Metro Weekly

Disney CEO defends refusal to denounce “Don’t Say Gay” bill

Bob Chapek says Disney "unequivocally" stands with LGBTQ employees and will reassess its "advocacy strategies," including political donations.

Minnie Mouse in a performance at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. – Photo: Adrián Valverde, via Unsplash.

Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Chapek told employees in a memo released on Monday that the company “unequivocally” stands with its LGBTQ employees in the wake of the Florida House of Representatives passing the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, even as he defended his company from criticism for not issuing a statement on the proposed legislation.

The bill, which is slated to pass the Republican-controlled Senate sometime Monday afternoon, has been trumpeted as a “parental rights” measure that keeps parents informed of any changes in the way schools deal with their children, particularly with respect to affirming a child’s gender identity or sexual orientation without the parents’ knowledge.

The bill explicitly bans any teacher-led discussions of LGBTQ-related topics up to the third grade, and then requires that any conversations in older grades be age-appropriate and “developmentally appropriate.”

Given Disney’s prominent role as a major employer in Florida, many LGBTQ advocates called on the corporate giant to speak out against the bill, in the hope of giving Republican lawmakers pause before passing the measure.

But Disney did not release a statement taking a firm position on the bill, instead saying that it understood how important the issue was to its LGBTQ employees.

“For nearly a century, Disney has been a unifying force that brings people together,” the company’s statement read. “We are determined that it remains a place where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. The biggest impact we can have in creating a more inclusive world is through the inspiring content we produce, the welcoming culture we create here, and the diverse community organizations we support, including those representing the LGBTQ+ community.” 

The statement only further inflamed the passions of those opposed to the bill, who accused Disney of sidestepping the issue, and prompting hundreds of protesters to demonstrate outside Disney theme parks in Florida and California urging the company to denounce the proposed bill, which President Joe Biden has slammed as “hateful.” 

Further exacerbating the public backlash against Disney was an Orlando Sentinel report that Disney, despite casting itself as an LGBTQ-affirming place, gave money to every single sponsor and co-sponsor of the bill, including the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Belleview), who has proposed multiple pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation during his time as a politician in Tallahassee.

In response to stories about Disney’s political donations, Abigail Disney, the 62-year-old granddaughter of the company’s co-founder, Roy O. Disney, and great-niece of Walt Disney, tweeted that she “could not be more unhappy with [the company’s] political activities,” according to The Associated Press.

In a memo to company employees, CEO Chapek sought to dispel some of the furor that Disney’s tepid response provoked from within the company while defending the decision not to issue a statement.

“I want to be crystal clear: 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,” Chapek wrote.

“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.”

He added that he did not want anyone “to mistake a lack of a statement for a lack of support,” but feared being drawn into a drawn-out political fight that would invariably offend people on either side of the debate, reports The Hollywood Reporter.

“As we have seen time and again, corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds,” Chapek said. “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 pushed back against criticism of the company’s political donations, noting that Disney has financially supported politicians who oppose the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, not just anti-LGBTQ figures.

He noted that Disney also donated $3 million to LGBTQ organizations last year, has a long history of supporting events like Pride Parades, and has been rated 100% by the Human Rights Campaign as an LGBTQ-inclusive workplace for “16 years in a row.”

Chapek concluded his letter by saying that the company’s new chief corporate affairs officer, Geoff Morrell, would be “reassessing our advocacy strategies around the world — including political giving — as he begins to integrate the communications, public policy, government relations and CSR teams.”

He said the issue will be discussed further at Disney’s Reimagine Tomorrow Summit in April.

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