Over the past year, a small troupe of drag performers with Down syndrome has taken the stage in London, Stockholm, Oslo and Montreal, adopting flashy alter egos and basking in the crowd’s applause. They call themselves Drag Syndrome.
The London-based troupe’s next stop was their United States debut: an art exhibition in Grand Rapids, Mich. But after the event was publicized this summer, there was a backlash from community members who were worried that the performers were being exploited.
That faction included Peter Meijer, a supermarket scion and Republican congressional candidate who owns the venue where the group was to appear. Last month, Mr. Meijer declined to host the performers, questioning whether they could give their “full and informed consent.”
On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights against Mr. Meijer, claiming that he was discriminating against the performers because of their disability. The complaint also claimed discrimination on the basis of sex, considering they would be performing in drag.
“If members of the group were to perform an orchestra recital, chances are he wouldn’t have canceled the performance,” said Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney at A.C.L.U. of Michigan.
The complaint is mostly intended to make a statement, Kaplan said. But if the department refers the case to the state’s Civil Rights Commission, a finding of discrimination could result in a fine, he said.
The arts exhibition, run by an organization called ArtPrize, was intended to be a local celebration of public art, accessibility and inclusion, with community events around Grand Rapids spanning several weeks. But before it has even begun, the exhibition has sparked a widespread debate about what sort of agency adults with intellectual disabilities have when it comes to performing drag, an art form still considered risqué in some circles, but which has also moved into the mainstream in recent years with television shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the appearance of “Drag Queen Story Hour” at libraries.
Ultimately, DisArt, the local nonprofit that organized the drag show, found a new venue. The first performance, on Saturday, sold out within hours, so the group added a second event on Sunday. In addition to the three Drag Syndrome performers, three local artists with disabilities will be featured in the shows.
“If nothing else,” said Jill Vyn, one of DisArt’s directors, “it’s gotten people to think about their own ideas about disability.”
This summer, after the drag performance in Grand Rapids was announced, angry calls, emails and letters started rolling in to DisArt. The group was expecting this kind of reaction, Ms. Vyn said, and the staff was prepared to set people’s minds at ease.
“Artists who are participating in this show are professional performers, all of whom have careers in the arts,” said a news release by the nonprofit. “As consenting adults, they have paved their own way into this career, a process that has not been easy, but nonetheless successful.”
Enter Mr. Meijer, the 31-year-old grandson of the founder of the Michigan-based supermarket and discount chain bearing his last name. In July, he announced that he would be running for the congressional seat currently occupied by Representative Justin Amash, the only Republican member of Congress to support impeaching President Trump. (Mr. Amash recently left the Republican Party and became an independent.)
Over a year ago, Mr. Meijer bought a defunct factory in Grand Rapids and turned it into a space for private art studios. The 19th-century building is called Tanglefoot, after the sticky insect-attracting flypaper that used to be produced there. The drag performance was to be held at an amphitheater outside the building especially designed for better accessibility, including features like ramps and room for wheelchairs.
Unsettled by the idea of Drag Syndrome performing on his property, Mr. Meijer wrote a letter to the executive director of ArtPrize saying he would not allow the performance to take place there.
“The involvement of individuals whose ability to act of their own volition is unclear raises serious ethical concerns that I cannot reconcile,” Mr. Meijer wrote in the letter. He told a local news station that he believed the performance was meant to “further an activist message.”
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 L.G.B.T. 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,” Mr. Meijer said in an interview on Wednesday. “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, said that the group had a long conversation with Mr. Meijer and felt that his decision to bar the performers came prematurely.
Mr. Smit said he proposed to set up a conversation between Mr. Meijer and a Drag Syndrome performer so he could hear the artist’s perspective. Mr. Meijer said he made his decision before he was able to speak with him, and that part of his reasoning was based on his legal counsel’s concerns about the potential for a protest at the building.
Through all the group’s European performances, it never received pushback from the community, said Daniel Vais, the creative director of Drag Syndrome.
In an interview, one of the Drag Syndrome performers, whose stage name is Justin Bond, said that being onstage in character made him feel powerful. He said he loved the transformation, the makeup and the wig, and that his dancing was a crowd favorite. “We deserve the right to be ourselves and be in drag,” said the performer, who is 20. “That’s what we do best.”
For Otto Baxter, a performer whose drag name is Horrora Shebang, drag performance is only a small part of his artistic career. Mr. Baxter, 32, is an actor who has been involved with several small-scale films and participated in a dance residency at the Royal Opera House that was organized by Culture Device, a dance organization that started Drag Syndrome.
“We’re going to continue doing it whether you like it or not,” Mr. Baxter said of the drag performances.
Some of the discussions Mr. Meijer had before making his decision were about standards for self-determination for people with Down syndrome. One official at the National Down Syndrome Congress told Mr. Meijer that competence among individuals with intellectual disabilities should be presumed unless evidence is provided to the contrary. But when it came to his role as a property owner, Mr. Meijer said in an email to DisArt, his “standard of proof” was higher.
Dennis McGuire, a Down syndrome behavioral expert who helped establish the Adult Down Syndrome Center in Illinois, said in an interview that while he understood the concern for these performers, 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,” Dr. McGuire said, “They’re so open hearted and they love music and dancing and theater.”