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Hamburger Mary’s sues governor, state over anti-drag bill

Written By Scott Joseph On May 23, 2023

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John Paonessa has had a day. He arrived at work Tuesday morning to find news vans from every local television station in front of Hamburger Mary’s, the restaurant he owns and operates with his husband, Mike Rogier. He’s been fielding calls for requests for interviews from NPR and CNN and other national news organizations.

“I never thought this would blow up the way it did,” Paonessa told me.

The “this” is the announcement that Paonessa and Rogier, through their business entity HM Florida-Orl, LLC, are suing Ron DeSantis and the State of Florida in federal court claiming that a bill recently signed by the governor forbidding children to attend drag shows is a violation of their First Amendment rights. The downtown restaurant hosts weekly events featuring drag performers, some of which are attended by customers with children. The lawsuit also names Melanie Griffin, secretary of Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

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The couple discussed the merits of filing the lawsuit; they knew it would be a lot of work and that there would be vitriol. “We just decided it needed to be done,” Paonessa said. “I mean how far can this guy push us with taking away everything we’ve built over the last 10, 15 years to get some kind or equality?”

The response to the filing has brought reactions from both sides. “We were slammed for lunch today,” Paonessa said. The increased business was apparently from people who wanted to show their support.
On the other hand, in addition to the many calls to the restaurant from media, Paonessa said that he had had at least 15 calls from people calling him a groomer and a “fucking faggot.” One man, he said, called three times and Paonessa finally asked him if he didn’t have anything better to do. He said that he did not.

During our phone call, Paonessa got another call from the attorney handling the case, Gary S. Israel, who is a regular at Hamburger Mary’s. Paonessa said he would call me back. Israel had called to tell him that a Tennessee court will be hearing a similar case this week and that it looks “very promising.” In that case, a nonprofit theater group is suing the State of Tennessee. A federal judge has temporarily blocked that state’s anti-drag law from going into effect and the judge there has said that he wants to announce a decision by June 2. Hamburger Mary’s suit will go before a judge on June 6, so the Tennessee case will likely be seen as precedent.

DeSantis signed the Florida bill last week, forcing the Hamburger Mary’s staff to call the approximately 150 people who had made reservations for the restaurant’s popular Sunday drag show to tell them that customers under the age of 18 would not be allowed to attend. Paonessa said that about 30 people cancelled because they had children. The show, he said, is G-rated. On Tuesdays the restaurant hosts what used to be called Family Game Night but is now just Game Night – 18-years-old and over.

Israel is handling the Mary’s case pro bono but Paonessa said that he had heard from many regulars who want to help with ancillary costs. A GoFundMe account has been set up for those expenses. Paonessa said in a Facebook post that any funds donated that were not needed would go to local LGBTQ+ charities. As of Tuesday afternoon, $12,500 had been pledged.

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