In 2019, a performance by a dance troupe at the Tanglefoot Building in Grand Rapids attracted controversy after the site’s owner canceled the event. The reason was that the troupe was composed of drag queens and kings, and all were adults with Down Syndrome. The event space owner was Peter Meijer, then a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives. After brief outrage, the story was forgotten, but Drag Syndrome has continued to market their “craft” through—what else?—TikTok.
When I learned there were drag performers with Down Syndrome on TikTok, needless to say, I was shocked but not surprised. The app seems to be a bottomless pit crawling with narcissistic attention seekers trying to outdo one another with daring stunts, cute pet videos, salacious rumors, and perversions of the human condition. The issue of what level of sexual expression Down Syndrome patients possess is not a cut-and-dried proposition.
The National Down Syndrome Society has published guidance stating:
In the past, sexuality was not considered an issue for any people with Down syndrome because of the inaccurate belief that intellectual disability produced permanent childhood. In fact, all people with Down syndrome have sexual feelings and intimacy needs. It is important that expression of these feelings in socially acceptable, age-appropriate ways be recognized by families and caregivers.
But given their intellectual disabilities, youth and adults with this condition are easy targets for sexual abuse and exploitation. Indeed, data published in 2011 from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs show that they suffer the highest rate of sexual assault (2.6 out of 1,000 persons) and violent crime (16.8 out of 1,000 persons).
Would featuring such adults in a drag performance constitute making a sexual abuse crime legal? I wonder if breaking down previous barriers in the sexualization of kids—such as the 11-year-old drag child Desmond is Amazing or his 9-year-old rival “Queen Lactatia”—may have softened the resistance of Americans to the issue of what constitutes the sexual exploitation.
Recently, sex-positive “artists” in the UK have begun producing performances that encourage families to discuss sexual topics such as masturbation and describe them as “an alternative to porn.” Their debut show was canceled due to backlash. One of the reasons that they received such a reaction was a video shared on Twitter by the now-famous Libs of TikTok (@libsoftiktok) account, which specializes in exposing sexual perversion and antisocial behavior on the platform.
While some may gripe that this is an attempt at censorship, remember that one-third of TikTok’s daily users are younger than 14-years-old. The site is psychologically addictive and may be associated with increased anxiety and depression. Its short algorithmically controlled videos have been recognized by state regimes as a valuable conduit for propaganda and disinformation.
The trend that led to this point did not start with drag shows for disabled people. In the 20th century, the sexual liberation movement had “opposed any prescription on how consenting adults may or must make love’” as gay rights activist and historian Martin Duberman phrased it. This meant that existing taboos on same-sex acts and relationships were the main target for such organizations as the Gay Liberation Front, often using the same themes and vocabulary as the concurrent anti-war, women’s rights, and racial civil rights movements.
One of the primary arguments used by opponents of the gay rights movement was that this narrative of enabling mature persons with natural inclinations to live their lives in peace was a Trojan horse that would lead to decriminalizing sexual relations between children and adults. What is not well known is that within several gay rights organizations, there was a conflict in which these child sex advocates were attempting to normalize pedophilia.
For example, in the Netherlands, noted sexologist Frits Bernard and politician Edward Brongersma attempted to bring pedophilia under the umbrella of the main Dutch gay rights group, COC, to encourage wider acceptance among the public. In the 1980s, this led to an atmosphere of “tolerance at arm’s length” for pedophilic relationships in the Netherlands until a corrective movement in 1985 caused by a parliamentary initiative to lower the age of consent.
What does all of this have to do with Drag Syndrome? Terrible ideas, once rejected by societies in a crude form, can be marketed successfully in a more digestible format. Social media enables the distribution and acceptance of sexual exploitation of minors and, now, disabled adults. While the drag show may take place in small club spaces, TikTok allows wide distribution to those who otherwise would never have the desire or the means to attend a show.
The troupe’s nearly 400,000 TikTok followers give validation and social cachet to an act that features revolting burlesque acts involving people with special needs. The premise behind drag shows and new gender identities is part of a consistent drumbeat in the media holding that innate sexual characteristics have no bearing on the gendered self, and that this must be taught to children at a younger age to disabuse them of the idea that their biological sex should frame their self-expression.
Drag Syndrome is a project of Culture Device, a dance company in the UK partnered with the Royal Ballet that has also performed for numerous mainstream media organizations such as the BBC and the New York Times, as well as elite cultural institutions such as the Bonn Museum of Modern Art in Germany. According to a Vogue interview with the director of the short film “Drag Syndrome,” “some identify as gay, some would like to transition, and others just like to dress up.” Every media write-up includes a quote or blurb where one or more performers talk about how much they enjoy doing the act.
During the BBC profile segment, the performers and production manager Ciara Lynch spoke about the negative reactions towards their performance of drag and how it was important for them as persons with disabilities to express themselves. The pretext that one’s actions are justified by the pleasure derived from them, or especially the outrage they cause, is often effective for such provocative art forms as punk rock or cartoon satire.
The Drag Syndrome project, however, crosses the line in a very significant way that would make such a comparison deceptive. It attempts to limit the concept of abuse to physical assault, verbal insults, or mockery while excluding exploitation.
Drag Syndrome is a form of exploitation—not only ethically but artistically, because it seeks to capitalize on a current social trend by using vulnerable people with diminished cognitive abilities. It is not as if drag performance is some obscure and avant-garde area of culture in our time; on the contrary it seems to be everywhere, to the point that Burlington High School in Vermont decided to hold a drag queen ball during a football game.
The Culture Device producers are performing a much higher level of mockery than an ignorant playground bully. Drag culture tends to use garish costumes and overly exaggerated mannerisms by a person of one sex in imitation of the other to break gender constructs in an entertaining way.
Naturally, many drag performers tend to be either gay or have gender identity issues. Overwhelmingly, they subscribe to the thinking that gender identity is disconnected from biology. But if sex chromosomes do not define the person, why are the producers at Creative Design choosing performers with Downs, a genetic disorder specifically caused by an anomaly of the 21st chromosome? When promoting a 2018 performance, they used the tag line “hold on to your 21st Chromosome, kids . . .”.
By combining a current cultural fad with an especially vulnerable population, these dance troupe producers are not merely scraping the bottom of the barrel, they may have kicked the barrel itself to infinitely lower depths.