Food & DrinkFood Features

Eat, Gay, Love Free Thanksgiving Dinner Spreads Community Care to LGBTQ+

Annual inclusive event returns Nov. 24 at Billy Sunday

A drag queen stands behind the bar at Billy Sunday
Attendees hang out at Billy Sunday’s bar during the free Thanksgiving dinner in 2021. (Photo by Justin LaFrancois)

“Sometimes you have an idea and then you figure out that the justification behind it is even better,” says Brian DuBois, explaining how a last-minute, informal Friendsgiving he threw together in 2019 evolved into Eat, Gay, Love — an annual free dinner on Thanksgiving Day for anyone in search of community care.

DuBois came up with the idea while working as the bar manager at Single Barrel Room, a craft cocktail bar in the back of Whiskey Warehouse in Plaza Midwood. The venue had been hosting a regular Thursday night drag game show with then up-and-coming Charlotte drag queen Onya Nerves to benefit LGBTQ-focused charities in the community.

When DuBois realized the bar would be open on Thanksgiving for drag game night, he thought it’d be fun to offer free holiday food and put out a call for donations. Among those DuBois reached out to was friend and Queen City Nerve publisher Justin LaFrancois.

“I was basically like, ‘Hey friend. You know people. Can you get mama a turkey? Can you get me some food?’” DuBois said. “So then it just turned into this whole thing.”

Dishes and donations poured in through word-of-mouth, creating a mishmash of food spread across a help-yourself-style buffet. DuBois said it wasn’t until he started spreading the word about the free, inclusive Thanksgiving dinner and hearing feedback from the community that the mission and the message came to the surface.

“The holidays are so hard for people, especially locally in North Carolina, where LGBT acceptance, especially trans acceptance, is so hit-or-miss,” he said. “So we’re creating a space where you can come together, be with a community.”

Now in its fourth year, Eat, Gay, Love is presented in partnership between Queen City Nerve and Billy Sunday, a Charlotte cocktail bar where DuBois currently works as a bartender. Billy Sunday will host the event on Thursday, Nov. 24 from 2-5 p.m. at its Optimist Hall location. Registration is recommended, but not required.

Eat, Gay, Love is operated entirely on a donation and volunteer basis thanks to time, food and supplies donated by the community. Leftover food is boxed up and donated to Block Love Charlotte, a local nonprofit that sets up in Uptown every day to serve meals to our neighbors experiencing homelessness. Any leftover monetary donations also go to Block Love.

“If 10 people show up, we’re gonna feed those 10 people,” DuBois said. “Then we got all this leftover food, so let’s make sure that we’re doing something responsible with it.”

Beating down barriers

DuBois, 40, grew up in Charlotte and came out as gay when he was 26 years old. He doesn’t have a tense relationship with his family that makes the holidays difficult, but he empathizes with those who do, he said. Working in the service industry and in his role as president of One Voice Chorus, a chorus for LGBTQ+ people and allies in Charlotte, he’s heard too many stories from members of the community who have been disowned, rejected or renounced, he said. 

In DuBois’ mind, Eat, Gay, Love is not just about free food or creating a “safe space” on Thanksgiving — it’s about social care. 

DuBois noted there are many affluent, gay white men in the LGBTQ community, while members of the trans community and the Black queer community are often in underpaid jobs. They may not have the resources to host their friends and chosen family for Thanksgiving, DuBois said.

“And it’s not a separate issue from their queerness. Somehow it comes in tandem — paying for hormone replacement therapy while you’re working in a service industry job because you don’t have any money,” he said. “So there is a lot of cross section between those who can’t afford to necessarily throw their own Thanksgiving for friends who are part of the queer community.”

Today, Onya Nerves is one of Charlotte’s busiest drag queens. She’s involved with Charlotte Gaymers Network and is the founder of DKO Entertainment, which recently acquired Queer Society Charlotte. Still, despite her soaring popularity, Onya Nerves has remained involved with Eat, Gay, Love since the first iteration by volunteering to serve food and host games throughout the day.

Eat, Gay, Love aims to address a true need in Charlotte’s LGBTQ+ community, Onya Nerves told Queen City Nerve. 

Volunteers dish out Thanksgiving food from large trays
Volunteers dish out free food at Eat, Gay, Love on Thanksgiving in 2021. (Photo by Justin LaFrancois)

“It’s always nice to have a place outside of family, especially in North Carolina, because most of us are not even from here,” she said. 

She’s originally from South Dakota and rarely goes home for Thanksgiving. “So having a place to go when you don’t have that kind of community or family space to go is really beneficial for a lot of people over these times.

“Holidays are expensive, and have unexpected expenses, especially being lower income as well, as the LGBTQ community is,” she continued. “It’s nice to not have that stress.”

The evolution of Eat, Gay, Love

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 threw a wrench in many people’s holiday plans and Eat, Gay, Love was not exempt. With mask requirements, temperature checks and indoor occupancy limits, DuBois and LaFrancois were able to carry the event into its second year.

Instead of going by a “bring what you want” method, organizers asked the community for specific food items in order to build uniform plates that could be safely handed out in a curbside pickup line manned by local drag queens. 

Vegetarian options and vegan turkey were also added to the menu following feedback from the previous year.

In 2021, DuBois took his new position at Billy Sunday, which he said has been very supportive of Eat, Gay, Love by offering whatever the event needs to be successful.

In March 2022, Billy Sunday got a new neighbor in Noble Smoke, which is owned by Jim Noble, a restaurateur who has become locally infamous for his anti-LGBTQ views, among other controversial opinions such as supporting Donald Trump. 

