The Walt Disney Company, one of the world’s biggest media and entertainment empires, prides itself on a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) friendly culture. But today its reputation for inclusivity and tolerance is under scrutiny – as are its deep ties to the political establishment and the lack of LGBTQ representation in its films.

Disney’s workers have been staging walkouts in protest at chief executive Bob Chapek’s lacklustre response to Florida legislation dubbed “don’t say gay”.

The controversial bill bars instruction on “sexual orientation or gender identity” in schools from kindergarten through grade 3.Republicans promoting it claim that parents rather than teachers should be talking to their children about gender issues during their early formative years. But their prejudices were laid bare by a tweet from Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, that said: “The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘don’t say gay’ would be more accurately described as an anti-grooming bill.”
It has been condemned as “hateful” by Joe Biden and other Democrats who argue that it demonises LGBTQ people.
Wolf, press secretary of the LGBTQ rights organisation Equality Florida and a survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, says: “The ‘don’t say gay bill’ was dubbed that by the community because it is a bigoted, very specifically anti-LGBTQ piece of legislation designed to censor classroom speech about our community.

“It is a hateful bill that is rooted in the same anti-LGBTQ animus that has been used to justify discrimination and violence against us forever. It needs to be vetoed and, if it isn’t vetoed, it needs to be repealed.”

Few activists or non-government organisations could have opposed the bill with the clout of Disney, as synonymous with Florida as beaches and oranges. The opening of the Walt Disney World Resort in October 1971 helped transform the state into an economic powerhouse and tourism magnet. Disney is now the biggest private sector employer in Florida; Walt Disney World had more than 75,000 workers before the coronavirus pandemic.

“The state had always been a tourist destination, going back to the 1920s, in the sense that it had warmer weather and coastline. But typically it was mom and pop attractions that popped up to service tourists. When Disney came into town, it really put Florida on the map not only as a national destination for many Americans but an international tourist destination well known all around the world.”

Yet the “don’t say gay” bill wrong-footed Chapek, who succeeded Bob Iger as chief executive in February 2020. Initially he sent a message to Disney workers affirming the company’s support for LGBTQ rights but also contending that corporate statements often do little to change minds and can be “weaponised” by either side.

Chapek then told Disney shareholders that, instead of making an early public statement against the legislation, company officials had been working behind the scenes with politicians “to achieve a better outcome” but without success, despite “our longstanding relationships with those lawmakers”.

It was tone deaf response, misjudging the mood of an era in which companies face heightened ethical expectations to take a stand on issues such as Black Lives Matter. Disney workers mobilised with an online campaign including a website,that says their leadership “utterly failed to match the magnitude of the threat to LGBTQIA+ safety represented by this legislation”.

“Like any big interest group, they want access and influence, and the best way to get that is to make sure you give to the party and people that are in charge. They give to a lot of Democrats, because they want those Democrats to be on their side too, but they have given a disproportionate amount to Republican legislators, many of whom supported and voted for the ‘don’t say gay’ bill. That’s what’s upset a lot of the employees.”

The employee protests will culminate with a general walkout by LGBTQ workers and their supporters at Disney worksites in Florida, California and elsewhere. The Human Rights Campaign has said it will stop accepting 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”

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