Disney called out for 'funding hate,' turning its back on Florida's LGBTQ youth

·Senior Editor
·8 min read
Do Pride and Disney mix?
Do LGBTQ pride and Disney mix? Some are not so sure. (Photo: Aphotografia/Getty Images)

3/4/2022 UPDATE: Disney responded to those calling for the company to weigh in on the Florida bill in a statement to Good Morning America on Thursday night, saying, according to a tweet, “We understand how important this issue is to our LGBTQ+ employees and many others. For nearly a century, Disney has been a unifying force that brings people together. 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.” Disney is the parent company of ABC News, which produces Good Morning America.

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For decades, Walt Disney Company theme parks have rolled out the rainbow flag for their LGBTQ guests. But now an unsettling development has many wondering about the corporation's true colors.

It has to do with Florida's proposed Parental Rights in Education bill, widely known as the “Don't Say Gay” bill, which would bar educators from offering any instruction on gender or sexuality to students up till third grade, certain to make life harder for LGBTQ youth. It’s expected to be signed into law — a move that would only serve to shame “a group of young people who already face disproportionate rates of discrimination, bullying, and suicide attempts,” noted the Trevor Project, a LGBTQ youth support organization.

So where does Disney fit in? Not only has the company and its Orlando-based Walt Disney World Resort remained silent on the issue, but it has reportedly, throughout the years, made financial donations to supporters of the bill.

“The parks preach inclusion in their marketing campaigns. But Disney has given money to every single sponsor and co-sponsor of this year’s infamous ‘Don't Say Gay’ bill,” wrote Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell on Feb. 25. “Disney knows who these people are. The Senate sponsor, Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley, has backed anti-gay legislation for years — including laws to prevent gay couples from adopting kids who otherwise wouldn't have a family at all.”

Gay Pride Parade in Orlando
A Walt Disney Company contingent marching in the Orlando Pride parade. (Photo: Getty Images)

Maxwell continued, “Baxley once compared kids who live with same-sex parents to kids raised by alcoholics and abusers and later said: ‘I’m not phobic, but I simply can’t affirm homosexuality.’ The very next year Disney cut Baxley a campaign check. And another after that. And yet another last year. So the park puts out the rainbow Mickeys during Gay Days while also cutting checks to the politicians hellbent on dehumanizing those same park guests.”

Maxwell shared screenshots with Yahoo Life from his search of the Florida campaign donor database showing various donations made over the years to Baxley as well as to state Republican lawmaker and House bill sponsor Rep. Joe Harding, plus some co-sponsors, in amounts ranging from $500 to $1,000, from Disney subsidiaries including Disney Destinations and Disney Gift Card Services. Yahoo Life has also verified these donations in the database.

Disney’s public relations department did not respond to Yahoo Life’s requests for comment.

The Sentinel story has been helping to fuel efforts, on social media and beyond, to stop the bill in its tracks.

Gay historian Eric Cervini, author of The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America, created a meme based on Maxwell's article and posted it to Instagram, where it has gone viral and is being widely shared. “Please boycott, share (TAG DISNEY!), and use that saved subscription money to donate” to Equality Florida, he wrote. “LGBTQ+ kids’ lives are at stake.”

Cervini tells Yahoo Life, “Pride Month and the rainbow flag have always meant resistance against government persecution and laws like the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. It breaks my heart to learn that Disney was profiting from our symbols of protest while supporting those who seek to dehumanize us. It’s not too late for Disney — and other companies with a history of pinkwashing — to walk the walk and come out forcefully against the proposed legislation. Considering that 40 percent of LGBTQ+ youth have recently considered suicide, children’s lives quite literally depend on it.”

LGBTQ folks and Disney have a deep and complicated history — partly because, as gay-community platform them has pointed out, Disney movies have long had low or questionable LGBTQ representation (something Josh Gad spoke about just this week).

But Disney also takes part in Pride parades, sells Pride merchandise in some of its parks and has hosted (unofficially) Disney World's Gay Days, now an annual celebration of visibility, since 1991. The company makes note of supporting LGBTQ workplace equality on its website, and it has supported many pro-LGBTQ organizations over the years — much of which has likely prompted the many queer Disney influencers who lovingly embrace the brand on Instagram (though none responded to Yahoo Life's requests for comments on the current situation).

Meanwhile, in addition to Cervini's meme, the global nonprofit AIDS Healthcare Foundation has launched an ad campaign (below), “demanding Disney speak out publicly against hateful Florida legislation.” A press release about the ad cites Maxwell's column and notes, “To date, Disney, which has thousands of LGBTQ+ employees and regularly participates with large contingents in Pride parades in both Orlando and Los Angeles, has been publicly silent on the legislation. This, despite its Disney Parks, Experiences & Products website claiming: ‘As a leader in LGBTQ+ content and workplace equality, the Walt Disney Company is committed to creating inclusive workplaces and supportive and welcoming environments in local communities.’”

The Walt Disney Company has not always been averse to taking stands on important issues, as many have pointed out. On Monday, in fact, it released a statement responding to the “unprovoked invasion of Ukraine,” announcing that it was “pausing the release of theatrical films in Russia.”

The company's tweet of the statement prompted a flurry of responses calling out its silence around the antigay bill, with commenters asking, “That's great, care to elaborate on where you stand with current events in the Sunshine State?” and noting, “This is a start. Now break your silence on the #DontSayGay bill in Florida.”

Writer Benjamin Siemon, who has worked on the Disney series DuckTales, tweeted his response, as well, just days after he first weighed in saying he was "deeply saddened" by Disney's silence.

But people should expect continued silence on the issue, insiders told the Hollywood Reporter this week, because of how beliefs on public stands differ between CEO Bob Chapek and his predecessor Bob Iger — the latter of whom has already tweeted his disapproval of the bill.

“Chapek is private about his politics,” notes the Hollywood Reporter, “but is believed to be much more conservative than Iger, who was a registered Democrat before becoming an independent in 2016. ‘Chapek is staunchly opposed to bringing Disney into issues he deems irrelevant to the company and its businesses,’” an unnamed source said. Instead, Chapek is reportedly determined to keep such discussions internal, such as with upcoming meetings with staff about LGBTQ issues and inclusion.

Also circulating this week is a petition denouncing the company’s alleged donations of more than $200,000 to anti-abortion politicians across the country. “Disney prides itself on being a forward-thinking company and wants you to believe that, too,” it reads.

GLAAD shared a statement with Yahoo Life from president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis on the “Don’t Say Gay” bill matter, though it does not specifically name Disney. It says, in part, “Brands and businesses that engage with LGBTQ consumers during and around Pride month should not stay silent as anti-LGBTQ youth are targeted by legislation today. Companies that do business in Florida, Texas, and the dozens of other states considering anti-LGBTQ legislation not only have a responsibility to speak out for their LGBTQ customers and employees, they also have a real opportunity to educate the public about these unpopular and harmful bills and stop them from becoming law.”

Such pushback from businesses, Ellis says, helped fight against bills targeting LGBTQ youth in North Carolina and Indiana in past years. And now, she adds, “While we are seeing many businesses sign group letters in opposition to anti-LGBTQ legislation, we desperately need individual brands and businesses to take action and speak out loudly about how these bills conflict with corporate values.”

This story was originally published on March 3, 2022, at 4:39 p.m. ET and has been updated to include Disney's statement.

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