Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Chapek on Wednesday tried to soothe outrage at the company’s muted response to Florida’s controversial bill restricting classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity.
But his belated statement opposing the legislation, and outreach to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, did not satisfy critics, including queer Disney employees outraged by reports that the company had donated to politicians who backed the bill. The company is a huge Florida employer, with tens of thousands of workers at Walt Disney World Resort.
A group of employees at Disney-owned Pixar Animation Studios sent a statement to leadership, expressing their frustration with the company’s position.
“We are writing because we are disappointed, hurt, afraid, and angry,” said the statement, attributed to the LGBTQIA+ employees of Pixar and their allies. “In regards to Disney’s financial involvement with legislators behind the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, we hoped that our company would show up for us. But it didn’t.”
The statement, released after Wednesday’s annual shareholder meeting, called on Disney’s “leadership to immediately withdraw all financial support from the legislators behind the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, to fully denounce this legislation publicly, and to make amends for their financial involvement.”
Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
During the shareholder meeting, Chapek said Disney was “opposed to the bill from the outset” but chose not to take a public stance “because we thought we could be more effective working behind-the-scenes, engaging directly with lawmakers.”
The bill forbids classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade “or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” Florida’s Legislature passed the bill this week, and DeSantis is expected to sign it into law.
Chapek said he called DeSantis 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.” DeSantis agreed to meet with Chapek and a small delegation of Disney LGBTQ+ leaders, Chapek told investors.
DeSantis’ office confirmed the call, but said the governor’s position has not changed and that “no in-person meeting has been scheduled yet.”
Chapek said in his remarks that Disney would reassess its approach to advocacy and “political giving in Florida and beyond.” Disney, like many corporations, has a long history of donating to both Republicans and Democrats in the places where it operates.
Chapek said Disney had pledged $5 million to LGBTQ+ rights groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, and said the company would sign the organization’s statement opposing anti-gay legislation.
The Human Rights Campaign, however, said it would turn down Disney’s donation until the company takes further action against anti-LGBTQ legislation at the state level.
“The Human Rights Campaign will not accept this 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, and if they do, to work to get them off the books,” the organization’s interim president, Joni Madison, said in a statement. “This should be the beginning of Disney’s advocacy efforts rather than the end.”
Disney said in a statement that while the company was “surprised and disappointed” by Human Rights Campaign’s decision, “we remain committed to meaningful action to combat legislation targeting the LGBTQ+ community.”
Chapek on Monday sent a memo to employees explaining why he hadn’t publicly condemned the measure, writing that 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.”
Multiple employees and people who have worked on Disney shows have spoken out publicly in reaction to both Chapek’s memo and his additional comments on Wednesday reversing course. Those who’ve taken their dismay public include “The Owl House” creator Dana Terrace and TV animation writer Benjamin Siemon.
“The most important thing to me and, I believe, all our community right now, is that you say clearly and publicly that you’re going to stop giving money to all of these politicians that voted for this very hateful bill,” Simeon said in a video posted Wednesday on Twitter.
Ryan Aguirre, who works at Disney Television Studios, tweeted: “I love Disney. A lot. And getting to work for them has literally been a dream come true. My heart is broken right now.”
Employees who spoke to The Times anonymously because they’re afraid for their jobs said anger and frustration is widespread throughout the company. Under prior Chief Executive Bob Iger, the company occasionally weighed in on state legislation, threatening to stop filming in Georgia if the state’s restrictive abortion bill became law, for example.
“I don’t know that [Chapek] could have achieved anything by saying something earlier, but waiting until after it passes the Legislature is a great way to ensure nothing is achieved,” said one employee who who was not authorized to comment publicly.
The Pixar employee letter took issue specifically with Chapek’s argument in Monday’s email that Disney could more effectively create social change through its diverse movies and TV shows, such as “Encanto” and “Love, Victor.” The letter alleged that Disney has limited scenes of LGBTQ affection in Pixar content.
“Nearly every moment of overtly gay affection is cut at Disney’s behest, regardless of when there is protest from both the creative teams and executive leadership at Pixar,” the letter said. “Even if creating LGBTQIA+ content was the answer to fixing the discriminatory legislation in the world, we are being barred from creating it.”