continue his pursuit of elected office. One of the reasons he wanted to run was to combat growing incivility and a toxic political culture.

“Unfortunately, it’s often the loudest, angriest and most litigious voices that rule the day, and I’m not going to let that stand,” he says.

ijacques@detroitnews.com 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques

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