Drag Syndrome Creates Controversy, But Also Fruitful Conversation About Disability, Queerness, and Performance Art

by Aaminah Shakur

The intersection of queerphobia and paternalistic ableism in West Michigan has brought controversy to an upcoming ArtPrize Project 1 performance event. Paul Amenta and Ted Lott have collaborated on an accessible theater structure that will be the site of musical, theater, and spoken word performances for the duration of Project 1, September 7 through October 27. Amenta is the founder of SiTE:LAB, which is  is coordinating local talent and partnering with local organizations, including Grand Rapids Soul Club, KBOgoup, Kyd Kane, Not Design, Lora Roberson, Satellite Collective, SideCar Studio, SuperDre, and WMCAT. Lott is an architect and partner in Lott3Metz Architecture, who has collaborated with Amenta on numerous projects. In response to the controversy, disabled and Queer performers are persevering, and the community is rallying in support of them, making the upcoming show even more of a must-see event than it already was.

The Grand Rapids Art Museum hosted a scheduled panel talk (video of the entire event is viewable here) between DisArt, Beauty Beyond Drag Productions, and UK-based performance group Drag Syndrome. The original intent of the panel was to introduce Drag Syndrome, a performance troupe of drag kings and queens who all have Down Syndrome, to the community, discuss the history of drag as a performance art, and share about how drag is increasingly becoming a way for Disabled people to express themselves through performance and art. While that remained the primary focus of the panel, it was also overshadowed with the need to defend the forthcoming event against the onslaught of misunderstanding and bigoted judgments. Panel participants and audience members responded to the news that the owner, Peter Meijer, of the original event site, Tanglefoot, had decided the performance could no longer take place in his building.

The panel consisted of six members, with a facilitator and ASL interpreter also on stage throughout. The panel itself was made up of two members of Drag Syndrome via Skype, Otto Baxter (who performs as Horrora Shebang, and has Down Syndrome) and Daniel Vais (founder and creative director of the group); two members of Beauty Beyond Drag, Bradley Haas (founder and creative director of the group) and Ben Kleyn (who performs under the name Siren, and identifies as Disabled and Neurodivergent); and Chris Smit and Jill Blakemore Vyn, founders of DisArt.

critical infrastructure_06.25.19.pdf

Project 1 concept design proposal for Critical Infastructure at Tanglefoot by Ted Lott and Paul Amenta in conjunction with DisArt

The venue and set up was not as accessible as it could have been, which was ironic for a discussion of disability and making the arts accessible for Disabled performers and audience. The chairs were quite uncomfortable and felt unstable for larger bodies, the Skype television screen was a split screen between Vais and Baxter when it would have been better to use two separate screens, the volume of the television set and sound quality was not the best, and the talk-to-text transcription screen was positioned too low with quite small text that was difficult to see despite my sitting near the front. This is important to note because I was noticeably not the only Disabled person in the audience (or on the panel itself, for that matter), and one of the accessibility measures was that the discussion was live-cast via the internet, but viewers would not have been able to see Vais and Baxter clearly if watching the live feed.

Critical infastructure pre construction

Project 1 Critical Infastructure, Tanglefoot Building, pre-construction.

When we talk about making events and spaces accessible, we need to have better conversations about what that means, how to actively make things accessible, and also how sometimes accessibility needs will clash. What provides accessibility for one person’s disability may be exactly the thing that makes a situation inaccessible for another person’s disability. This means no space can be accessible for every possible need, but we can do more to make the space accessible to more people.

Additionally, it seemed that panelists were not equally prepared to answer the questions that were asked by the moderator, and this is another issue of accessibility. It is advisable to share the list of questions in advance with panelists so they can prepare how they would like to answer them. This is even more important for neurodivergent panelists so they feel some control over their ability to answer or give feedback if they aren’t comfortable with or don’t understand a question.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the panel was the lack of conversation and naming of drag as an art form born from Queer Culture. It is vitally important to name this when discussing drag performance in order to situate it within art history and culture making, and to not erase the marginalized bodies it exists for and the people it was created by. Specifically, contemporary drag culture comes from Black and Latinx Queer culture, and this is also important to make evident, but this brings up the question of why, once again, a panel was convened without any Black or other people of color involved, despite the fact that even in Grand Rapids Black performers have been central to the creation and promotion of this art form. This erasure of the Queer roots of drag brings us to the current controversy around the scheduled performance of Drag Syndrome in conjunction with local (Queer) Disabled drag performers from Beyond Beauty Drag Productions.

Just days before the panel, Peter Meijer released a statement rescinding his permission for the performance at Tanglefoot, a building that houses several studios of local artists. In conjunction with DisArt, SiTE:LAB had invested money and labor into building an accessible stage for the performance and space for the audience. The loss of that venue requires DisArt to find a new location with little notice, and with no ability to ensure the new space is as accessible or well-designed for the nature of drag performance. Meijer’s statement consists of unstated Queerphobia – a combination of homophobia and transphobia – combined with ableist beliefs about people with Down Syndrome. His statement said, in part, “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… I cannot know, and neither can an audience, whether the individuals performing for Drag Syndrome are giving, or are in a position to give, their full and informed consent.”

There are several issues in this statement that are very apparent to Disabled and Queer people; even though it may be deemed subtle by abled and non-Queer people, these are glaring and common problems we experience. The use of the term “differently abled” is code that shows Meijer is not invested in listening to Disabled people who have long said euphemistic terms are offensive to us. Disabled people – including Otto Baxter during the panel talk – have also said they are not “special souls,” that people with Down Syndrome are not “angelic” as they are often called, and they should not be compared to children.

