Disney LGBTQ employees stage walkout over company's 'continual failure' to create a safer space: 'a lot of words with little action'

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - MARCH 03: A general view of Cinderella's Castle at Walt Disney World Resort on March 03, 2022 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for Disney Dreamers Academy)
Disney employees are taking a stand against the company's handling of Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill through a series of protests and walkouts throughout the week. (Photo: Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for Disney Dreamers Academy)

Disney employees are taking a stand against what they describe as CEO Bob Chapek's “apathy” in the face of Florida’s dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

According to an open letter published Monday night, LGBTQ Walt Disney Company employees and their allies will enact both virtual and in-person protests — the first of which will take place March 15 through March 21 during their 15-minute break periods, followed by a full-stage walkout on Tuesday, March 22.

Organizers of the walkout, who have chosen to remain anonymous over fears of retaliation, tell Yahoo Life that their frustrations came to a head following both Chapek’s mishandling of the controversial bill earlier this month and news of Disney's political contributions to legislators with anti-LGBTQ voting records. (See full list here.)

"We were sick of two things: our LGBTQIA+ community being attacked by our government and Disney’s continual failure to create a work environment that is safe for us," the organizers explain in a joint statement to Yahoo Life.

"It’s been a lot of words with little action," they say of Disney's mishandling of LGBTQ inclusion within the company. "While they’ve implemented some employee training and small ERGs [Employee Resource Groups], nothing structural has been announced. The ball is in their court. The workers at Disney feel a need to make their voices heard, and they’re doing so."

Further, they point out in the statement, "Disney has been aware of just how distressed the LGBTQ+ employees and allies are," adding, "They have access to work communications where people are expressing their anger over Chapek’s failure to respond to them in any meaningful way. Even with all the recent 'safe space' conversations that have been occurring in response to employee outcry, the top level leadership has shielded themselves from hearing us, having all communication be passed to them rather than them coming to listen to us."

Disney corporate communications chose to not comment on the situation for Yahoo Life.

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As noted in the open letter, the walkout is in part a direct response to Chapek’s handling of the controversial bill, specifically his most recent apology, last week, which, the organizers argue in the letter, “utterly failed to match the magnitude of the threat to LGBTQIA+ safety represented by this legislation.”

In a nutshell, the Florida bill, officially called the Parental Rights in Education bill, restricts conversation or instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. It also empowers Florida parents to sue schools and teachers for violations while encouraging them to object to their children's curricula.

The bill, which has passed both Florida houses and now awaits Gov. Ron DeSantis's likely signature, gained nationwide attention, including from President Joe Biden, who publicly denounced the bill. Meanwhile, Disney leadership remained relatively silent. The consequences of such complicity, organizers argue, stretch beyond just internal affairs.

"While Disney has a reputation for being a safe employer for the LGBTQIA+ community, there are still many ways that Disney has not made substantial movement towards creating a more equitable and safe environment for its LBTQIA+ employees," the organizers add. "Not only through the company’s original response to the 'Don’t Say Gay' bill, but also in our everyday working conditions."

"As claimed in Pixar’s open letter to the company, LGBTQIA+ stories are still being censored in our movies," they continue. "On top of that, the new temporary pause in financing anti-gay, anti-trans legislators is not a commitment — it’s a platitude. The fact that they were financing those legislators at all is a much bigger issue. We need a firm commitment to not finance politicians supporting legislation like the 'Don’t Say Gay' bill anywhere, and transparent mechanisms in place to make sure there is accountability moving forward."

Demands, accountability and transparency

Soon after the Florida bill was passed, Chapek released an apology memo stating that Disney would pause all political donations in the state pending a review, and that the company would increase its support for advocacy groups to combat similar legislation in other states.

“You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry," Chapek said in a public statement released last Friday. “We are hard at work creating a new framework for our political giving that will ensure our advocacy better reflects our values. And today, we are pausing all political donations in the state of Florida pending this review. But, I know there is so much more work to be done.”

But organizers say the apology was too little too late.

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"Workers at Disney don’t want to feel that their hard work is funneling money into efforts to make LGBTQIA+ people — the very people who are working for the company — unsafe," they tell Yahoo Life. "In addition, they want to feel safe to make the 'authentic' stories Disney claims it uses to change the world for the better. There is an immense amount of movement to be made here."

"We need Chapek and Disney as a company to thoroughly review our demands and make solid commitments to solving these issues," they continue. "We’ve heard a lot of empty 'We see you, we hear you,' without the actions to back it up."

Those lists of demands from the organizers include:

  • Immediately and indefinitely cease all campaign donations to politicians involved in the passage of the bill (see list here).

  • A public comment to an actionable plan that protects LGBTQ employees from “hateful legislation.”

  • Reaffirm the company’s commitment to protecting and advocating for its LGBTQ staff.

  • Make substantial contributions to human rights advocacy groups like the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization.

  • Allocate content spending and outline plans for more LGBTQ inclusion across the board.

  • Pledge to create an LGBTQ brand similar to that of “The Onyx Collective,” focusing on queer creators and underrepresented voices.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 06: Revellers carry a Disney logo during the Pride in London parade on 06 July, 2019 in London, England. The festival, which this year celebrates 50 years since the Stonewall Uprising, attracts hundreds of thousands of people to the streets of the British capital to celebrate the LGBT+ community. (Photo credit should read Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
While Disney has shown outward support for the LGBTQ community, such as through participation in Pride events, employees say the company has more to prove when it comes to inclusivity and actionable plans. (Photo: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Organizers also included a heavy list of employee statements, many of which have explained that Disney’s silence leading up to the bill was harmful not just for them, but for other employees:

“My husband and I both work for the company and messages like Bob's show that he does not support us and inclusion is not a true priority,” one read.

"As a queer artist of color, I cannot abide this so called ‘neutral’ stance our leadership is taking on issues that affect the lives of people in my immediate community,” another read. “If we are really dedicated to diversity and inclusion at this studio, we have to defend it at all levels. We need these positive messages we are striving to put into our shows to reflect the choices we are making in the real world too.”

As stated in the open letter, organizers hope this move sparks real change in the company — not just internally, but externally as well.

"As a community, we have been forced into an impossible and unsustainable position and must now take action to convince TWDC to protect employees and their families in the face of such open and unapologetic bigotry," the letter reads, adding that the identities of their colleagues "are not 'political issues.'"

"We stand in solidarity with our colleagues in Florida, who will be directly harmed by this new law and yet still required to perform their duties for a company that not only failed to prevent, but also tacitly funded it," the letter continues. "This becomes especially concerning when you consider that [The Walt Disney Company] is requiring even more employees to work and live in Florida, making even more Cast Members targets for this hateful law."