The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Disney fell flat in fight over LGBTQ talk in Florida’s schools

The usual political tactics failed, leaving the influential company pledging to do more

(Dominic Bugatto for The Washington Post)
12 min

Disney employs 38 lobbyists to press its interests inside Florida’s state Capitol complex in Tallahassee. With its Orlando theme park empire and roughly 80,000 workers, the company already wields considerable influence in a state closely tied to tourism. Disney’s army of lobbyists are there just to make sure no one forgets.

“Disney — they get everything they want,” said Anna Eskamani, a Democratic state representative from Orlando, who can rattle off a list of measures killed or pushed through with the company’s weight, such as an exemption designed for Disney from a 2021 bill that restricted the ability of social media firms to ban political candidates.

So Eskamani and many other lawmakers were surprised when Disney — and its lobbyists — kept quiet as a mouse when state lawmakers started debating a bill to ban discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary school classrooms.

The controversial measure — dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill by opponents — was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) this past week, spurring a firestorm of criticism over why Disney didn’t do more.

While Disney is now promising to work to undo the measure, a review of lobbying disclosures found no record of Disney activity on the bill in the House, where the legislation first emerged in January. (Similar records are not maintained in the Senate.) And Disney didn’t publicly speak out against the bill until it was close to final passage.

The ensuing pushback was a stunning blow for one of Florida’s most powerful companies, which for years had proved skilled at navigating culture war issues with behind-the-scene negotiations and deft signaling of its goals. Now the company faces protests from its own employees, criticism from LGBTQ activists and combative statements from DeSantis, who dismissed concerns from what he called a “woke” Disney.

Disney’s missteps illustrate just how much the political landscape has changed for companies in a country roiled by Black Lives Matter protests and the Jan. 6 insurrection. Disney discovered that the old corporate playbook for avoiding such controversy had been shredded by new customer and employee expectations about how companies should react, along with a fresh willingness from previously business-friendly Republicans to buck corporate wishes.

“It’s pretty rare that Disney in Florida has come up short,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, who co-authored the book “Politics in Florida.”

But for Disney to lose and for state leaders to appear to relish Disney’s humiliation, he said, “That’s never happened.”

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Disney declined to comment for this article. Disney executives described the company’s reactions to the bill on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The Parental Rights in Education bill was introduced in the Florida state legislature by GOP lawmakers amid a growing nationwide debate about gender identity and schools.

It bans classroom instruction on 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.” The bill also requires parents be told when a child seeks school counseling. DeSantis’s press secretary Christina Pushaw derisively called it “the Anti-Grooming Bill.”

It quickly earned the “don’t say gay” moniker from critics who say it is a cruel law that will harm LGBTQ students and staff. Supporters say it’s about preventing discussions about certain sexuality topics in primary classrooms.

As the bill faced its first vote in Florida’s House, Disney hadn’t publicly addressed the bill.

And its lobbyists didn’t talk to House lawmakers about the measure, according to state lobbying records.

Instead, Disney lobbyists approached House members on a plan to stop hotels from renting rooms by the hour and consumer data privacy regulations, among other bills during the legislative session, records show.

Records show Disney also lobbied against a House bill that touched on another culture war issue: the “Stop WOKE Act.”

Depending on the view, that bill is an anti-critical race theory bill targeting corporate diversity training or a bill designed to prevent people from feeling discomfort over discussions of systemic racism or racial discrimination. The Republican sponsor of the bill cited a Disney diversity program called “Reimagine Tomorrow,” according to the Orlando Sentinel.

But Disney did not lobby on HB 1557 — the “don’t say gay” bill, according to disclosure records.

“My gut reaction was this was not a priority for them,” Eskamani said.

However, Disney did speak with the governor’s office about the bill during that time and planned to focus its lobbying efforts on the state Senate, according to a company executive.

Disney is a major donor in Florida politics, donating $4.8 million to lawmakers in the 2020 campaign cycle, according to campaign finance records. Nearly 80 percent of that went to Republicans — and the Orlando Sentinel pointed out Disney had given money to every sponsor and co-sponsor of the bill. The online newsletter Popular Information noted several big corporations including UnitedHealth and Comcast donated hundreds of thousands to the bill’s supporters.

As the bill sped through the House, state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D) tried to slow it down. He told The Washington Post he knew it was likely to pass because Republicans hold clear majorities in the state House and Senate.

Smith, a Democrat and one of three openly LGBTQ state lawmakers, said he suggested the bill ban classroom discussions of sexual activity, rather than gender identity and sexual orientation. That would remove the spotlight from LGBTQ issues. His amendment failed.

On Feb. 24, the House passed the bill 69 to 47.

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A couple of days later, Smith called Disney lobbyist Leticia Adams, according to two people familiar with the discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private communications. He left their talk with the impression that the company believed the best odds for stopping the bill rested in the state Senate. Disney planned to work with a state senator to introduce an amendment similar to Smith’s.

Smith said he was doubtful at the time about Disney’s tactics.

“They have some clout in the legislature,” he later said. “They should use it.”

As the bill headed toward the state Senate, pressure was building on Disney.

The company’s LGBTQIA+ business employee resource groups wrote to Disney executives asking them to speak out against the bill.

Protests popped up in Florida. “Saturday Night Live” lampooned the bill. Social media complaints rose.

