clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Disney CEO responds to ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill controversy with dismay, donations, and a belief in Florida politicians

New, 47 comments

Bob Chapek’s reaction to Florida LGBTQ legislation has creators, fans speaking out

“Disney, please, say ‘gay.’”

DuckTales writer Benjamin Siemon tweeted the plea on Sunday, March 6, joining a wave of LGBTQ artists and advocates pushing for The Walt Disney Co. to take a clearer stand against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, a controversial piece of legislation that would prevent educators from discussing sexual orientation in public school classrooms based on grade level. Disney’s giant stake in Florida’s tourist economy — and giant stake in culture, as an outlet for progressive ideals and representation — put CEO Bob Chapek under pressure to push back against the bill. The company’s stance, conveyed on Monday only by an internal memo to employees from Chapek, was one of neutrality.

But at Disney’s annual meeting of shareholders on Wednesday, Chapek attempted to address many of these concerns over the bill while still placating a crowd of investors that was split on the issue. “We were hopeful that our long-standing relationships with those lawmakers would achieve better outcomes, but despite weeks of effort, we were unsuccessful,” he said.

Sponsored in the Florida Senate by Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, to whom the Walt Disney Co. has donated money in the past, the measure, officially called the Parental Rights in Education bill, would prohibit classroom instruction “by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” before fourth grade “or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Republican whom Disney has also backed financially, voted for the bill, which passed the state Senate earlier this week and now awaits Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ approval. The governor has expressed support for the bill, but has not yet confirmed whether he will sign it. If passed into law, the legislation would take effect on July 1.

“I called Gov. DeSantis this morning to express our disappointment and concern that if legislation becomes law it could be used to unfairly target gay, lesbian, nonbinary, and transgender kids and families,” Chapek said during the shareholders call. According to the CEO, the governor has agreed to meet with him and a group of LGBTQ members of Disney’s senior team in Florida.

Chapek added that Disney is reassessing the ways in which it makes financial contributions to politicians on both sides of the aisle, but stressed that the company can’t be sure what a politician will vote for when it donates, and noted that objections to the donations could come from either side about any number of issues. He also said the company would pledge $5 million to LGBTQ rights organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign.

“Certainly the outcome in Florida is not what many of us were hoping for, especially our LGBTQ+ employees,” he said, “and unfortunately legislation targeting their communities is being considered in many other states, which means this fight will go on.”

Chapek’s new comments still echo the passive stance he conveyed to Disney employees earlier this week. In a companywide memo, the CEO asserted that Disney could not risk becoming fodder for political debate by commenting on issues like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. “As we have seen time and again, corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds,” Chapek wrote. “Instead, they are often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame. Simply put, they can be counterproductive and undermine more effective ways to achieve change.”

Chapek reinforced the position by suggesting that the work of Disney’s collaborators could speak for the brand.

“I want to be crystal clear,” Chapek wrote in the memo. “I and the entire leadership team unequivocally stand in support of our LGBTQ+ employees, their families, and their communities. And, we are committed to creating a more inclusive company — and world. We all share the same goal of a more tolerant, respectful world. Where we may differ is in the tactics to get there. And because this struggle is much bigger than any one bill in any one state, I believe the best way for our company to bring about lasting change is through the inspiring content we produce, the welcoming culture we create, and the diverse community organizations we support.”

“I’m fucking tired of making Disney look good,” Dana Terrace, creator of the Disney Channel’s acclaimed animated series The Owl House, tweeted on Monday in response to Chapek’s note. A number of creators, actors, and Disney employees followed, hoping to push for a stronger resistance from the company.

Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Disney co-founder Roy O. Disney and a regular skeptic of the company’s business practices, also threw in her support by way of a Twitter thread.

“The times for neutrality are long since over,” she wrote on Tuesday. “That train has left the goddam station. What is Disney for? Is it for pretending what America is about, or it is for defining a vision for a world in which fantasy, love, kindness, decency and loyalty are bedrock values.”

Late on Tuesday, the Animation Guild released a statement via Instagram lashing out at Disney’s noncommittal stance.

“It is one thing to say that you ‘unequivocally stand in support of our LGBTQ+ employees, their families, and their communities.’ It’s quite another for you to stand silent while this scurrilous piece of homophobic legislation passes,” the Guild said.

In its full statement, the Guild noted that Chapek “did not unilaterally condemn this homophobic bill, but instead defended the company’s contributions to legislators who supported it.”

During the Q&A portion of the shareholders meeting, which gave the floor to those frustrated by Disney’s lack of direct opposition to the bill, as well as to one shareholder who expressed their discontent over Disney’s support of LGBTQ rights, Chapek put the onus on lawmakers to protect the public.

“Gov. DeSantis committed to me that he wanted to make sure that this law could not be weaponized in any way by individuals in the state or groups in the state to unduly harm or target gay, lesbian, nonbinary, or transgender kids and families,” Chapek said. “He was very open to this conversation and finding out what aspects are most concerning and working to ensure that that could not happen in the state of Florida with this legislation.”

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon