Disney employees go out in the middle of rage over Florida’s anti-LGBTQ law

Several weeks ago, before the Walt Disney Company became embroiled in a battle over anti-LGBTQ legislation in Florida – one that continued Tuesday with layoffs from Disney employees – longtime amusement park managers were worried there could be problems ahead.

More than 150 companies, including Marriott and American Airlines, had signed a letter about the human rights campaign opposing the legislation, which restricts classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity and has been branded by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Disney, with about 80,000 theme park workers in Florida and a long history of supporting the LGBTQ community, was not among them. Leaders in the Disney Parks, Experiences and Products division called for action: Disney’s name should be on the list.

They were rejected, according to three people briefed on the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity to comply with the company’s restrictions on talking to journalists. Disney’s newly-appointed head of corporate affairs, Geoff Morrell, and Disney’s legislative affairs – led by Bob Chapek’s general manager’s desire to avoid publicly weighting state political struggles – decided it was better to continue working behind the scenes chance of payout. For weeks, Disney lobbyists in Florida had been pushing to soften the law.

At least in this case, it backfired to remain silent, resulting in a cascade of events that have been the equivalent of one of the biggest showers for Disney in decades. It has also become a high-profile example of a marked shift in corporate culture: A socially conscious generation of workers demands that their employers speak out on controversial social and political issues.

Faced with an employee uprising about the company’s decision to remain silent, Mr. Chapek course and publicly rejected Florida legislation on March 9, the day of Disney’s annual shareholders’ meeting. On March 10, Gov. Ron DeSantis struck back, mocking the company as “Woke Disney.” On March 11, with some employees still angry and more and more questions about his leadership, Mr Chapek apologized directly to Disney’s 200,000 employees in an email.

Last week, still dissatisfied Disney employees began organizing protests with a website, WhereIsChapek.com. On Friday, Walt Disney Studios let it be known that a same-sex kiss that had been clipped from Pixar’s upcoming “Lightyear” had been restored. Over the weekend, speakers at Disney-owned ESPN protested against the legislation with silence in the air during the NCAA’s women’s basketball tournament.

And now Disney – a company that cultivates perfection as part of its brand – finds itself in the third week of a mess.

On Tuesday, WhereIsChapek employees’ protests culminated in various actions. No one was particularly noisy, even though they managed to capture the attention of the news media. On Tuesday morning, a CNBC team reported directly from the main gate to Disney’s headquarters in Burbank, California.

Some Disney artists posted support on Twitter where the hashtag #DisneySayGay was prominent in the middle of the morning. Sixty to 70 Disney employees briefly walked in a loop around Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Down the street at the Bette Davis Picnic Area, a streak of Disney employees gathered in protest, though they appeared in the minority, at least at one point, by members of the news media.

In a statement on the strike on Tuesday, the company said: “We respect our colleagues’ right to express their views and we promise our continued support for the LGBTQ + community in the fight for equal rights.”

It was impossible to measure the ultimate level of participation; most Disney employees still work from home. Some participation was virtual, said one organizer, with employees leaving a “gone” message on Slack or other internal messaging systems to express solidarity.

The creators of the WhereIsChapek site said they were members of the Disney LGBTQ community and their allies. Since listed demands, including indefinite termination – not pause and re-evaluation, as Mr Chapek has promised – political donations to Florida lawmakers involved in the adoption of the bill. The New York Times confirmed that the anonymous organizers were Disney employees.

To get ahead, on Monday, Disney held a virtual town hall for all businesses dedicated to LGBTQ issues. (A town hall had long been scheduled for Tuesday, albeit on a different topic of diversity, justice and inclusion.) The approximately 100-minute session featured a panel discussion with eight Disney employees talking about their own LGBTQ experience and why the company’s initial silence on the bill was hurtful. Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida, a civil rights group, participated in a separate discussion.

Mr. Chapek spoke briefly for camera, according to several people who attended the meeting.

“I understand where we have made mistakes – and the pain these mistakes caused,” he said. “I know our silence was not just about the bill in Florida, but about every time a person or institution that should have stood up for this community did not. I and the management team are determined to use this moment as a catalyst for more meaningful and lasting change. “

As part of City Hall, Disney announced that Mr. Chapek had postponed a management retreat scheduled for next week in Orlando, Florida. He and senior executives would instead use that time to go on a listening tour of Disney workplaces, both at home and abroad.

Disney also unveiled a task force to develop an action plan for Disney that will be a more positive force for the LGBTQ community, including through its content for families. In addition, Disney said it had signed on to the human rights campaign’s condemnation of anti-transgender government actions in Texas.

To understand the furore at Disney about its handling of Florida law, it helps to know Disney’s history.

In the 1990s, Disney was one of the first large companies to offer health coverage to gay and lesbian employees’ live-in partners. This decision, paired with tolerance of an unofficial “gay day” celebration at Walt Disney World in Florida, led to a noisy boycott of Southern Baptists. Disney stood firm. (Church members officially ended their boycott in 2005.)

In the current situation, Disney not only tried to keep quiet, it had given money to Florida politicians who supported the legislation, which raised alarm, especially among longtime LGBTQ employees: Was Disney fading like an ally?

There has also been smoldering anger inside Disney over LGBTQ representation in Disney-branded content. It did not start with Mr Chapek’s tenure. Disney has long tried to keep such characters and relationships to a minimum. It had been decided that Pixar’s “Light Years”, for example, could have a lesbian couple in the center. But a G-rated kiss was perhaps a step too far.

These factors and others – perhaps the prolonged isolation of Disney employees during the pandemic – added to an already flammable situation.

Remy Tumin contributed with reporting.

Leave a Comment