The “Don’t Say Gay” bill faces mounting criticism as it continues to advance in the Florida Legislature and appears headed to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis, but one company with strong business ties to the state — despite professing to support the LGBTQ community — has declined to denounce the legislation to the growing disappointment of its many fans.
Disney, the media conglomerate, generates more than $6 billion a year from its theme parks, including the popular Walt Disney World in Florida. The company issued a statement Friday in the face of growing calls to speak out, but the statement is being criticized for stopping short of criticizing the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“We understand how important this issue is to our LGBTQ+ employees and many others,” the statement says. “For nearly a century, Disney has been a unifying force that brings people together. We are determined that it remains a place where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. The biggest impact we can have in creating a more inclusive world is through the inspiring content we produce, the welcoming culture we create here and the diverse community organizations we support, including those representing the LGBTQ+ community.”
At the same time, Disney has promoted itself and its theme parks as supporters LGBTQ people, setting aside “Gay Days” for same-sex couples and families specifically to visit the park, as well as its LGBTQ employees. Last year, for example, Disney announced park visitors would be able to buy now-iconic hats with Mickey Mouse ears in rainbow colors, while employees would no longer be held to gender-binary rules on costuming, jewelry, hair, and nail colors.
For 15 consecutive years, Disney has obtained and promoted a perfect score of “100” on the Human Rights Campaign’s annual corporate index, which ranks businesses based on policies and practices for LGBTQ employees, such as workforce protections, partner benefits and transgender-inclusive health care benefits as well as public engagements with the LGBTQ community.
That’s why Disney’s refusal to denounce the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would bar Florida schools from “instruction” about sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3 and otherwise not at “age-appropriate” levels, comes as a disappointment to many of the company’s fans. Alicia Stella, a video blogger for “Theme Park Stop” who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community, is quoted in the Orlando Sentinel as saying Disney’s statement was worse than the company not saying anything at all.
“We wanted a statement from Disney because we want Disney to have our backs,” Stella reportedly said. “… It’s worse than a response. This is a non-response.”
The group Gen-Z for Change has gone so far as to issue a call on Twitter to boycott Disney in response to the company’s lackluster response to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, pointing out the company has made donations to lawmakers supporting the legislation.
“Disney has made it clear that they will not take action to protect the lives of LGBTQ+ youth, and will continue to fund the politicians that seek to oppress them and erase their identities,” the group says. “We are calling on people to #BoycottDisneyPlus until Disney decides to #StopFundingHate.”
Disney is one of the nation’s most recognizable companies and one of the top employers in Florida. In addition to being responsible for Disney characters, the company has under its umbrella of Walt Disney Studios major film-producers Pixar, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm and 20th Century Studios. Disney also owns the ABC broadcast network and cable television networks such as Disney Channel and ESPN. Had the company denounced the “Don’t Say Gay” bill consistent with its message of supporting LGBTQ people, it would have sent a strong signal that might be a watershed moment in efforts to derail the legislation.
And yet the company has dismissed numerous calls and missed opportunities to articulate a public position on the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. For example, in a joint statement out this week and organized by the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom for All Americans, more than 150 signatories were among the businesses denouncing anti-LGBTQ legislation in Florida as measures that “single out LGBTQ individuals – many specifically targeting transgender youth – for exclusion or differential treatment,” but Disney isn’t among them.
Angela Darra, a spokesperson for Freedom for All Americans, said “we don’t have a relationship with Disney” in response to the Washington Blade’s inquiry last week on why the company was absent, adding she’s unsure if Disney has been approached yet or has a stance either way.
To be sure, the statement itself never explicitly identifies the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and speaks more generally about opposition to anti-LGBTQ legislation advancing in state legislatures. Darra told the Blade “Don’t Say Gay” isn’t enumerated because LGBTQ organizations “take the approach of releasing broader letters like this during state legislative sessions because we believe it is the most effective way to show support from businesses.
“They simply don’t have the capacity or bandwidth to run every individual bill up the corporate ladder for approvals,” Darra added. “I know it’s not ideal but there is a lot of process otherwise that would slow us down.”
The answer for why Disney hasn’t spoken out against the legislation may be the change in leadership. In a detailed article published last week, the Hollywood Reporter lays out how after the previous CEO Bob Iger took a stand on issues, including speaking out against President Trump’s travel ban on Muslim countries, the new CEO Bob Chapek has opted to take a hands-off approach.
“According to a source familiar with both Iger’s and Chapek’s thinking, Iger tended to speak out not only when issues affected the company’s business interests but when they affected its employees, now numbering about 195,000,” the article says. “But this person says Chapek has taken a narrower view and has been concerned that Disney might be viewed as too liberal.”
Other groups have explicitly called on Disney to speak out against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Among them is AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which unveiled last week a 30-second ad that aired on local TV stations in Orlando and called on the company to denounce the legislation.
“Disney, where do you stand when we need you the most?” a female voiceover says in the ad. “The rights of families in Florida are under attack. The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill is threatening our children’s security. It’s 2022. Kids need knowledge. Depriving them of this is wrong.”
A group of LGBTQ activists wrote a joint letter to Disney last week calling on the company to speak out against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill as well as the Stop Woke Act against critical race theory and legislation restricting transition-related care for transgender youth.
“We understand Disney finds itself having to take public positions on many social issues but believe there is an opportunity to send a powerful signal that companies will not stand for the instrumentalization of LGBTQ+ rights for political purposes,” the letter says.
Signers of the letter aren’t leaders of major LGBTQ institutions, but individual activists and figures, including retired NBA player Jason Collins, former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), gay activist David Mixner and HIV activist Sean Strub as well as filmmakers Jason Moore and transgender activist Geena Rocero.
Fabrice Houdart, managing director of the LGBTQ group Out Leadership, organized the letter and told the Washington Blade Disney — as well as other major companies in Florida, such as the Miami Dolphins and the cruise line Royal Caribbean — have commercially engaged with LGBTQ people, including at Pride events, but “have not been present in the response” to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“So we wrote to the CEO of all those companies…saying, ‘Look, you know, if you are a friend of the community, then you have to do something,” Houdart said. “You cannot stay silent were this to be up for a vote in the Senate.”
Houdart said as of last week he had yet to hear anything in response to the letter, but hopes things would change as public pressure on Disney and other companies continues to intensify and corporations become more aware of the legislation.
“What I’m hoping is that internally, they are deciding whether they going to speak out or not,” Houdart said. “But, you know, what I really wanted to do is put them on notice that the community is aware, despite them saying that they are LGBT friendly, they have not taken a stand at the moment where, [it’s another fight against] stigmatization of the community.”