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The dangers — and history — lurking in the Florida drag brunch complaint
Seventy-five years have passed since Florida tried to shut down "men impersonating women." Now, Ron DeSantis is trying again.
The Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco filed a complaint against a Miami business last week, seeking to take away its liquor license by alleging that its drag brunch constitutes a prohibited nuisance, among other claims.
“The predominant feature of the Brunch is that male performers dress in traditionally female clothing and perform dances while brunch is served,” the complaint stated. “The clothing and dances typically are sexually suggestive and sometimes sexually explicit — consistent with what one would observe at an adult-themed nightclub.”
The complaint against R House in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami was signed by Megan Kachur, the chief attorney in the Department of Business and Professional Regulation in the division, under the name of her boss, Melanie Griffin, the secretary of the department. The complaint alleges, in addition to the nuisance claim, that R House is operating with a “purpose of lewdness,” exhibiting “disorderly conduct,” and includes “unlawful exposure of sexual organs” based on some of the performances.
“They are presenting, for public entertainment, a vile and obscene show, using as entertainers a cast of males disguised as females, that such club is habited by persons seeking thrills rather than good, clean entertainment.”
This is not from the complaint against R House — although the language and claim sounds remarkably similar. This was, instead, from a nuisance petition brought 75 years ago, by Frank Tuppen, against the Ha Ha Club in Florida.
This is a story about a 75-year-old case and the one today, but it is also a story about a community: R House is literally just down the road — less than 20 miles down I-95 — from the former location of the Ha Ha Club.
A look back at the time and circumstances of the effort to shut down the Ha Ha Club shows that the current efforts are in many ways a repeat of an attack targeted at queer people three-quarters of a century ago.
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TWO CASES, ONE COMPLAINT: In their complaint against R House, Griffin — who serves at the pleasure of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — and Kachur rely on the 1947 Florida Supreme Court decision upholding an order barring the Ha Ha Club from operating.
The complaint — again, filed in July 2022 — states that “The Florida Supreme Court has recognized that ‘men impersonating women’ in the context of ‘suggestive and indecent’ performances constitutes a public nuisance,” quoting from and citing to the 1947 Ha Ha Club decision.
While the 2022 complaint spends much time highlighting the presence of children at the brunches, the actual legal substance of the state’s complaint against R House has few such limitations. At one point, the complaint states that “even if” the performers were not drag queens but women, “the nature of the performances described above … would still constitute a public nuisance — particularly where young children are present.”
That “particularly” is key. In other words, the presence of children, in the state’s view, potentially makes this more of a nuisance — but the complaint’s language makes clear that the state does not think it is necessary for a finding that the drag brunch constitutes a nuisance. (Multiple counts of the complaint use this “particularly” language in reference to the presence of children.)
The result is that this is an extreme claim, with broad implications, if accepted.
It is ultimately, though, a re-run of — or, rather, a rewind to — the 1947 case against the Ha Ha Club.
Back in 1947, Frank Tuppen brought the petition to close the Ha Ha Club against the operators of the club, Federal Amusement Company and Charles “Babe” Baker.
Tuppen did so as a county juvenile probation officer. According to the Feb. 7, 1947, edition of The Hollywood Sun-Tattler (download), “Tuppen said that the club is injurious to the manners and morals of county juveniles.”
Although Tuppen was the juvenile probation officer and claimed the case was about the “manners and morals of county juveniles” at its start, by time the case got to the state’s high court later that year, the Florida Supreme Court didn’t even mention concerns about juveniles in its decision.
Therein is the warning for the 2022 complaint. The arguments in the complaint against R House could apply to situations far afield of the facts presented by the state in the complaint — because the law the state is saying applies would reach far more broadly.
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A DIRTY PICTURE: “It may be admitted that the operation of a night club is a lawful business per se and that there is no lawful objection to men impersonating women or vice versa,” Justice William Glenn Terrell wrote for the Florida Supreme Court in October 1947. “This has been done since the beginning of the drama. The complaint is that these things were done in a nasty, suggestive and indecent manner.”
Terrell is perhaps most notorious for — in a 1955 decision defending segregation in Florida schools even in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education — writing that “when God created man, he allotted each race to his own continent according to color, Europe to the white man, Asia to the yellow man, Africa to the black man, and America to the red man, but we are now advised that God's plan was in error and must be reversed ….”
In 1947, though, Terrell — who would serve on the state’s high court for more than 40 years — was focused on shutting down the Ha Ha Club.
“The lawful evidence presents a dirty picture, the Ha Ha Club looks as if it were a cross between a ‘honky tonk’ and a ‘speak easy,’” he wrote of the club, which had, at that point, been operating in Florida for about a decade, if not longer. Explaining why that “dirty picture” justified shutting down the club, he continued: “There is no greater impediment to mass virtue than a ration of filth, it is in fact, as allergic to filthy conversation as the victim of hay fever is to an outburst of ragweed. This is the theory on which laws for the abatement of nuisances of this kind are promulgated and enforced.”
Fast-forward through Brown, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Stonewall riots, the U.S. Supreme Court’s many sex discrimination cases, sodomy laws being struck down, marriage equality becoming the law of the land, and RuPaul’s Drag Race having won two dozen Emmy Awards — and the DeSantis administration, in July 2022, pointed to Terrell’s 1947 Ha Ha Club case decision to argue that a business can be shut down if it includes drag queens who perform in a “nasty, suggestive and indecent manner.”
Although 75 years separate the Ha Ha Club and R House cases, they are ultimately as closely linked as their locations are on a map.
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