Photographer Eimear Lynch goes backstage with Drag Syndrome, a collective of drag artists shaking off preconceived notions of disability and sexuality
Drag has long been a vehicle for escapism. For the members of Drag Syndrome – a collective of drag artists with Down’s Syndrome – it’s also one to shake off the stigma and preconceived notions of disability and sexuality.
One of Drag Syndrome’s earliest performances took place at the now-closed Miranda Bar at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch, and photographer Eimear Lynch, whose sister produced their shows, was amongst a tentative audience. However, as soon as the dance troupe hit the stage, Lynch knew she had to capture the moment.
“They hadn’t done many live shows before this, so the audience was pretty quiet and didn’t know what to expect,” remembers Lynch. “As soon as they started performing, the audience was on their feet. The choreography and show plan was very loose. The performers were really just doing what they wanted, and it looked so liberating. [Drag Syndrome] would dance on stage, wander off stage, sit on a lucky spectator’s lap, and then back on stage to finish the song. It was all very chaotic – in the best way.”
It was just a few years before that the seeds of Drag Syndrome were sown, in 2017, when choreographer and now Drag Syndrome’s creative director, Daniel Vais, was working with a contemporary dance company for people with Down’s Syndrome. Speaking to Vice, Vais recalled that he was doing a reccy alongside one of the dancers, Sarah Gordy, at a venue in east London that just so happened to be hosting a drag party at the same time. The pair were enthralled by what they had stepped into, and Gordy decided to try her hand at drag. After a few more recruitments, Drag Syndrome was born.
While there’s been a steady stream of gigs since, Drag Syndrome recently took to the stage at London’s Standard Hotel, and Lynch and her camera went along too. As part of the hotel’s TheirStories week, guests were invited to listen to a frank discussion with members of the troupe, followed by a performance with Lady Francesca, Lady Mercury, Nikita Gold, Justin Bond and Divina Starr. “They discussed the highs and lows of being drag performers and the unfortunate hate they get from ignorant people who don’t understand them,” remembers Lynch. “They then went on to perform a few songs each and a group one together, and everyone was up dancing. Their shows are probably some of the most fun shows I’ve been to.”
Drag Syndrome provides far more than just a fun time. That first performance at Miranda Bar was dubbed “London’s first ever underground drag event featuring performers, artists, and guests with Down’s Syndrome”, and the troupe has been booked and busy with a schedule that has them travelling around the world to perform, expanding the representation of drag as well as people with Down’s Syndrome. “They’re so determined to break down more barriers and keep doing what they’re doing despite what anyone says, which is truly inspiring and incredibly impressive,” says Lynch. “They’ve definitely taught me to be more confident in that way. They are doing something that has never been done before and is challenging preconceived notions of disability and sexuality.”
In the UK, it’s estimated that around 47,000 people live with Down’s Syndrome – or about one in every 1,000. Lynch’s photographs and Drag Syndrome’s entire ethos widen the possibilities of drag and help ensure everyone can see themselves in it. “It’s important that (drag) communities are intersectional,“ says Lynch. “Seeing neurodiverse artists being confident, sexy, and talented in front of adorning audiences is a form of resistance to cultural homogenisation. With their confidence and emanating kindness, Drag Syndrome brings another perspective to the drag community.”
Importantly, Lynch wanted to ensure her photographs from that night at the Standard in London didn’t just document the dancers, but that they expressed a side of the troupe’s personalities that might not be instantly associated with people with Down’s Syndrome. “I wanted to display the performers as who they are and who their drag personas are, and not display them as sweet and innocent, like the way that often people presume people with disabilities to be, because these guys are definitely not.”