Disney has refused to publicly stand against Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.
Disney has long courted the queer community in a sort of backwards way: They enjoy the profits of having LGBTQ+ fandom, but they don’t meaningfully fight for equality. Every summer, the entertainment monolith’s theme parks host unofficial Gay Days that attract hundreds of thousands of queer attendees. Disney also sells rainbow merchandise that they heavily market during Pride, like all corporations do these days in a vacuous profit grab through exploiting social justice. But as “Don’t Say Gay” legislation is making its way to becoming law and threatening LGBTQ+ youth in Florida — where Disney employees tens of thousands of people — Disney has been remarkably silent until the last minute. Pixar employees have responded to an internal memo from Disney CEO Bob Chapek with a list of demands, while insisting that much of the company’s so-called “inspiring content” has been stripped of what made it special.
The Parental Rights in Education, or “Don’t Say Gay” bill as it’s being colloquially referred to, would make it illegal for teachers to engage in any discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” It also gives parents the right to sue schools for violations. The bill doesn’t define terms like “developmentally appropriate,” leaving plenty of room for parents to get litigious if their kid’s school even explains what the LGBTQ+ flag represents to young students, for example. The bill passed the state House and Senate despite massive protest, and now awaits a signature from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has said he supports the legislation.
If made law, the impact on young queer students will be grave. The bill essentially seeks to weaponize information to the detriment of young queer children, while also demonizing anyone who would seek to help LGBTQ+ youth in an educational setting, a very vulnerable demographic who need all the resources they can get. The law suggests that queerness is somehow taught to children by predators. It speaks to the long-used horrifying suggestion that LGBTQIA+ people are pedophiles. It’s Handmaid’s Tale-ian at its worst.
On March 3, Disney issued a statement picked up by Good Morning America that did not mention the bill specifically. The corporation instead bragged, “the biggest impact we can have in creating a more inclusive world is through the inspiring content we produce.” After employees reported their grievances, Michael Paull, president of Disney’s streaming division, issued a memo that used a “personal donation” to the Human Rights Campaign as an airbag, while referring upset LGBTQ+ employees to HR to seek therapy resources.
The internal remarks were infantilizing and dismissive, while the public statements were disingenuous and deflective, given Disney has donated money to all of the legislators who have voted for the bill. In a shareholder meeting days after the bill had already passed, Chapek finally spoke out against the bill — once it’s pretty much too late. He said that Disney had been trying to fight against the bill “behind the scenes,” a claim that has not been verified. Chapek also pledged $5 million from Disney to the Human Rights Campaign on Wednesday, March 9, but the HRC has rejected it. “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,” the org stated.
Pixar employees called out the hypocrisy and outright lies of Chapek and Disney leadership. “We at Pixar have personally witnessed beautiful stories, full of diverse characters, come back from Disney corporate reviews shaved down to crumbs of what they once were. 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,” it reads. The letter also calls for Disney to put its money where its mouth is beyond performative donations, asking the company to “immediately withdraw all financial support from the legislators behind the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill.”
It’s sad that Disney didn’t do more earlier, considering that Disney coming out against a dangerous anti-LGBTQ+ bill in Georgia in 2016 is largely credited with keeping it from being passed. Disney has massive influence and massive capital for donating power; their concerns are heard by lawmakers seeking funding. It’s clear that they could have been more decisive in Florida, and for some reason chose not to be. For now, Disney’s LGBTQ+ fans and employees are still disgruntled, and it remains to be seen if Chapek will be able to have any influence over DeSantis like he promised to on Wednesday.