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The inside story of how Disney turned its back on the LGBTQ community
Disney is happy to profit off the LGBTQ community. For example, it serves as a host for Gay Days, "an Orlando gathering that generally attracts over 150,000 people each June." Disney offers a full array of LGBTQ-themed clothing and accessories available for purchase.
But Disney's solidarity with the LGBTQ community has its limits. The Florida legislature has been considering a bill, HB 1557, which would prohibit "instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3." That means, for example, that a teacher could not explain what it means that Minnie Mouse is wearing a rainbow dress on the little girl's t-shirt in the image above.
The bill, known as "Don't Say Gay," also prohibits instruction "on sexual orientation or gender identity" in grades 4 and up "in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students." Neither "age appropriate" nor "developmentally appropriate" is defined in the legislation. The ambiguity is likely to chill any discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity throughout the Florida K-12 educational system. Any teacher who broaches these topics could open up their school to a lawsuit.
The bill was approved by the Florida House on February 24 and a final vote is expected in the Senate today. But throughout the entire process, Disney, which employs tens of thousands of people in the state, has remained silent.
In response to calls to action and protests by the LGBTQ community, Disney issued a statement to Good Morning America on March 3. Disney's statement pointedly did not reference the Don't Say Gay bill at all. Instead, the company asserted it should remain focused on producing "inspiring content" which could make the "biggest difference."
That statement went over exceedingly poorly with Disney employees. A March 4 email from Michael Paull, the president Disney's streaming division, obtained exclusively by Popular Information, acknowledges the discontent. Paull, who is in charge of Disney+, Hulu, and other Disney-owned streaming services, confirms that many employees have "reached out regarding the Florida legislation and let me know how personal this is for you." Paull described the bill as "concerning and painful."
But, in lieu of Disney taking a public stand, Paull said that he "made a personal donation to the Human Rights Campaign." His advice to employees who were upset was to call the "Employee Assistance Program" and ask to be referred to a therapist.
On Monday at approximately 11 AM Eastern, Disney CEO Bob Chapek sent a memo regarding the Don't Say Gay bill to the entire staff of Disney. In the memo, which was obtained by Popular Information and other media outlets, Chapek claimed that Disney's "entire leadership team unequivocally stand in support of our LGBTQ+ employees, their families, and their communities."
Chapek defended, however, his decision not to issue a statement. He explained he was concerned about blowback from those that don't support LGBTQ rights. According to Chapek, corporate statements on policy issues "do very little" but can be "weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame."
Chapek said the Don't Say Gay bill is just "one bill" in "one state" and the best way for Disney to support the LGBTQ community is to ignore it and focus on creating "inspiring content."
This is not how Disney has operated historically. In 2016, for example, Disney took a strong stand against an anti-LGBTQ bill in Georgia, threatening to boycott the state if the bill was enacted. When then-Governor Nathan Deal (R) vetoed the legislation, Disney praised his decision. Chapek took over for former Disney CEO Bob Iger last year. Iger has publicly opposed the Don't Say Gay bill.
In perhaps to most bizarre passage in the three-page memo, Chapek claimed Disney-produced content, including Modern Family, functioned as the company's response to the Don't Say Gay bill:
Encanto, Black Panther, Pose, Reservation Dogs, Coco, Soul, Modern Family, Shang-Chi, Summer of Soul, Love, Victor. These and all of our diverse stories are our corporate statements—and they are more powerful than any tweet or lobbying effort. I firmly believe that our ability to tell such stories—and have them received with open eyes, ears, and hearts—would be diminished if our company were to become a political football in any debate.
The memo is a clumsy attempt to spin Disney's decision. And, according to reports, it is not the full story. The Hollywood Reporter reported last week that Chapek has become "concerned that Disney might be viewed as too liberal."
In the last two years, Disney has donated $299,126 to supporters of "Don't Say Gay"
In his memo, Chapek positions Disney as maintaining public neutrality on the bill. But money talks. And, in the last two years, Disney has donated $249,126 to members of the Florida legislature that voted for the "Don't Say Gay" legislation and $50,000 to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R).
That includes $4,126 to the chief sponsor of the bill in the Florida House, Representative Joe Harding (R), and $1,000 to the chief sponsor of the bill in the Florida Senate, Senator Dennis Baxley (R).
Chapek acknowledges these donations in his memo and says that "Geoff Morrell, our new Chief Corporate Affairs Officer" will be "reassessing" Disney's "political giving." Morrell, however, is a Republican operative who previously worked for the George W. Bush administration and BP. In the last five years, Morrell has donated exclusively to Republican candidates, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), former Senator David Perdue (R-GA), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI).
Chapek promoted another Republican operative, Arthur Bochner, to serve as his Chief of Staff. Bochner held positions in the Bush administration and the Republican National Committee.
DeSantis staff launch smear campaign
DeSantis’ staff have launched a smear campaign against teachers and opponents of the "Don't Say Gay" bill. Last week, Christina Pushaw, the press secretary for DeSantis accused opponents of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill of condoning pedophilia.
“If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children,” Pushaw tweeted. “Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules.”
This sentiment was echoed by Kyle Lamb, another member of DeSantis’ communications team, who insisted that “either you support the sexualization of children under 10 years old or you don't.”
The accusation that Florida teachers are attempting to "groom" children by discussing gender identity and sexual orientation is outlandish. Further, nothing in the bill limits the prohibition to topics related to sex. It prohibits all discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity regardless of context. (Conversely, the bill does not prohibit teaching young children about heterosexual sex.)
Republican State Senator Jeff Brandes (R) attempted to amend the bill to pertain to discussions of “human sexuality and sexual activity” rather than “sexual orientation and gender identity.” Baxley, the sponsor of the bill, rejected the proposal, saying it would "gut" the legislation.
As critics have pointed out, the issue of sex education is a red herring.
"The governor says it’s about sex education. Nowhere in this bill does it use the terms sex education,” State Senator Tina Polsky (D) said on the Senate floor yesterday. Polsky went on to criticize Pushaw for suggesting that “gay people or teachers talking about gayness are pedophiles and are grooming children for molestation."
UPDATE (3/9): This article has been updated with Disney donations to the Florida Senators who voted for the legislation.