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Why Disney Employees Want The Company To Do More About Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' Law

A man in a rainbow headband and a rainbow Mickey Mouse T-shirt holds up a baton while marching in a parade. Other men and women are behind him in rainbow Mickey gear, blurred in the background.
People from the Walt Disney Company participate in the annual L.A. Pride Parade in West Hollywood on June 9, 2019. L.A. Pride began on June 28, 1970, exactly one year after the historic Stonewall Rebellion in New York City.
(David McNew
AFP via Getty Images)
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Disney has come under fire, both from outside the company and within, for its response to Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education bill,” which LGBTQ+ advocates have nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Disney CEO Bob Chapek tried to quell that discontent during a shareholder meeting Wednesday, but critics both inside and outside the company have said it’s too little, too late.

“What’s concerning is that it feels like a betrayal of the employees who create the profit for the company,” Disney animation writer Madison Bateman told LAist. “As a writer, we are taught that it’s important to ‘show, don’t tell,’ and right now we have a lot of words with no action to back them up.”

What The Law Does

The law would prevent teachers in Florida from including information about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. It would also prohibit teaching on these subjects for all students “in a matter that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

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A number of employees have spoken out on social media, including both LGBTQ+ employees here in Southern California and others who object to Disney’s response to the bill. The Florida law has become extra relevant for California employees due to Disney’s announcement last July that they would be moving 2,000 jobs from this state to a new office in central Florida.

In an internal memo to staff on Monday, Chapek said the company was opting not to make a statement because “corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds” and “they are often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame,” adding that they can ultimately be counterproductive.

“To have the head of the company say, ‘We support these people, but only with words, and only internally to the company’ feels… it feels hollow,” Bateman said. “You can’t tell kids ‘think about others,’ and ‘everybody matters,’ and then be like, ‘oooh, we didn’t mean that.’”

Three white men stand together in front of a backdrop from the film Luca, showing lush green hillsides. The man on the left (Bob Chapek) wears a tan jacket, the man in the middle (Pete Docter) a short-sleeved blue button-up, and the man on the right (Bob Iger) a long-sleeved white button up.
(L-R) CEO of The Walt Disney Company Bob Chapek, CCO of Pixar Pete Docter, and then-Executive Chairman of The Walt Disney Company Bob Iger arrive at the world premiere for Luca, held at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood on June 17, 2021.
(Alberto E. Rodriguez
Getty Images for Disney)

A Departure From The Recent Past

Bateman noted that similar issues were handled differently under Chapek’s predecessor, longtime Disney CEO Bob Iger.

“[Iger] made a point to stand with employees a couple of times in Georgia — the bathroom bill and an abortion law — and [this] feels like an abandonment by leadership,” Bateman said.

After the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Disney stopped supporting legislators who voted to reject the certification of the 2020 presidential election. Bateman said that the company could do the same now with their support of those behind the Florida legislation.

“It seems like an easy step to do here,” Bateman said. “I think we all work at Disney because we love it. We love our jobs, we love making magic at this company. But I think for a lot of people, it’s devastating that our labor is being used to fund laws that are so anathema to our content, to the company culture.”

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“If we feel ignored by the company we love it’s because we were,” Disney animation writer Benjamin Siemon, a gay man, wrote on Twitter Wednesday following Chapek’s statement. Siemon has been one of the most outspoken about the law on social media.

“Disney just needs to come clean,” Siemon wrote. “Say they messed up, and that they’ll do better moving forward and prove it by stopping political donations to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians.”

Chapek said Wednesday the company had wanted to address issues around the bill behind the scenes, but Siemon challenged that, citing reports that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hadn’t heard from Disney about the law until that same day.

“If Disney still doesn’t feel comfortable taking a stand, the least it can do is not give political contributions to anyone going forward,” Disney animation showrunner Craig Gerber wrote on Twitter.

After a Disney company Zoom meeting with nearly 900 staff members, Gerber wrote that he'd "never seen employees so collectively upset at upper management in over 12 years at Disney."

