Miami (AFP) – Discontent is afoot at the happiest place on Earth, as Disney employees this week protested the company’s reaction to Florida’s so-called “Don’t say gay” bill, which would prohibit discussing LGBT topics in classrooms.
The proposed law, which critics call discriminatory, has been a headache for Disney since before the southern US state’s legislature passed the measure last week, with the entertainment giant employing more than 75,000 people at its theme park in Orlando.
A group of LGBT employees at the company has asked their coworkers to join them in walking out of their workplaces during their breaks every day since Tuesday to demand Disney “protect employees and their families in the face of such open and unapologetic bigotry.”
The friction began with an internal memo from Disney Executive Director Bob Chapek on March 7 after a meeting with members of the company’s LGBT community.
In the note, cited by local media, Chapek said he was hesitant for Disney to speak out against the Florida bill, which has received condemnation for impeding students’ access to “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” information at elementary schools.
Corporate statements “do very little to change outcomes or minds” and instead are “often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame,” Chapek wrote.
His statements were met with a barrage of objections, as they were seen as a lack of support for the LGBT community. A campaign to boycott Disney circulated on social media.
Emerging as one of the strongest detractors of Chapek’s stance was Abigail Disney — the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, who cofounded the cultural behemoth with his brother Walt.
“Many LGBTQI people and their allies work for or look to Disney for ally-ship,” the activist and documentary producer wrote on Twitter.
“But Chapek is more worried about right-wing backlash than about his own loyal fans and employees.”
Chapek tried to quickly dampen the controversy. During the company’s annual shareholder meeting March 9, he announced Disney’s plans to donate $5 million to pro-LGBT groups.
He also assured he had called Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — who has signalled support for the bill — “to express our disappointment and concern that if the legislation becomes law, it could be used to unfairly target gay, lesbian, non-binary and transgender kids and families,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
But Chapek’s comments could not extinguish the already burning controversy over the legislation, which is part of a nationwide effort by Republicans who feel they are wresting back control from liberal policies they say undermine traditional family values.
The same day as the shareholder meeting, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — the most prominent US LGBT-rights organization — rejected any donations from Disney, as long as the company fails to work against “dangerous laws” such as Florida’s from being passed in the first place.
And entertainment magazine Variety published a letter signed by LGBT employees of animation studio Pixar, denouncing the fact that “nearly every moment of overtly gay affection” in its movies “is cut at Disney’s behest.”
As the displeasure online grew, media reports revealed that Republican state senators who had supported the restrictive education law were among the politicians who had received donations from Disney in Florida.
On Friday, Chapek announced that there would be a freeze on political donations from the company in Florida until further notice.
But the decision didn’t convince the group of LGBT Disney employees and allies who organized this week’s protests.
In an online statement, the group demanded the permanent suspension of donations to the politicians who had supported the Florida law, and criticized the company leadership’s “apathy.”
“The recent statements and lack of action by TWDC (The Walt Disney Company) leadership regarding the ‘Don’t Say Gay or Trans’ bill have utterly failed to match the magnitude of the threat to LGBTQIA+ safety represented by this legislation,” the statement said.
Disney, they added, should reaffirm its commitment to protecting and advocating for its staff, “even in the face of political risk.”
The group, which they say is made up of corporate, television, movie studio, streaming and other employees, has called for an all-day work stoppage to conclude the week of protests next Tuesday at Disney offices and other locations nationwide.