(Bloomberg) -- Orlando mom Alicia Aleman says Florida’s new law restricting drag performance when children are present has already messed with one of her family’s favorite traditions: Sunday brunch.
Aleman, her wife and their four kids have enjoyed weekly drag queen shows at the local Hamburger Mary’s since the couple discovered the popular LGBTQ chain on a date two years ago, she said.
“After we learned it was Broadway and Disney themed, we started taking the kids,” said Aleman, a server in a taco restaurant whose wife, Brandi, owns a dog-grooming business. “They put my daughter in one of the Little Mermaid numbers, in a little crab suit, and she was dancing around. She loved it.”
That changed on May 17, when Governor Ron DeSantis signed the second such law in the US, after Tennessee’s, setting off a battle over the First Amendment and parental rights. The new law extends the culture wars beyond public schools and corporate boardrooms and into spaces like restaurants and performance venues, and challenges whether parents should be the ones deciding if their minor children can tag along.
The enforcement of the law was challenged during a court hearing on Tuesday, with Pride Month in its second week, as Hamburger Mary’s seeks to temporarily block the law while it sues to permanently overturn it. The hearing ended without a ruling.
‘Sexually Explicit Performances’
The law doesn’t use the word “drag” but bars “sexually explicit performances,” including those that involve prosthetic breasts, when such shows are considered too sexually overt by community standards and lack artistic merit. Critics say children are already protected from obscene material by current laws and that the new statute was designed to give anti-LGBTQ politicians a fresh way to target the community.
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Drag has increasingly come under fire from conservative politicians who warn it is part of a liberal agenda to indoctrinate children that risks psychologically damaging them. The law championed by DeSantis, who entered the 2024 presidential race last month, is one of a flurry of related statutes that include bans on gender-affirming care for minors and punishment for companies like Walt Disney Co. that partner with LGBTQ Americans.
“It has nothing to do with gay or straight or trans or drag,” said Orlando lawyer Gary Israel, who is representing Hamburger Mary’s in the federal lawsuit and who has taken his own children to the restaurant for years. “It is about free speech and the government using its power to say what people can see and can’t see.”
Supporters of the law maintain that drag shows are adult entertainment that can confuse children, especially young children, even if there is no overt sexual content. Carrie Venclauskas, a Tallahassee web developer with two children and six grandchildren, feels drag and kids just don’t mix.
“I strongly believe that drag performances provide an environment that would expose children to inappropriate sexualized content and concepts that always have been and should continue to be reserved for adults,” she said.
That’s the argument made by Anthony Verdugo, founder of Christian Family Coalition Florida, which lobbied lawmakers to pass the bill.
“A child is used to seeing Mom dressed a certain way and Dad dressed a certain way, and what they’re doing is convoluting everything,” he said.
Verdugo, who has three grown children of his own, said the concept of strong parental rights — often promoted by conservatives in culture clashes — is based on parents making “responsible decisions” and therefore doesn’t extend to taking kids to drag shows.
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Randy Fine, the Republican representative in Florida’s legislature who sponsored the bill, said the law is intended only to prevent children from seeing “live sex shows” and other sexually inappropriate conduct in public. He declined to say if he believes the Sunday performances at Hamburger Mary’s run afoul of the law.
“Clearly the woke left idea of what is family-friendly is very different from the other 99% of the country,” said Fine.
In a June 2 request to dismiss the suit, Florida said the statute “does not target drag shows” but rather “any kind of sexually explicit live performance that is obscene for the age of the child present.”
The law’s fate will be clearer with the court’s ruling after Tuesday’s hearing, but one possible sign appeared late Friday, when a Trump-appointed federal judge in Memphis ruled Tennessee’s law is unconstitutional. The judge described the statute as “vague” and “overbroad,” and said it was passed for the “impermissible purpose” of chilling free speech.
Gravity of Drag Cases
The Tennessee case was brought by the theater company Friends of George’s, which puts on performances to raise money for other LGBTQ+ nonprofits and is being represented in the case by civil rights lawyer Melissa Stewart. Stewart, who like Israel is working pro bono and whose team will also participate in the Orlando case, said Republican lawmakers see drag queens as easy targets for scoring political points in a conservative state.
She described drag as a “very silly, over-the-top and light-hearted art form” that can seem unimportant to some people.
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“Our job is to stop First Amendment violations at the fringes so the people at the center don’t have to worry,” Stewart added.
John Paonessa, who has owned the Orlando Hamburger Mary’s with his husband since 2008, said there is nothing lewd about the drag performances he puts on, aside from the occasional “f-bomb” or dirty joke, and those happen during the week — not when families join on Sundays for performances of Broadway numbers.
Minors are sure to see and hear much worse watching an R-rated movie with their parents, which is legal, so parents should be able to decide whether their kids see drag too, Paonessa said.
Hamburger Mary’s has barred minors from attending, citing what it describes as imprecise wording in the law that it says makes enforcement unclear and potentially arbitrary. Hamburger Mary’s said 20% of its reservations for the next show canceled after it announced that children would no longer be allowed.
About 200 miles from his restaurant, in South Beach, the law has shaken up the Palace, a fixture of drag culture for more than three decades. The venue doesn’t allow children in the bar but has had to adjust its policies anyway, host LaDonna Brinkley said.
The Palace’s showiest and most popular performances take place outside, on a wide terrace next to a public sidewalk on Ocean Drive. For years, tourists, including families, have stopped on the sidewalk to take in the show, said Brinkley, who has two boys herself. The staff now has to shoo families away.
(Updates with Tuesday hearing ending without a ruling, and with Verdugo’s remarks in third section.)
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