Beverly Beckham

Hey, GQ, mocking the disabled simply isn’t fashionable

A photo from the July issue of GQ magazine. A photo from the July issue of GQ magazine.
By Beverly Beckham
Globe Columnist / July 31, 2011

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On July 15, the magazine GQ proclaimed on its website that the people of Boston are the worst dressed in the country.

This should have been a lighthearted summer story, raising ire and eyebrows, but with a wink, too. We’re just teasing, Boston. We just want you and everyone else to read our magazine!

But what was silly turned serious when writer John B. Thompson, in a poor attempt at humor, penned these words: “Due to so much local inbreeding, Boston suffers from a kind of Style Down Syndrome, where a little extra ends up ruining everything.’’

People with Down syndrome do, indeed, have an extra chromosome, 47 instead of 46. But this “little extra’’ doesn’t “ruin’’ them, though now, because of Thompson’s ill-chosen words, many who have never met a person with Down syndrome and know nothing about this genetic condition may believe it does. Down syndrome also is not a result of in-breeding. It’s caused by an error in cell division and occurs in all races, in all classes, and in all nations.

The Down syndrome community reacted swiftly to Thompson’s point-blank attack on people they love. Families and friends took immediately to Facebook and Twitter to condemn his words. They e-mailed GQ. They phoned the publisher, Peter King Hunsinger.

Dr. Brian Skotko, a specialist in the Down Syndrome Program at Children’s Hospital Boston, whose sister Kristin has Down syndrome, wrote a funny/poignant piece called “Mock My Pants, Not My Sister’’ for the Children’s Hospital blog, which in two weeks had more than 82,000 hits.

Both the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress and the National Down Syndrome Society wrote to GQ. And even the mainstream media weighed in. The Boston Herald. The Boston Globe. The Washington Post. Fox TV. All were dismayed at Thompson’s words.

This is the good part, that we live in a community that cares enough to speak out.

But this is the bad part: That someone like Thompson, a writer with a paying job, thought a swipe at the disabled, which was inaccurate and cruel and reinforced stereotypes, was clever. And that his editors approved it.

According to GQ’s publisher, the website’s editor and Thompson have personally apologized to anyone who has contacted them about this matter. But the magazine has yet to make a public apology.

Skotko has asked that it devote some of its pages to showcasing people with Down syndrome so its readers can learn the truth about those it maligned. But to date he has not received a reply.

My granddaughter Lucy, who just turned 8, has Down syndrome. Before she was born, I might have read Thompson’s mean-spirited words and simply thought he’s a jerk. And that might have been it. But now I know Lucy. And because of Lucy, I know Gracie and Connor and Jack and Isaiah and Julian and Bobby.

And what I know is this: I know these children climb Mount Everest every day. Nothing is easy for them. Reading. Writing. Counting. Riding a bike. Speaking. Climbing the monkey bars. Making friends.

I know how hard they work and I know how hard they try, and I know how they keep on trying, when most people without that extra chromosome would quit.

I watch Lucy try to put a penny in a gumball machine. It takes her many tries. She stomps her foot. She stomps both feet. She moans. She mutters.

But she doesn’t give up. Even if she walks away for a while, she comes back and keeps on trying.

This is what I would show John Thompson if I could. Lucy working at something. And then he would know that the real “little extra’’ that people with Down syndrome have is persistence.

And that it doesn’t ruin things. It makes things better.

An online petition, which asks GQ to issue an apology, can be accessed at . Beverly Beckham can be reached at