Orlando restaurant Hamburger Mary’s sues Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over anti-drag law

The lawsuit comes after DeSantis signed into law a bill that restricts drag performances anywhere children are present.

click to enlarge Hamburger Mary's located in downtown Orlando, Florida. - churchstreetstation/Instagram
Hamburger Mary's located in downtown Orlando, Florida.
Downtown Orlando restaurant and bar Hamburger Mary’s filed a federal lawsuit on Monday against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state of Florida over a new law that restricts “adult live performances” in the state, which has been interpreted as a targeted attack on drag performances. 

The Orlando Sentinel reports that the restaurant — known for hosting family-friendly drag events each Sunday — is seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent the new law’s restrictions on drag performances from being enforced.

According to the lawsuit, the restaurant is already losing customers, after recently informing the public that children would no longer be allowed at the Sunday events.

“In addition to the loss of customers cancelling, the establishment has had to ban children from the family friendly performances because they simply cannot take the chance that their business or liquor licenses would be suspended for hosting a drag show where children attend,” the lawsuit reportedly states. “In addition, the criminal penalties of the law put individuals at risk of prosecution because of the content of their speech.”

The lawsuit claims that the law (SB 1438) violates the restaurant’s First Amendment rights, and has named Melanie Griffin, secretary of Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, as a third defendant.

The law, titled “Protection of Children,” gives the DBPR authority to fine, as well as suspend or pull the liquor license of venues that admit children under 18 to “adult live performances,” which are vaguely defined within the law as "any show, exhibition, or other presentation that is performed in front of a live audience and in whole or in part, depicts or simulates nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, specific sexual activities … lewd conduct, or the lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts.”

Venues can also face a potential first-degree misdemeanor charge for violations.

The law has been criticized for being intentionally vague — a sentiment that’s reflected in the new lawsuit. “The broad, sweeping nature of the statute, and the vagueness regarding what conduct is and is not prohibited, will have a chilling effect on the First Amendment rights of the citizens of Florida,” the lawsuit states.

Hamburger Mary's co-owner John Paonessa also took to Facebook to explain their decision to sue.

“This bill has nothing to do with children, and everything to do with the continued oppression of the LGBTQ+ community,” Paonessa wrote in a statement on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “Anytime our legislators want to demonize a group, they say they are coming for your children. In this case, creating a false narrative that drag queens are grooming and recruiting your children with no factual basis or history to back up these accusations AT ALL!”

DeSantis signed the anti-drag law last week, along with a slew of other anti-LGBTQ bills targeting gender-affirming health care and expanding restrictions on classroom discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools (i.e., an expansion of "Don't Say Gay").

Debate and discussion over the drag bill became heated at times during Florida's legislative session this year, with some Republican lawmakers not mincing words about where they stood on its implications.

Florida Rep. Randy Fine, the bill’s Republican sponsor in the House,  defended the drag bill in April by saying that if passing the bill “means erasing a community because you have to target children, then, damn right, we ought to do it!”

Another Republican lawmaker, Rep. Webster Barnaby, compared transgender people to "demons" and "imps" during a hearing on a different bill that criminalizes the use of public bathrooms that don't align with one's sex assigned at birth. Barnaby later apologized for his comments.

But even before the bill was signed into law, some venues that host drag performers across the state began self-censoring.

Several drag events, or Pride events featuring drag performers, have been canceled or relocated in recent months out of caution. One day after the bill was signed into law, Tampa Pride organizers announced they were canceling their annual 'Pride on the River' event, telling the Tampa Bay Times they "didn't want to take any chances."

Even in Orlando, a relatively LGBTQ-friendly city, venues that host drag performers are making it explicit in their marketing that their drag events will only allow Floridians aged 18+ or 21+ present.

Concerns from venue owners haven't been unfounded.

At the behest of the DeSantis administration, undercover agents were deployed to a drag event at Orlando’s Plaza Live in December. And although the agents found that there was no lewd content during the performance, the state has tried to revoke the small nonprofit's liquor license anyway, as well as that of a hotel in Miami that hosted a similar, holiday-themed show.

Then this  year in March, a “Drag and Donuts” event organized by students at Boone High School, set to feature drag queen Jason DeShazo aka “Momma Ashley Rose," was canceled after the Florida Department of Education reached out to the school and questioned whether the event was age and developmentally appropriate.

GOP politicians in more than a dozen U.S. states, including Kentucky, Arizona, Arizona and Oklahoma, have introduced legislation targeting drag. Tennessee was the first state to enact such legislation in March. However, the Tennessee law has since been blocked by a judge, on the grounds that it's too broad and violates free speech.

“They are setting a precedent that the state legislators can decide what is best for you based on THEIR own values and convictions, and write it into law,” Paonessa wrote on Facebook about the lawsuit in Florida, also pointing to other laws passed by state legislators restricting faculty instruction on race in higher education institutions, as well as classroom discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in public K-12 schools.

“We've spent too many years moving forward,” Paonessa added. “We can't go back!”

This is a developing story.

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About The Author

McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, covering general news, local government, labor, housing, and other social and economic justice issues. Previously worked as a news anchor for WMNF in Tampa and a freelance journalist with works published in In These Times, Strikewave, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, and Facing South...
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