Dueling Lawsuits Over Drag Shows in North Carolina

A crowd gathers for a drag show at the East Frank Superette and Kitchen in Monroe, North Carolina. (Photo Credit: East Frank Superette and Kitchen/Facebook)

Tensions in this small city of 34,551 people, 39 miles southeast of Charlotte, North Carolina, over a local diner and restaurant’s drag shows have escalated from sidewalk protests into dueling lawsuits inside a federal courthouse.

Located within the rapidly growing Charlotte metropolitan area, the East Frank Superette and Kitchen on East Franklin Street in downtown Monroe has been hosting popular all-ages drag brunch shows. Then in early 2022, a small group of residents began posting negative comments about the events online, alleging the restaurant was condoning inappropriate and sexualized performances that minors should not be exposed to.

The online argument then morphed into protesters showing up every time an East Frank drag event was held. The restaurant’s co-owners, Robert Huffman and Carley Englander, told North Carolina Public Radio they began hosting drag bingo nights and occasional drag brunches in early 2021, when many local businesses were reopening as COVID-19 restrictions eased.

Holding signs that read “Stop Grooming Children,” “This Is Child Abuse” and “Stop Sexualizing Children,” the anti-drag-anti-LGBTQ+ group demonstrating in front of the restaurant, ranging from seven to 25 people, included then-candidate and now Monroe city mayor, Robert Burns. Burns won the election by a coin toss after a rare tied vote in 2023.

NCPR reported that in a September Facebook Live video streamed from outside the restaurant, Burns said: “They’re exposing our children to this nonsense, and it needs to stop. We need to end what’s going on,” he added, “[…] you are sexualizing our children here in Monroe, and people are waking up to that.”

Huffman and Englander said they were shocked by the vitriol and opposition and didn’t believe the protesters’ arguments had merit.

“We don’t regard (drag) as something that’s lewd or sexual in any regard,” Huffman said. “It never crossed our minds that people would think that or make that argument about it.”

Huffman and Englander also stated that minors were only admitted to drag shows if they were accompanied by a parent or guardian, and the vast majority of people who attended were adults.

“Just a few folks would bring their kids here and there,” Huffman said. “So this whole kerfuffle is over, like, four kids.”

Huffman and Englander said they received online threats, protesters crowded the entrance, held signs in the windows, and took pictures and videos of patrons inside. At City Council meetings, angry anti-LGBTQ+ residents called on the city to shut down the performances entirely.

The battle over the drag shows escalated again when Huffman and Englander used pictures of the seven mainstay anti-drag protesters that regularly demonstrated and used their pictures, some taken from social media accounts, to parody for advertising.

NCPR reported that starting in March 2023, the restaurant began posting a series of advertisements on social media that included images of protesters holding digitally altered signs promoting the restaurant’s drag events and food specials.

According to Queen City News in Charlotte, in December 2023, several of the protesters sued the East Frank Superette and Kitchen after the restaurant pulled photos of them from their social media accounts and altered the images to use in ads for the restaurant’s drag brunches.

In a Federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, Union County, North Carolina, residents Michelle Ball, Ted Toms, Sofia Chabot, Amelia Ball, Eliza Ball, Jessica Mullen, and Lisa Metzger claim the restaurant violated a state law banning wrongful appropriation of personal image and North Carolina’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act by altering the photos to make them look like the protesters supported the events.

Signs that read “Stop Sexualizing Children” and “Stop Grooming Children” were changed to “Risk it on the Brisket … I did, and I loved it!” and “I am unable to mind my own business, and it only helps theirs!”

“It was done in jest, and in a satirical kind of way,” Huffman told NCPR. “Obviously, we don’t need their help selling hamburgers, and pretty much anyone in the community knows that they’re not our supporters. Really, it was just a joke, and they apparently can’t take one.”

“It got under their skin a lot more than we realized,” Huffman added.

In the court filing, Robert Sneed, an attorney for the anti-drag protesters, wrote that Ted Toms reportedly reached out to the restaurant demanding that the images be taken down, and the restaurant continued to use unauthorized photos of Toms and others to promote the business and services.

“As a consequence of the Defendant’s outrageous actions and response to Plaintiffs’ rightful concerns and interests, Plaintiffs find it necessary to seek this court’s intervention to curtail Defendant’s unlawful activities and to obtain the legal and equitable remedies to which Plaintiffs are entitled,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges that Huffman and Englander violated Section 43(a)(1)(A) of the Lanham Act, North Carolina’s privacy-based tort of Wrongful Appropriation of Personal Image, and North Carolina’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

Queen City News noted:

[The] Lanham Act: “Any person who, on or in connection with any…services…uses in commerce any…device…or any misdescription of fact, or false or misleading representation of fact, which…is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive as to the…approval of his or her goods, services or commercial activities by another person…shall be liable in a civil action by any person who believes that he or she is or is likely to be damaged by such act.”

Wrongful Appropriation of Personal Image: “This form of tortious activity includes the unauthorized appropriation of a person’s likeness in connection with an advertisement or commercial enterprise, i.e., for the defendant’s commercial advantage.”

Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act: “Constitute an unfair method of competition in or affecting commerce, or are unfair and deceptive acts or practices in and affecting commerce; and cause a likelihood of confusion or misunderstanding as to the sponsorship, approval, or association of East Frank’s business and services with each Plaintiff.”

The lawsuit states that the seven plaintiffs are asking that the Monroe restaurant stop using their images for advertising, take down all altered photos that have been used in the past, a public apology, and monetary remedies among other requests.

Last month, Huffman and Englander countersued the protesters for defamation. In an April 12 filing, the pair are alleging the protesters “routinely and regularly accused East Frank — a restaurant that, from time to time, hosts drag performances — of child abuse, child sexual exploitation, and child grooming.”

Those “knowingly false accusations have damaged East Frank’s reputation, cost East Frank substantial profits, and worst of all, have exposed East Frank, its customers, and the drag performers it hosts, to threats of violence,” according to the countersuit.

Both lawsuits have been filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina & have hearing dates yet to be scheduled.

Los Angeles Blade courtesy of the National LGBTQ Media Association.


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