Not that long ago you used to be able to go to Coney Island and Shoot the Freak on the boardwalk. Yours Truly saw it with his own eyes. A gibbering Italian guy in a below-grade cage that hurled insults while you pegged him with an ersatz gun. A souped-up version of the clown in a dunk tank.
The new Freak was only steps away from the old tented Freak Show. Remember those? Pay a dime to gaze upon the bizarre and unusual. Bearded ladies, fully tattooed men, monstrously blubberous women, African cannibals, alleged hermaphrodites.
What killed the freak shows wasn’t compassion. It was familiarity. People will always be curious about oddities, but there’s no point to trekking across the city to see weird sights when you can walk out the door and get the show free. Schools and the media make a point to celebrate most every known deformity.
Save one. Until recently, the retarded were treated with deserving compassion. There isn’t the least hint of moral culpability on the part of a man with Down syndrome (though in days of yore some suspicion might have been cast on his parents).
There are now three main attitudes. The first is the old way, to treat retarded folks with care, recognizing their severe limitations, but also their often preternatural happiness.
The second, and growing, idea is that those with Down syndrome should be killed before escaping the womb. This killing is whimsically called a “cure.”
The third, and strangest, is to openly treat those with Down syndrome as there nothing at all different about them, in the same way a man pretending to be a woman is to be treated as a woman.
The third attitude accounts for shows like “Drag Syndrome.” This is a troop of people with Down syndrome dressing up in the clothes of the opposite sex. Done for the amusement of the crowd, a crowd that would still like to attend a freak show, but a crowd which knows calling anybody a freak these days is racist, homophobic, etc. etc.
If we were to propose, say, Art With The Retarded, a show which has Down syndrome people walk on stage and attempt to paint, the first person in the crowd to titter would be burned at the stake.
Making the show about sex is how they get away with it. Any “art” in the prurient interest is automatically given a pass. But not by everybody.
Naturally, when they heard somebody complained, the ACLU got involved.
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.
It’s worse than it sounds. A stereotypical ACLU lawyer named Kaplan said “If members of the group were to perform an orchestra recital, chances are he wouldn’t have canceled the performance.”
This proves ACLU lawyers can’t tell the difference between perversion and performance. Maybe we could use this kind of blindness in our favor. We can set up a show in which ACLU lawyers are tarred and feathered. We could call it performance art. If there are complaints, we’ll require the lawyers are first forcibly stripped. This will make it just sexual enough to get past modern censors.
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 reminds me. We have to call the lawyers about to be tarred and feathered “artists”.
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