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Disney finds itself in the political and cultural crosshairs over "Don't Say Gay" bill

LGBTQ community rebukes "Don't Say Gay" bill
LGBTQ community rebukes Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill 05:44

With some workers across the U.S. threatening a walkout Tuesday, The Walt Disney Co. finds itself in a balancing act between the expectations of a diverse workforce and demands from an increasingly polarized, politicized marketplace.

On one side are LGBTQ advocates and Disney employees calling for a walkout in protest of CEO Bob Chapek's slow response in publicly criticizing Florida legislation dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill. The legislation, officially called the "Parental Rights in Education," bars instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. It would also let parents sue school districts that violate those restrictions.

The measure passed the Florida senate earlier this week and is expected to be signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who supports the bill. DeSantis is viewed as a likely Republican presidential candidate in 2024.

On the other side of the dispute are politicians like DeSantis, who accuse Disney of bending to cancel culture after a Disney decision to temporarily suspend political contributions in the state. 

Chapek, who became Disney's CEO in 2020, has drawn fire for speaking out about the gender identity bill only after it passed the Florida Legislature. Disney opposed the bill from the start, but thought it best to oppose it behind the scenes, according to Chapek, who said he called DeSantis to express "concern that if the legislation becomes law, it could be used to unfairly target gay, lesbian, non-binary and transgender kids and families." 

After Chapek came out publicly against the measure at Disney's annual shareholder meeting earlier this month, DeSantis lashed out at the entertainment giant, one of Florida's largest employers. According to Disney's conservative critics, the company should focus on making profits rather than involve itself in the fight over the bill. 

Students across Florida protest "Don't Say Gay" bill 02:36

Evan Power, the Republican Party chairman in Leon County, said he believes a strident minority of Disney employees are pushing the issue and that DeSantis has more to gain by taking the side of parents who want more control over education and "sexual conversations" in early grades at school. 

"I think it pays dividends with parents across the state of Florida regardless of political divisions," Power said.

Officials for the unions that represent tens of thousands of workers at Disney theme parks in Florida and Anaheim, California — including the hundreds of costumed performers who portray Mickey Mouse, Cinderella and Stitch at Walt Disney World — said there didn't appear to be any momentum for a walkout.

"We are not in support of that," Romualdas Dulskis, a Teamsters official in Orlando whose local represents costumed characters, bus drivers and other Disney workers, said Monday. "That's just not the way we are going to go about this."

Union leaders said they had advised their members not to participate because their contract prohibits work stoppages or disruptions.

"I don't want to downplay anyone's efforts, if someone feels what they are doing is the right way to make an impact," said Eric Clinton, president of Unite Here! Local 362, which represents custodians, housekeepers and other Disney World theme park workers. "We aren't part of that. It would violate our contract if members of our union participated, though we are concerned about the issue, of course."

One of the organizers of the walkout, a New York-based employee, said they were expecting more participation from Disney workers in production, marketing, IT and other desk jobs than those in hourly, union jobs. The worker spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of being targeted online and because organizers didn't want a single organizer taking the spotlight.

Part of the goal of the walkout is for those workers with the "privilege" to be able to protest to stand up for those who can't, the New York employee said.

ESPN employees protest bill

The legislation, described as "hateful" by President Biden and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, has triggered protests from LGBTQ advocates across the country and students at middle and high schools in Florida where walkouts over the bill have also taken place.

Employees at Disney-owned ESPN continue to stand with their Disney coworkers in protesting the Florida legislation, having staged numerous walkouts over the past week. Several ESPN announcers also have observed moments of silence on-air during game coverage, in protest of the bill. The first to do so were ESPN commentators Carolyn Peck and Courtney Lyle during the Women's NCAA Tournament. After voicing their solidarity with their colleagues in Florida in opposition of the bill, the two stayed silent for twoo minutes, the Washington Post reported

Disney workers participating in the March 22 walkout plan to meet up with each other at locations in Orlando, New York City, Anaheim and Burbank, California, where the company is headquartered. A Disney spokesman didn't respond to an email seeking comment. Instead, the company released a statement on the Disney Parks official Instagram condemning the "Parental Rights in Education" legislation indirectly.

"Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products is committed to creating experiences that support family values for every family, and will not stand for discrimination in any form. We oppose any legislation that infringes on basic human rights, and stand in solidarity and support our LGBTQIA+ Cast, Crew, and Imagineers and fans who make their voices heard today and every day," the statement read.

Disney employed 190,000 workers as of last October, with roughly three-quarters working in its theme parks division.

Disney, whose movies and properties shaped generations of children around the world, has spoken out several times in recent years about contentious social and political situations.

It was one of a slew of U.S. companies that in January 2021 said it would suspend political donations to lawmakers who voted against certifying President Joe Biden's electoral victory. It also spoke out early against a 2016 anti-gay bill in Georgia, threatening to pull its business from the state, which has become a favorite of movie and TV studios. The bill was vetoed by Georgia's then-governor.

History of involvement in social issues

And the company has not been immune to changing societal expectations. It has said it would revamp the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain rides at its theme parks to remove racist and sexist elements and put short warnings in front of some of its classic movies on its streaming service, Disney+, alerting viewers to "outdated cultural depictions.

Republican lawmakers pushing the Florida legislation had argued that parents, not teachers, should be the ones talking to their children about gender issues during their early formative years.

Chapek apologized earlier this month for not coming out more forcefully and publicly against the bill, saying Disney officials had been working behind the scenes to stop it. Chapek also announced a pause to all political donations in Florida and more support for advocacy groups fighting similar legislation in other states. Chapek reiterated those points during a company-wide discussion with employees on Monday.

Disney has long been influential in Florida politics, tending to be conservative and supporting Republicans who have been in control of Tallahassee, the state capital, for two decades, but also being more open on social issues, said Patricia Campos-Medina, co-director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University. "That's why people felt surprised that they wanted to say quiet on this issue," she said.

Florida passes restrictions on LGBTQ topics in schools 02:12

Organizers of the walkout maintain that withholding political contributions isn't enough.

On a website calling for the walkout, the group says that until the legislation is repealed, Disney leaders need to stop investments in Florida, including the relocation of 2,000 mostly professional jobs from its California headquarters to Orlando. They also say Disney needs to develop an LGBTQ brand similar to the Onyx Collective, an initiative aimed at developing content by and for people of color.

Power, the GOP official in Tallahassee, said he's confident that Disney and Florida Republicans will get past this flashpoint and restore their relationship, eventually.

"It's good that we're pushing back, because the purpose of a publicly traded company is not to push an agenda," Power said. "The people at Disney know they need to work with the Legislature and the governor, and they'll come back around."

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