Disney CEO brokers last-ditch meeting with DeSantis to stop ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

Disney entities donated thousands of dollars to Florida officials behind legislation that advocates warn will marginalise LGBT+ children and families

Alex Woodward
New York
Wednesday 09 March 2022 22:51 GMT
Disney to meet with DeSantis to stop ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, CEO says
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The Walt Disney Company’s CEO Bob Chapek told shareholders that he spoke with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to share his “disappointment” with the passage of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill and has arranged a meeting with his office and LGBT+ Disney officials.

Mr Chapek – following his lengthy live-streamed highlight reel of Disney properties and programmes and previews of upcoming films and television series – said the company “opposed to the bill from the outset” but chose not to issue a public statement against it, as company leaders felt they were “more effective behind the scenes, engaging with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.”

“Despite weeks of efforts we were ultimately unsuccessful,” he said on 9 March, one day after the bill passed the state’s Senate by a handful of votes.

The Independent’s review of state campaign finance records found that Disney entities donated tens of thousands of dollars to Florida legislators who supported the bill, including at least $4,000 to the 2022 re-election campaigns for the bill’s chief sponsors, state Representative Joe Harding and state Senator Dennis Baxley.

Within the last two years, Disney donated more than $197,000 to Republican officials and state legislators who supported the bill, according to reporting from Popular Information.

Mr Chapek said he talked with the governor “to express our disappointment and concern that if legislation becomes law, it could be used to unfairly target gay lesbian, nonbinary and transgender kids and families.”

He also said Disney will sign a Human Rights Campaign statement opposing similar legislative efforts targeting LGBT+ people and will pledge $5m to LGBT+ community organisations.

“Governor DeSantis committed to me that he wanted to make sure that this law could not be weaponised in any way … to unduly harm or target [LGBT+] kids and families,” Mr Chapek said. “He suggested what we could do is take a look at the legislation as written … and come up with ideas and concerns of specific aspects of this legislation that could lead to … the weaponisation of it.”

The governor has not indicated that he is willing to veto the legislation.

A statement from the governor’s office says his position on the measure “has not changed” after the call, and that no in-person meeting has yet been scheduled.

For weeks, Disney employees, elected officials, LGBT+ advocates and opponents of the bill have demanded that the company – which carries massive political weight in Florida – speak out against the measure, which LGBT+ advocates have warned will endanger the lives of LGBT+ young people and have a chilling effect on LGBT+ schoolchildren and their families as well as classroom instruction and lessons on LGBT+ people and issues.

The company, meanwhile, has continued to tout its LGBT+ friendly workplace initiatives and diverse programming.

In one clip from the shareholders event of Disney employees sharing why they love working for the company, one worker says “you are free to be whoever you are, and you’re going to be loved and appreciated no matter what you do”.

In a staff memo issued on Monday, hours before Florida’s Republican-controlled Senate debated the bill before its final passage, Mr Chapek sought to explain why the company did not release a statement addressing the legislation.

“As we have seen time and again, corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds,” he said. “Instead, they are often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame. Simply put, they can be counterproductive and undermine more effective ways to achieve change.”

He said the company’s films and programmes – pointing to the TV series Modern Family and films like Encanto and Black Panther – “are our corporate statements.”

“And they are more powerful than any tweet or lobbying effort,” he said. “I firmly believe that our ability to tell such stories – and have them received with open eyes, ears, and hearts – would be diminished if our company were to become a political football in any debate.”

Mr Chapek said in the memo that the company’s new chief corporate affairs officer Geoff Morrell will be “reassessing our advocacy strategies around the world – including political giving”.

Earlier in the shareholders meeting on Wednesday, a shareholders proposal to require that the company disclose its lobbying and political activity failed to pass.

The “Parental Rights in Education” bill – named “Don’t Say Gay” by its opponents – prohibits instruction of “sexual orientation or gender identity” from kindergarten through the third grade and any such discussion “that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” in other grades.

It also grants parents the ability to sue school districts and collect damages if they believe their children’s teachers have violated the measure.

The bill passed the state’s House of Representatives on 24 February and the state’s Senate on 8 March.

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