Disney’s legendary former head Bob Iger publicly bashed the legislation, tweeting it “will put vulnerable, young LGBTQ people in jeopardy.”

In the Senate, Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes was one of the few allies Disney had on that side of the aisle. He said he felt the bill was addressing “a hypothetical problem.” He was open to Disney’s plan to amend the bill and talked to three Disney lobbyists about what to do.

Brandes said he wanted to cut the phrases “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” for more general terms about sexuality. He talked with the governor’s office. They wouldn’t back down, he said.

“They wanted those exact words and nothing else,” Brandes said.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the conversation.

Brandes’s final amendment suggested keeping the original phrases and adding “sexual activity.” No go.

As the bill neared the finish line, Disney’s current chief executive, Bob Chapek, addressed it publicly for the first time on March 7 — 11 days after the bill passed in the House.

He sent a memo to Disney workers — cast members, as they’re known — noting that he’d heard from staff disappointed that the company had not put out a public statement condemning the legislation. Chapek wrote that “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.”

“I do not want anyone to mistake a lack of a statement for a lack of support,” he added.

He also noted the company would be “reassessing” its political donations.

The bill passed in the Senate one day later by a vote of 22 to 17. With the bill on its way to the governor, Chapek spoke out again at Disney’s annual shareholder meeting, saying that the company didn’t take a public position earlier “because we thought we could be more effective working behind the scenes, engaging directly with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.”

Chapek told the meeting that he’d spoken to DeSantis that morning “to express our disappointment” and concerns about the bill. It was the only time the two spoke about the bill, according to DeSantis’s deputy press secretary Bryan Griffin.

“The call did not change the governor’s position, and in fact the governor encouraged Mr. Chapek to read the bill,” Griffin said in a statement, adding that “such discussions need to be based on the text of the bill and not a fabricated narrative.”

Disney’s failure to derail the bill — or at least get credit for strongly opposing it — stood out because the company has a history of getting its way in the Florida state legislature and of adeptly handling LGBTQ issues.

Six years ago, then-Disney chief executive Iger was credited with helping convince Georgia’s governor to veto a bill that would have allowed faith-based groups to refuse services to LGBTQ individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs.

In the early 1990s, Walt Disney World started hosting an annual Gay Day the first Saturday in June. Supporters wore red. Thousands of people showed up.

The Southern Baptist Convention boycotted Disney for nearly a decade over Gay Day. Evangelist Pat Robertson once warned a meteor would strike Orlando. Some conservative groups, such as the Florida Family Association, have continued to get upset.

While Disney has never officially endorsed the event, the company clearly supports it and hasn’t buckled to demands from anti-gay activists, said Sean Griffin, a professor of film and media arts at Southern Methodist University, who wrote a book about the ties between Disney and LGBTQ culture.

Disney is always trying to appeal to both sides without angering either one, Griffin said. “It was a successful strategy for decades.”

That’s harder to do today.

“Everything is so polarized, so trying to stay in the middle is really problematic,” Griffin said. “This strategy of not taking sides that has done them well for decades looks increasingly like it’s not going to work anymore.”

At the shareholders meeting, Chapek also announced Disney planned to donate $5 million to LGBTQ groups including the Human Rights Campaign.

But the Human Rights Campaign — which gave Disney perfect scores in its Corporate Equality Index this year and in 2021 — rejected Disney’s donation. The group’s interim president, Joni Madison, said in a statement that Disney “took a regrettable stance by choosing to stay silent” and needed to work to get the law off the books.

A day later, on March 9, in a video from a campaign event sent to Fox News, DeSantis described Disney as “woke” and said there was “zero” chance he would not sign the bill.

The governor seemed to enjoy calling out Disney, said Jewett, the political science professor.

“I think it’s a wider trend in conservative circles since President Trump came aboard,” he said. “It’s, stay in your lane. Corporations can advocate for lower taxes and business policy. But that’s it.”

Now, Disney looked like it was putting economic concerns ahead of what it claims are its values, Jewett said.

The pressure from Disney workers ramped up. An anonymous group of employees launched and planned a “Disney Do Better Walkout.” Two broadcasters on ESPN — owned by the sprawling entertainment company — offered a brief silent protest during an NCAA women’s basketball game. And dozens of workers in California staged a walkout. In Orlando, a single protester stood outside the theme park’s main entrance.

In a second memo to Disney workers, Chapek said Disney was suspending all political donations in Florida. He said the company was increasing support for advocacy groups to fight similar legislation in other states. And Chapek admitted, “I missed the mark in this case but am an ally you can count on.”

Disney has continued to announce its regret for not doing more to stop the bill.

On Monday, the company issued a statement saying HB 1557 “should never have passed and should never have been signed into law” and that Disney will push for it to be repealed.

Eskamani, the state legislator, said she was skeptical of corporate promises. After all, Disney had the chance weeks ago to potentially stop this from happening.

“Once that train departs, it gets out of your hands,” she said.

The lone protester outside Walt Disney World in Orlando, Nicholas Luis Maldonado, 27, said he was hopeful.

He’d worked for Disney for four years, first in California and now in Florida at a retail store. He said he feels like the Disney brand is part of him. And he’s been closely following Disney’s reaction to the bill.

“The company is listening. The company is hearing us,” Maldonado said, noting the support he’s received from others at Disney, including his manager.

But he worried what Disney could do about the law now.

“It’s a little too late.”