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Drag shows at Monroe restaurant spark protests, dueling lawsuits

East Frank Superette and Kitchen in downtown Monroe was the site of ongoing protests in 2023 by a group opposed to children attending the restaurant's drag events.
Nick de la Canal
East Frank Superette and Kitchen in downtown Monroe was the site of ongoing protests in 2022 and 2023 by a group opposed to children attending the restaurant's drag events.

A fight between a restaurant in downtown Monroe, North Carolina, and seven protesters who opposed the restaurant's all-age drag events has moved from the sidewalk outside the establishment's front door into a federal courtroom.

In a lawsuit filed this month, East Frank Superette and Kitchen on East Franklin Street accuses protesters of defamation by claiming staff were "grooming" and "sexualizing children," and says those false claims drove away business.

The same seven protesters — known as the "Monroe 7" — had previously sued the restaurant in December, accusing staff of using digitally altered photographs of them in online advertisements without their permission.

Both lawsuits seek a trial by jury and unspecified damages. The protesters are also asking the court to order East Frank to issue a public apology and remove the advertisements from their social media.

The dueling lawsuits are the latest flashpoint in a yearslong conflict involving protests, city council meetings, and the restaurant ultimately adding an 18-plus age limit at drag events in October.

Drag events sparked monthslong protests outside the restaurant

East Frank Superette and Kitchen was founded five years ago in downtown Monroe. In an interview with WFAE, two of the restaurant's co-owners, Robert Huffman and Carley Englander, said the restaurant began hosting drag bingo nights and occasional drag brunches in early 2021, when many local businesses were reopening as COVID-19 restrictions eased.

Initially, the drag events took place without controversy, Huffman and Englander said — until early 2022, when some residents began posting negative comments about the events online, and a group of protesters began showing up every time an East Frank drag event was held.

East Frank entrance
Nick de la Canal
East Frank Superette and Kitchen in downtown Monroe became the center of protests surrounding its drag events in 2022 and 2023.

The protesters took issue with the restaurant admitting people under 18, and circulated videos of drag queens in the restaurant dancing while kids were in the audience. They held signs that read "Stop Grooming Children," "This Is Child Abuse" and "Stop Sexualizing Children."

The protests ranged in size from seven to 25 people, the restaurant owners said, and they included then-candidate for Monroe mayor, Robert Burns. Burns won the election by a coin toss after a rare tied vote in 2023.

"They're exposing our children to this nonsense, and it needs to stop. We need to end what's going on," Burns said in a Facebook Live video streamed from outside the restaurant in September. "East Frank, you are sexualizing our children here in Monroe, and people are waking up to that."

As protests heated up, the restaurant Photoshopped protesters into social media ads

The restaurant's owners said initially, they were surprised by the fury 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."

Minors were only admitted to drag shows if they were accompanied by a parent or guardian, the owners said, 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."

As protests heated up, the owners said the restaurant received online threats. Protesters crowded the store's entrance, held signs in the windows, and took pictures and videos of patrons inside. At City Council meetings, protesters called on the city to shut down the performances entirely.

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.

A June 13, 2023 photograph of protesters outside the Monroe City Hall was turned into an online promotion for an East Frank drag show.
Collage by WFAE
A June 13, 2023, photograph of protesters outside Monroe City Hall was turned into an online promotion for an East Frank drag show.

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 said. "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."

From the sidewalk to the courthouse

East Frank has not seen any major protests since the restaurant changed its policy in October to limit drag shows to people 18 and older. The restaurant cited recent changes to North Carolina's obscenity law in its statement announcing the change.

But a proxy fight now plays out in a federal courtroom as each side sues the other.

Robert Sneed, who represents the seven protesters with backing from the Charlotte-based Coalition for Liberty, declined WFAE's request for an interview, saying his team needed more time to review East Frank's lawsuit.

In a statement, Sneed said he was "confident such claims will not withstand the scrutiny of the legal process and that the free speech rights of our clients will be upheld in court."

Huffman and Englander said they hoped their countersuit might set a precedent for other businesses subjected to LGBTQ-related protests or boycotts.

"It's a tough thing to stomach when you're called groomers and pedophiles, and all you want to do is be safe and be a safe space," Englander said.

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

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal
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