Disney employees, politicians keep the pressure on over ‘don’t say gay’ bill

·7 min read

ORLANDO, Fla. — When Marissa Flint started working at Walt Disney World 12 years ago, she thought she had found a place where she belonged as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

“I felt like I had a place of employment that could help foster my sense of well being, especially with being newly out of the closet and coming from a small town up north with almost no LGBT people,” said Flint, a lesbian married to another Disney employee.

But that perception has changed after the company failed to take a firm stance against the so-called “don’t say gay” bill, she said, which targets Florida’s LGBTQ+ community by prohibiting instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade classrooms and perhaps even in later grades.

Flint, 34, urged Disney to denounce the legislation on a March 8 call with State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, and reiterated that in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Flint said. “... The best they can do is try to push (Gov. Ron) DeSantis to not sign this bill.”

Over the past few weeks, Disney has faced mounting pressure from different sides of the political spectrum. Many employees and fans have decried Disney’s financial contributions to the bill’s sponsors and criticized its initial silence, while DeSantis slammed the company for what he called a “woke” agenda.

Disney creators, including those with Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios and Marvel Studios, have denounced the bill. Some fans pointed out that Susan Arnold, the chairwoman of Disney’s Board of Directors since December, is openly lesbian.

A group claiming to represent Disney employees has arranged a series of company-wide walkouts this week and started a petition for Disney to indefinitely end its political contributions, commit to fighting harmful legislation on behalf of its employees and donate to gay and trans advocacy organizations.

“There must be consequences for elected officials who vote for bills like this,” Eskamani said. “And the hope is that the pressure from cast members, workers and the public is that Disney agrees and joins us in accountability efforts.”

Unite Here Local 362 President Eric Clinton, who represents union Disney workers, said the union is not affiliated with the group organizing the walkouts. Boycotting the company could end up harming the LGBTQ+ workers people are fighting to protect, he said.

The union is working to support the “thousands” of LGBTQ+ workers affected by the legislation, he said, including advocating for Disney to take greater action against the legislation and support employees. Members are circulating a petition demanding Disney issue a “public and forceful statement” against the legislation, end financial donations to politicians supporting the bill, work to remove supporting politicians from office and expand mental health counseling services for affected workers.

“This is still an issue of great concern,” he said. “There’s this feeling that the company says the right things but hasn’t done the right things. ... [Chapek’s] statement was welcomed, but I also think it was too late.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom also jumped into the fray, writing on Twitter that Disney should reconsider its plans to relocate 2,000 mostly Imagineering jobs from Southern California to a new campus at Lake Nona in Orlando.

“Disney, the door is open to bring those jobs back to California — the state that actually represents the values of your workers,” Newsom wrote. However, the company has already bought the land for the new campus and is eligible for a $500 million-plus tax break from Florida if it builds it.

Disney has not responded to requests for comment.

“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, and if they do, to work to get them off the books,” Madison said in a statement.

As part of Chapek’s March 11 apology, he wrote Disney had paused all political donations in Florida and planned to increase its support for advocacy groups lobbying against similar legislation in other states.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, saw some notable GOP defections in the final vote, including state Sens. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and seven GOP House members, including state Rep. Rene Plasencia of Orlando.

Baxley had said during Senate debate he was concerned about “everybody now all about coming out when you’re in school.” State Sen. Ileana Garcia, R-Miami, said being gay wasn’t “permanent.”

DeSantis had yet to sign the bill Wednesday, but he and his staff have vociferously defended it.

After Chapek said he had spoken with DeSantis about his concerns that the bill would be “weaponized” against gays, DeSantis slammed the company as “woke” and brought up its financial ties to communist China.

DeSantis and other Republicans have also insisted opponents have misrepresented the bill and urged Chapek and others to read it, despite specific criticism from Democrats and LGBTQ groups that language that says “or … age-appropriate” that goes beyond kindergarten to third grade.

Disney has given about $55 million to Republicans, Democrats and political committees in the state over the past 28 years, including about $5 million in 2020 and more than $2 million so far in 2022, state records show. The company has also given more than $100,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC since 2019.

Eskamani said 80% of Disney contributions in Florida in 2020 and 2022 went to Republicans or politically affiliated groups.

“They’ve been feeding the monster and doing it for their own bottom line,” Eskamani said. “Because they have an economic agenda that for a very long time, had trumped any of their social concerns — until this moment, when their employees and the greater public are expressing outrage, and rightly so.”

She also questioned what Disney’s “pause” to review contributions would ultimately mean.

“What is [going to be] Disney’s criteria to give?” Eskamani said. “Are you just a living, breathing Republican, and then you get money? Or are they going to establish some sort of criteria? That’s the question we’re all waiting to see.”

Orlando Commissioner Patty Sheehan, the city’s first openly gay commissioner, said that pausing contributions is “the only thing that’s going to impact these legislators and get their attention. ... That’s the only things these legislators care about.”

Gay Days, an annual Orlando-based celebration of the LGBTQ+ community that usually includes an outing to Disney’s parks, is still happening this year, Gay Days Inc. President Chris Manley said. This is the first time it will happen since 2019.

“The majority of people that are responding are saying we’re happy we’re doing the event,” he said. “By being vocal, by being seen, I think that’s helping a lot more.”

Gay Days plans to add a slogan along the lines of “we say gay” to its version of the traditional red T-shirts typically worn by participants, Manley said, referring to the slogan chanted at protests over the bill.

The KindRED Pride Foundation, which works with LGBTQ+ music festivals held at or near Disney property such as Girls in Wonderland and One Magical Weekend, is encouraging people to attend RED Shirt Pride Days at Disney on June 4. In a release, the organization said visibility is more powerful than a boycott.

“We believe one way to fight back is show our numbers,” said Tom Christ, board member of the foundation.

Manley praised Disney’s actions last week in response to the legislation, particularly its pledged donations to LGBTQ+ organizations, and said he knows others in the community pleased that Disney has appeared to “reverse course.”

“I think Disney’s learned from this mistake,” he said. “So I’m happy with the direction Disney’s going.”