Gerber also mocked Chapek’s statement that DeSantis had assured him the new law will not be “weaponized in any way” against LGBTQ+ people.

Bateman noted that staff in TV animation felt like they had the ability to speak out due to support from leadership in their division. That department also sent a letter to Disney leadership calling for the company to cut off political donations to those who support the new Florida law.

The Matter Of Political Donations

There has been discontent raised from other parts of the Disney empire, as well. In a statement to Disney leadership from LGBTQ+ employees at Pixar, which was obtained by the Hollywood Reporter, employees called for the company to cease funding politicians who support the law.

Those employees also called attention to the lack of gay representation in Disney films, writing that any representation is “shaved down to crumbs” by the corporation.

“Nearly every moment of overtly gay affection is cut at Disney’s behest, regardless of when there is protest from both the creative teams and executive leadership at Pixar. Even if creating LGBTQIA+ content was the answer to fixing the discriminatory legislation in the world, we are being barred from creating it.”

A $5 Million Pledge Turned Down

Chapek pledged a $5 million donation from the company to organizations working to protect LGBTQ+ rights, specifically citing the Human Rights Campaign. However, the LGBTQ+ advocacy group announced that it will refuse taking money from Disney until the company takes meaningful action to fight the bill.

“The Human Rights Campaign will not accept this money from Disney until we see them build on their public commitment and work with LGBTQ+ advocates to ensure that dangerous proposals, like Florida’s Don’t Say Gay or Trans bill, don’t become dangerous laws, and if they do, to work to get them off the books,” the organization said in a statement.

While not taking the donation, the Human Rights Campaign did voice support for Chapek’s Wednesday statement.

“While Disney took a regrettable stance by choosing to stay silent amid political attacks against LGBTQ+ families in Florida — including hardworking families employed by Disney — today they took a step in the right direction. But it was merely the first step,” the statement read.

Six men in red T-shirts and shorts with the letters "MICKEY" spelled out across their chests in rainbow colors. They stand arms around each other in a crowd, with the Disney World castle behind them.
Six gay men spell out the word "Mickey" on their shirts at the base of the Walt Disney World castle during Gay Days on June 5, 1999 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Over 80,000 gay and lesbian men and women took part in what marked the ninth year of the event.
(Tony Ranze
AFP via Getty Images)

A Complicated Relationship With LGBTQ+ Fandom

Along with staff, Disney also has a large number of gay fans. The company has historically had a mixed record when it comes to supporting LGBTQ+ issues and staff. The Human Rights Campaign itself has given Disney a perfect score on its Corporate Equality Index for the past 16 years, with the latest assessment announced in January. It scores companies based on areas including non-discrimination policies, equitable benefits for LGBTQ+ workers and their families, supporting an inclusive culture, and corporate social responsibility.

But another prominent LGBTQ+ advocacy group, GLAAD, has consistently given the company poor marks when it comes to the inclusion that it shows on screen. In 2019, the most recent year for which data was available, Disney received a “poor” rating. The year before it was rated as “failing.” The last time it received an “adequate” score from GLAAD was 2013. GLAAD also announced Thursday that it would be adding film studio political donations to its future rating criteria.

The Animation Guild and its LGBTQ+ committee issued a statement Wednesday condemning what it described as an “immense disappointment,” citing the company’s own failure to live up to the ideals of one of its own most famous characters, Spider-Man — “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Disney General Entertainment Content chairman Peter Rice said following Chapek’s comments, “Personally, I see this law as a violation of fundamental human rights, and I condemn any attempt to marginalize individuals on the basis of their identity. I appreciate that Bob recognized that we must do more to support the LGBTQ+ community.”

[Note: Rice serves as a trusteefor Southern California Public Radio, which includes LAist and KPCC. He has no involvement in newsroom coverage.]

According to Bateman, it boils down to this:

“I think what a lot of people are asking is please don’t turn your back on the LGBTQ employees, on the LGBTQ fans, on LGBTQ kids who will be affected by this law.”

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