Just four days after a federal judge ruled a Tennessee law restricting drag shows was unconstitutional, attorney Brice Timmons was in an Orlando courtroom describing how a new Florida law was causing Hamburger Mary’s to censure its drag shows.
Timmons, a civil rights attorney with Memphis-based Donati Law, represented the Friends of George’s theater company in the Tennessee case, fighting a law that prohibited “adult cabaret” from taking place on public property or where children could see it.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker, appointed by President Donald Trump, ruled June 2 the Tennessee law was an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of speech.
Timmons has brought his experience from the headline-making Tennessee case to the help of the Orlando Hamburger Mary’s, and he is also getting involved in fighting other drag show restrictions in Montana and Texas.
“If I’ve got to go coast to coast fighting these types of laws I will,” Timmons told the Orlando Sentinel this week. “What I really hope we’re doing here is building a road map… for other lawyers around the country to join in.”
The downtown Orlando restaurant awaits a ruling from U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell, an appointee of President Bill Clinton.
“Free speech is not a particularly ideological issue because it affects everybody,” Timmons said. “It’s an American value.”
Hamburger Mary’s case
In May, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a state law with penalties for venues letting children into a sexually explicit “adult live performance.” It included potential first-degree misdemeanor charges for violators.
Hamburger Mary’s sued, arguing the law would have a “chilling effect on the First Amendment rights of the citizens of Florida.”
While DeSantis and the state were originally named as defendants, they were dismissed on June 6 following an agreement by attorneys. Melanie Griffin, secretary of Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, remains a defendant in the case.
State lawyers argued Florida’s “Protection of Children Act” does not target drag shows, and filed for a motion to dismiss.
“The Act does not prevent establishments from continuing to stage ‘adult live performances’ or deny access by adults to those performances,” the state’s argument said. “It merely requires the exclusion of children for whom the performance would not be age-appropriate. And contrary to [Hamburger Mary’s] implication, the Act does not target drag shows; by its terms, it protects children from exposure to any kind of sexually explicit live performance that is obscene for the age of the child present.”
But both Timmons and Presnell pushed back on that argument in court, with a part of the Florida law that reads “lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts” being called out.
Timmons argued there were only two people who would have prosthetic breasts: women who had undergone mastectomies or drag performers.
The state’s attorney, Nathan Forrester, senior deputy solicitor general, argued in court the law might cover drag shows but is not limited to that. He added it does not have to be based on sexual identity.
This debate is informative of a difference between the laws in Florida and Tennessee, with Timmons telling the Orlando Sentinel that Florida was more careful to use neutral sounding language.
“I would say that the effort to make this look like an ordinary obscenity law was better executed in Florida,” Timmons said.
‘Standing up for their community’
Timmons received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Memphis before getting his Juris Doctor from the university’s Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
He’s no stranger to the Hamburger Mary’s chain, saying he worked at the Washington D.C. location about two decades ago as a server and bartender.
“This is a community that I care about a lot,” Timmons said. “I have known lots and lots of drag queens throughout the course of my life.”
Timmons said fighting in court over drag shows might appear new today, but “it’s actually really, really old stuff,” saying the attacks on the LGBT community are going back to a pre-1970s playbook.
“If you don’t stop this stuff early, then it snowballs into things that are so much worse,” Timmons said.
The lawyer is also quick to praise the Hamburger Mary’s in Orlando for taking the issue to court.
“There are real extremist groups that want to see these people silenced, injured or killed,” Timmons said. “When you step up to be the central focus of this kind of litigation, you’re taking real physical risks.”
He said Hamburger Mary’s owners were in fact taking a “huge risk.”
“This is individual people standing up for their community and for the rights of everybody in Florida,” Timmons said.
Hamburger Mary’s customers are also stepping up to help the restaurant. A GoFundMe to help with the restaurant’s legal fees had raised more than $39,000 as of Wednesday afternoon.
Jeanette Flores, 41, of Maitland, said she attended a drag show brunch at Hamburger Mary’s near the end of May to support the business after last going there in 2017 when she lived closer to downtown. Performers dressed as Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” as well as Tina Turner sang music from the movie and by Turner, Flores said.
“I just always feel like everybody should be able to have the right to express themselves,” Flores said. “No one is forced to go to Hamburger Mary’s. If you don’t want to bring your kids to the show you don’t have to.”
Timmons, meanwhile, doesn’t plan to back down.
“I’m part of this community,” Timmons said. “It’s my community. I’m not a drag queen, [but] this is an attack on the LGBT community.”
Timmons also warns drag shows are just the beginning, pointing to Justice Clarence Thomas’ opinion last year the Supreme Court should reconsider decisions on same-sex marriage and other issues.
“This is not where they’re stopping. This is just where they’re starting,” Timmons said. “They will next be coming for gay marriage. They will next be coming for reinstituting sodomy laws. You don’t have to look very hard to find evidence of that.”
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