A Glimpse of Freedom, in Glittery Heels

A Michigan Republican tried to shut down a drag show featuring performers with Down syndrome. His impulse is disturbingly common.

Drag Syndrome
Drag Syndome performers including Gaia Callas, Lady Francesca, and Justin Bond. Courtesy of Drag Syndrome.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

This month, the first troupe of drag performers with Down syndrome, playfully called Drag Syndrome, planned to have its first U.S. performance. Each member has chosen clever names and brash looks. They were originally set to perform at the Tanglefoot Building in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Unfortunately, Peter Meijer, a Republican candidate for Congress and the owner of the venue, canceled their performance. Meijer’s reasoning? He wanted to protect people with Down syndrome from being “exploited” onstage.

Another venue picked Drag Syndrome up, and the troupe performed after all in Grand Rapids last Saturday. (Roughly 400 people clapped along, according to MLive, while a handful of others protested outside.) The show sold out almost instantly, so they added a second night.

The members of Drag Syndrome don’t feel exploited, and they’ve said as much. In a video posted to social media, drag king Justin Bond told the world, “We deserve to do what we want with our lives, and to give ourselves more power.” In another video, two performers vogue for the camera on their way to a flight bound for the second show venue. A third gives a shameless snap. It’s clear they are exactly where they want to be, doing exactly what they’d like to do. “We’re going to continue doing it whether you like it or not,” Otto Baxter, better known as Horrora Shebang, told the New York Times.

People with Down syndrome are people. Some people are queer. Since people with Down syndrome are people, some people with Down syndrome are queer. People with Down syndrome have the same variety of sexuality and gender expression everyone else has. The members of Drag Syndrome celebrate that, and they do it in glittery stiletto heels.

Meijer seems to be operating under the misapprehension that people with Down syndrome are a different species than the rest of us. To Meijer, they are special, eternal children who need to be shielded from adult sexuality. His attitude is unfortunately common. This is not because Meijer’s view is a reality, but because it is something that is easily imposed on people who often get little say in their own lives. People with Down syndrome are vulnerable, but not in the way Meijer thinks.

Many adults with Down syndrome are under guardianship. What this means is that they do not have the same legal rights everyone else has. Most of a person’s basic decisions are turned over to a guardian, usually a parent or other family member. People under guardianship don’t get to make decisions like where they want to live, whether to undergo medical treatment, or even to have romantic relationships. In many U.S. states, people under guardianship can’t vote. Many of the adults with Down syndrome under guardianship live in notorious places referred to as “group homes,” where they are under surveillance for much of the day. This is sometimes necessary to prevent injury, but it makes it difficult to have a private life.

Many group homes and other service providers are religious, so they may actively oppose behavior viewed as “sinful,” even if it’s completely normal behavior that non-disabled people enjoy every day. Home health aides and family members may be uncomfortable helping people with Down syndrome do things that are perceived as too adult, like having a beer or going on a date. When you have a disability and rely on others for help, others have the power to make decisions for you that they often wouldn’t make for themselves. Gender and sexuality are only one facet of this struggle. Self-advocacy groups often fight for rights that are so basic, it’s hard to even think of them as rights: The right to choose when to go to bed. The right to curse. The right to choose what to wear. The right to choose what to have for dinner.

Then there’s Drag Syndrome, dancing boldly toward a freedom of expression many typical adults never even experience. In a world where drag queens are reality television stars and read children’s stories at public libraries, Drag Syndrome is a drag act doing something truly transgressive—asserting their freedom and full humanity.