These Drag Queens With Down Syndrome Slay Audiences, Destroy Barriers

"You don’t see them as only people with Down syndrome, you see them as performers."

Otto Baxter is no newcomer to performing. The 31-year-old has starred in BBC documentaries, acted in a BAFTA-nominated short film, and appeared in Shakespeare theater productions. His latest endeavor is touring the United Kingdom as drag queen Horrora Shebang, part of an all-Down syndrome drag troupe called Drag Syndrome. This distinctive group is giving cast members the opportunity to perform avant-garde drag acts and challenge the public’s perception of people with Down syndrome.

As soon as Baxter heard about the Drag Syndrome project he wanted to take part, and quickly discovered he loved the experience. “I like being in drag and performing in different shows. It’s really exciting showing off and being sassy,” he tells NewNowNext. The launch event was held at East London queer venue vFd on March 29, 2018, and was the first time these drag queens performed as fully realized personas and characters.

While each show champions inclusivity, broadening notions of what people with Down syndrome are expected to do in the public sphere, artistic expression and talent are at the forefront.

“[Audiences] think the queens are great performers first and foremost, with an interesting way of playing with gender, identity, and sexuality,” says Daniel Vais, the creative director of Drag Syndrome. “For the audience to see a performer playing with gender, some people can feel uncomfortable because they don’t see people with Down syndrome as sexual beings or someone who is connected to gender or sexual desire.”

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that is associated with intellectual disabilities and delays in physical growth, but the severity of the condition varies widely. According to the United Kingdom’s Down Syndrome Association, approximately 750 babies with Down syndrome are born in the U.K. each year, with about 40,000 people total reported as having the disorder nationwide.

Vais has worked with artists with Down syndrome for a few years in an experimental performance arts company called Culture Device. After the success of the initial show, he reached out to the other performers he works with.

“We’re always looking for new challenges and experimental performances and platforms,” Vais says. “So I asked all my artists if they would be interested in doing drag, and they got very excited. The next time I spoke to them, they knew more than me about drag!”

Damien Frost
Miss Francesca.

Word spread about the groundbreaking drag troupe, and Drag Syndrome began to receive invitations to perform from nightclubs, queer spaces, and music festivals around the U.K. Thanks to the strong interest from venues, Drag Syndrome decided to take the show on the road to expose more people to a truly unique and never-before-seen drag experience.

“Touring is one of the most important aspects of our work—you have to see the performers live,” Vais says. “Most people haven’t seen a performer with Down syndrome, and they certainly haven’t seen a drag artist with Down syndrome, so the performances are fresh for every audience.”

Inclusivity in Drag

The representation of drag queens in mainstream culture has grown massively over the past decade, due in no small part to the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race. But from accusations of transphobia leveled against RuPaul, to queens of color receiving racist abuse from fans of the show, it’s clear there’s still room to grow in terms of inclusivity.

Across the pond, London’s drag community has wholeheartedly welcomed Drag Syndrome into the local drag scene. “Thank God there is the queer scene who is more accepting, we were embraced quite beautifully. In the scene in London people would stop and ask me, ‘Are you from ‘Drag Syndrome? Oh my God, I’m following you—it’s fantastic!” Vais says.

Drag icons like Michelle Visage have publicly supported Drag Syndrome. There’s even a waiting list of queens who want to appear on stage alongside the performers with Down syndrome.

Offstage and away from accepting audiences, however, both Vais and the queens of Drag Syndrome have faced ableist abuse from people who target those with Down syndrome. From tweets saying people with Down syndrome should be killed, to verbal attacks after performances, ignorance against the community is still pervasive.

“With the queens owning the stage during the performance, you don’t see them as only people with Down syndrome, you see them as performers,” Vais says. “That’s the power of drag.”

Fighting for the Crown at Alternative Miss Wilderness

Drag Syndrome was recently invited to take part in Alternative Miss Wilderness, run by Alternative Miss World, at the annual Wilderness Festival, to showcase an alternative drag performance. “The host asked Otto on stage, ‘What inspired you to be a drag queen?’ and he said, ‘All of you bitches here.’ They loved seeing him because they’ve never seen anyone like him—a drag queen with Down syndrome, living large,’” Vais says.

Baxter, onstage as Horrora Shebang, performed “I’m So Beautiful” by legendary drag queen Divine. He won over the crowd and judges before he even began his performance, telling the audience: “You know there are many other strong performers here; I want the crown on my head, watch me go and get it.”

The cheering and clapping was “deafening,” Baxter recalls: “They recognize me from TV and local radio stations. It was fucking amazing, they worshiped me on stage.”

Drag Syndrome has received invites from clubs in Milan, Paris, Amsterdam, and New York, and there are future plans to go on an international tour, funding or sponsorship pending. After all, outfits, wigs, and make-up artists for a troupe of drag queens and kings won’t come cheap, not to mention the cost of flights and accommodations.

The troupe provides a one-of-a-kind opportunity for people with Down syndrome to express their personality and creativity in a fully inclusive environment, free from judgement. It’s also inspired others around the world: People with Down syndrome internationally have reached out to Drag Syndrome to ask how they can get involved.
 

“The people with Down syndrome I have worked with are magnificent—really, really magnificent,” Vais says. “I can talk about it for a long time, but as I can see in my work, they are not given the platform they deserve.”

Baxter says he has no plans to stop performing in drag anytime soon. “As an actor, playing a drag queen is just one of the roles I take on,” he shares. “I want to carry on doing drag and put on a Broadway stage, called Drag the Musical—starring me—and perform at the Oscars.”

Finbarr Toesland is a London-based journalist who regularly writes for national and international publications.