Meijer claims to have spoken to disability agencies and parents of people with Down Syndrome to come to his conclusion, but this is part of the problem. Adults with Down Syndrome, as all the members of Drag Syndrome are, are quite capable of speaking for themselves, but Meijer did not talk to them. He talked to abled (i.e. not Disabled) people who see themselves as the protectors of Disabled people and who routinely speak for and over us. This is a world-wide phenomenon, and what I am talking about when I refer to “paternalistic ableism” in the opening to this article.

The desire of parents, caregivers, case workers, and others to infantilize people with disabilities, and Down Syndrome in particular, is a matter long-discussed by adults with disabilities. It is technically true that we may not be sure any performer is doing so of their own free will and not being exploited, but performers with Down Syndrome are no more exploitable than anyone else. It takes so little time and effort to look at their website or watch any of the short documentaries made about the Drag Syndrome performers to realize this. The performers of this troupe are accomplished performers both in drag and out of it, they are adults, and they can and do speak for themselves. Meijer wasn’t interested in hearing from them, however. It’s a safe guess that in West Michigan most of the people he consulted aren’t very interested in letting the performers speak for themselves, and that contrary to Meijer’s claims of “content neutral” concerns, the question of consent versus exploitation is explicitly about the perception of drag as “deviant” behavior rather than an art form.

DisArt’s statement regarding Meijer’s statement continues to promote the myth that the sole issue is ableism. They state that Mejer is not allowing the troupe to perform “because they have Down Syndrome” but this is a half-truth. If the troupe were performing selections of classical theater – as Baxter has won numerous awards for doing separate from his drag identity – there would be no question if the performers were making a choice by free-will or if they were being exploited. It is specifically that drag is Queer culture and that by participating in it Drag Syndrome is contributing to Queer Performance culture that creates these questions. Art is meant to be unsettling to the status quo, but artistic revolutions have always met with claims of “deviance” and that the work isn’t actually art. It wasn’t until audience member Tommy Allen (artist, and Interim President of the Board at the Grand Rapids Pride Center) spoke that any acknowledgment of Queerness and anti-Queer sentiments behind the controversy were addressed, even though Haas and Kleyn are both openly gay. Once that door was open, Haas did speak up from his perspective as a gay man, despite it seeming that DisArt had intentionally wanted to avoid addressing sexuality and gender. But you cannot present drag and refuse to have that conversation, particularly in the face of bigotry that stems from a hatred and fear of gay and trans people.

Again, this is about the intersection of queerphobia and ableism that believes people with Down Syndrome are perpetually innocent children who have no sexuality to speak of, certainly do not and cannot think about gender issues, and are incapable of considering these concerns around their own bodies and experiences. Please let me burst that bubble: Disabled people, including people with Down Syndrome, have the same inherent right as anyone else to be sexual beings, to express sexual desire, to recognize themselves as sexually Queer, and to explore their gender and gender expression. There are gay, bisexual, trans, non-binary, and other Queer people with Down Syndrome. We don’t know if any of the members of Drag Syndrome self-identify as Queer – and it really isn’t our business to ask or assume either way. But they have the right to identify as Queer if that is what they want, the right to explore what that means through their chosen art form, and further, they have the ability to determine that for their own selves. Further, as artists, Baxter responded to notions that he is any way “controlled” or exploited by saying that no one tells him what to do. Unlike directors in other forms of theatre, creative directors in drag companies do not drive the content or form of the performance. Both Haas and Vais spoke to their roles being limited and allowing the artists to determine their music, costumes, and way of performing. Baxter was emphatic that he performs drag because he enjoys doing so.

The underlying queerphobia was exemplified during the Q&A portion of the panel talk when two community members spoke about their disregard for Queer people as inherently valuable people in our Queerness, and their paternalistic feelings about their goddaughter with Down Syndrome. Their focus was again on the idea that people with Down Syndrome are both “easily manipulated” and “pure of heart,” both of which deny agency, dignity, and humanity to people with Down Syndrome. The critical couple also placed overt emphasis on their opinions regarding transgender people, but drag is not necessarily about a trans identity, and the performance art of Drag Syndrome is explicitly not engaging directly with trans identity. Still, the critique provides insight into what the real “fear” is behind Meijer’s perspective and how it is, not surprisingly, shared by much of the conservative base he is pandering to for votes in the next election where he hopes to unseat incumbent Justin Amash. The most unfortunate thing about this, aside from the harm to Queer and Disabled people in the audience and on the panel as we were subjected to hateful rhetoric, is that they were insisting on speaking over Kleyn and Baxter, two Disabled drag queens who had already shared their perspectives that they “love” expressing themselves through drag and that they consider themselves artists.

Fortunately, the panel discussion closed on a much more understanding note. A woman with Down Syndrome stood up to share that she enjoys watching drag performances and is excited to see the show. Her mother, being careful not to speak over her daughter, shared that if she herself were to decide to become a drag king no one would question her for doing so, and that she is offended anyone would suggest her daughter is incapable of deciding for herself if she wanted to engage in that sort of exploration and performance.

The show, as they say, must go on. As Smit shared, “Disabled people have the agency and the right to express themselves across multiple cultures.” Art is inherently political, just as Queer and Disabled identities are, but art and cultural expressions are also beautiful and transformative, especially when they afford us the opportunity to hear the voices and expressions of those who for too long have been spoken for. I, for one, am interested in hearing and seeing what Horrora, Siren, and the other Disabled performers have to tell us.

Drag Syndrome will perform alongside local drag queens (including Siren) from Beauty Beyond Drag Productions at 6:00pm on Saturday, September 7, 2019 at a location to be announced. There will also be a Disability Drag Meet ‘n Greet on Sunday, September 8, 2019 5:00-7:00pm, also at a location to be announced.

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