Disney announced on Friday that it would pause all political donations in Florida in the wake of a controversial state bill that restricts discussion of LGBTQ issues in public schools. Over the last few weeks, the company had received criticism for remaining silent about what critics call the “don’t say gay” bill, which is expected to be signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
In a statement sent to employees on Friday, Disney CEO Bob Chapek also announced that the company would increase support for advocacy groups fighting similar laws elsewhere (such as one recently introduced in Georgia) and would reassess Disney’s political donation policies. Chapek apologized to the company’s workers for not making a statement sooner, writing, “You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down.” In response, DeSantis criticized what he called the company’s “woke” ideology.
Florida wants gay tourists. A bill restricting LGBTQ topics in schools sends the wrong message, critics say.
Disney’s slow response stands in contrast to its branding as LGBTQ-friendly. In recent years, the company has featured gay characters in films; Disney stores sell LGBTQ pride-themed merchandise; and its theme parks have a loyal LGBTQ fan base. More than 150,000 visitors come to Orlando’s Walt Disney World during what are known as annual “gay days.”
According to Popular Information, an independent accountability journalism newsletter, the company has given nearly $300,000 to backers of the Florida bill in the last two years, and the Orlando Sentinel reported that since 2019, Disney has given more than $100,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC.
The temporary halt in donations comes after the company — which operates four theme parks, as well as cruises, in Florida, employing 77,000 workers in the state — received intense pressure from employees and fans alike to speak out against the bill. Formally known as the Parental Rights in Education bill, the legislation prohibits teachers from offering lessons on sexual and gender identity, up through third grade. From fourth grade on, it limits the discussion around such subjects to what is deemed “age-appropriate” — a term that is not defined in the bill and, according to critics, could prompt anxiety around discussing gender and sexuality at all.
For Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, the LGBTQ media and entertainment watchdog organization, it was perplexing to see an organization like Disney drag its feet.
“We’ve worked so closely with them, and they have been a leader, especially in kids and family programing for LGBTQ inclusion,” she said. “For them not to step in, in a state where youth were put in the crosshairs of politicians, was surprising.”
Ellis noted that Disney was nominated for seven GLAAD awards this year in categories specific to LGBTQ representation in children’s and family programming, pointing to the 2021 film “Eternals” as an example. The movie features a gay character, the superhero Phastos, who is shown kissing his husband.
Disney’s 2021 “Jungle Cruise” also spotlighted a major gay character: McGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall), who comes out as gay in a conversation with Dwayne Johnson’s cruise boat captain. Last year’s “Cruella” also featured a supporting character whom many saw as gay: Artie, the owner of a vintage clothing store, played by John McCrea. Disney was criticized for “queerbaiting,” or hinting at a character’s sexuality while being coy about it.
Chapek’s March 7 memo to Disney staff (printed in full by the Hollywood Reporter) cited “diverse stories” in his defense of the company’s decision not to make a public statement, pointing to such films such as “Black Panther,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and the TV series “Modern Family,” calling them “more powerful than any tweet or lobbying effort.”
“The biggest impact we can have in creating a more inclusive world is through the inspiring content we produce,” he wrote.
Chapek’s initial response was in contrast to former Disney CEO Bob Iger, who tweeted, “I’m with the President on this!” — a reference to President Biden’s tweet calling the Florida bill “hateful.” And it met pushback from Disney employees, prompting discussion of a walkout and a letter to Disney leadership attributed to LGBTQ staff at Pixar and their allies. In the letter (printed in full by Indie Wire), the employees said they were “disappointed, hurt, afraid and angry.”
“In regards to Disney’s financial involvement with legislators behind the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, we hoped that our company would show up for us. But it didn’t,” they wrote.
The employees also criticized Disney’s claim that it had long supported the LGBTQ community, noting the company did not officially host a public Pride event until 2019 and once removed gay couples from the park for dancing together.
The Human Rights Campaign — which Chapek had cited in his March 7 memo, noting Disney’s 100% rating from the LGBTQ advocacy organization — said on Wednesday that it would stop accepting 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.”
In the face of mounting pressure, Chapek ultimately conceded that doing good goes beyond producing inspiring content. “We need to use our influence to promote that good by telling inclusive stories, but also by standing up for the rights of all,” he wrote.
“I’m glad that they have finally spoken up and I hope to see more of it in the future,” said GLAAD’s Ellis, adding that as a major company, Disney has a responsibility to stand against what she calls “corporate complacency” in the face of anti-LGBTQ legislation.
“Disney is one of the largest employers in Florida, so all eyes are on Disney to see what they are doing, and then others follow,” she said. Ellis also hopes that Disney will double down on LGBTQ storylines, which can enlighten viewers to the prejudices that allow bills like the one in Florida to pass. “People receive information differently through entertainment than they do when they’re reading a newspaper or hearing someone’s position. It has such unique power,” she said “That’s where you humanize us and use these stories to tell why this stuff is going on.”