“There’s a dark cloud around Optimist Hall whether or not they’re a queer safe space or not, and we try and be the shining rainbow that says, ‘Come one, come all, let’s be gays and let’s do it,’” said DuBois. 

He is disappointed that ownership hasn’t addressed concerns around Noble’s presence in Optimist Hall. 

“They’re not siding either way, so it kind of whitewashes the whole thing,” DuBois said. “But Billy Sunday is its own stand-alone business there because it’s not in the communal hall portion. It’s kind of got its own ground. And our ownership, which is based out of Chicago, says, ‘Do what you want. Let’s rock and roll.’”

Also this year, the food hall announced it would begin charging for parking after 90 minutes, but DuBois emphasized that parking will be free all day on Thanksgiving. 

Though Eat, Gay, Love continues to evolve each year, DuBois said that, besides free food, the draw remains the same: community. DuBois said he’s seen several examples of the power of community at past events.

Last year, the first people to show up to Eat, Gay, Love were a cis-hetero family with a son about 12 years old who was “kind of considering, exploring and figuring things out.” 

DuBois said he was moved after watching the boy interact with the other attendees.

“For him to have a safe space where he can go and see queer people exist was great for them,” DuBois said.

Colorful drawings of hand turkeys on paper plates
Attendees took to drawing hand turkeys during last year’s event. (Courtesy of Brian DuBois)

A spontaneous hand turkey craft also took place last year, DuBois said. People began tracing their hands to make turkeys using found sharpies on cardboard pizza rounds from Ava pizzeria, another Optimist Hall vendor.

Onya Nerves had her own special experience with a mother and son who came to last year’s Eat, Gay, Love and took a picture with her.

She said the son approached her eight months later at Queen City Anime Con and asked for a picture for his mom. She recognized him but couldn’t place him, not realizing they had met at Eat, Gay, Love.

“Three months after that, the mom comes up to me and is like, ‘Hey, I’m here for your event and I just had to get a picture of you for my son because he got you like three months ago and I was jealous,’” Onya Nerves said. “So now they have a little game. Now they do little phone tag. It’s so funny. It’s fantastic.”

Despite this being the fourth year of Eat, Gay, Love, DuBois said spreading the word continues to be the hardest part — not only letting people know the event is happening but that it’s for everyone, including allies.

He said the challenge is the LGBTQIA+ community is so fractioned between so many nonprofits and organizations and he’s trying to let everyone know that Eat, Gay, Love is the place to be and to be involved in, but he often feels he’s falling short.

“It’s both encouraging to know that all of your needs are taken care of but then it’s disheartening to know that you didn’t reach as far as you could have,” DuBois said. “And I like to take it on me that I didn’t reach far enough and not that there’s not a community who needs support, because they’re out there.”

Onya Nerves thinks DuBois is being too hard on himself. She said Charlotte is notoriously slow to grow for events; they either pop off right away, get too big for their britches and fizzle out, or they slowly grow each year and solidify. 

“There are so many one-offs and people go and it’s fun, and then they don’t ever get to do it again,” she said. “To be able to say that we’re in our fourth year of doing this is quite impressive.”

Imposter syndrome 

Maybe it’s his humble nature, but DuBois admits he sometimes wonders if Eat, Gay Love is just a fun thing he did for a while or if this is what the community truly wants and needs and should be continued forever?

He said he hopes it’s the latter and the event becomes a Charlotte staple.

“In my mind, if one family comes who needs that safe space to be there then it served its purpose,” DuBois said. “I couldn’t tell you who else showed up last year, but that one family with their kid who were the first people to walk in the doors? I was like, check, we did what we needed to do this year.”

Still, that doesn’t soothe what he refers to as his “massive impostor syndrome.” DuBois doesn’t think he should be a leader in the LGBTQ+ community because he didn’t come out until later in life.

“There’s no way that between 26 and 40 I have become a high-functioning gay who knows how to like, look out for others,” he said. “And I look at my friends, sometimes I go and look at Onya, and I’m like, ‘We’re doing good stuff? We’re change-makers? That’s crazy.’”

A white man with a short beard and wearing a dark hoodie smiles
Brian DuBois came up with the idea for the free Thanksgiving in 2019. (Courtesy of Brian Dubois)

Onya Nerves knows the need is there, so much so that when DuBois shared his plans for the first event, her initial reaction was, “Why wasn’t this something that was happening before?”

“I’m used to doing whatever Brian says,” Onya Nerves said. “He’s come at me with some really random ideas over the years, and they’ve all been a lot of fun. His mind never stops working.”

LaFrancois said when DuBois initially asked him to be involved in Eat, Gay, Love, he realized he’d be OK with skipping a holiday with his own family if it meant providing that opportunity to others. 

He said it’s both his personal and professional goal to contribute to diversity, equity and inclusiveness in the city of Charlotte and he empathizes with those who may have a less-than-safe space, or a non-welcoming family to celebrate with on Thanksgiving.

“Plus, who doesn’t like stuffing your face and getting a little too drunk with a six-foot-five drag queen and the most colorful crew of caring people in the city?” LaFrancois said.

And as for that imposter syndrome? Onya Nerves thinks DuBois deserves all the spotlight he can get.

“He is one of the most genuine people in this community and when he genuinely cares about an event or an organization, he puts his whole heart into it,” she said. 

“I think because it’s had such an overwhelming response over the years, I think that’s part of why he feels so imposterous about it, because it’s a need that needs to be filled. And the fact that it wasn’t beforehand only just shows that he cares about the community more than anything else.”

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