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After protests, Disney CEO speaks out against Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' bill

Updated March 10, 2022 at 9:10 AM ET

The Walt Disney Company has now come out against Florida's Parental Rights In Education bill. The so-called 'Don't Say Gay' bill was passed by Florida's House and Senate and is headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis' desk.

The bill would limit discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.

In recent days, Disney employees shared their outrage on social media when the company did not denounce the proposed legislation. On Wednesday, at Disney's annual meeting with shareholders, Disney CEO Bob Chapek acknowledged their anger, saying that he knows "many are upset that we didn't speak out against the bill."

Chapek explained that Disney leaders were opposed to the bill "from the outset, but we chose not to take a public position on it because we thought we could be more effective working behind-the-scenes, engaging directly with lawmakers — on both sides of the aisle."

Now, Chapek said the company is "reassessing our approach to advocacy — including political giving in Florida and beyond."

Chapek said that he called Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Wednesday morning, "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." Chapek says DeSantis has agreed to meet with him and some of Disney's LGBTQ+ employees to hear their concerns.

"It seems like it's a day too late," says Rick Munarriz, a senior analyst with the financial and investor advice company The Motley Fool. "I get why a company would not want to alienate some people, but it's also important to be on the right side of history," he tells NPR.

Florida's Senate bill, which passed on Tuesday, reads, "A school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels," according to the text.

Chapek announced that Disney has signed the Human Rights Campaign's statement opposing similar legislative efforts. He also said the company will pledge five million dollars to organizations "working to protect" LGBTQ+ rights, including the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). But the HRC now says it won't take those funds.

"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," says Joni Madison, Interim President of the Human Rights Campaign in a statement. "Businesses have had and continue to have a major impact in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, from marriage equality to the defeat of House Bill 2 in North Carolina and beyond. While Disney took a regrettable stance by choosing to stay silent amid political attacks against LGBTQ+ families in Florida — including hardworking families employed by Disney — today they took a step in the right direction. But it was merely the first step."

Munarriz suspects Governor DeSantis will sign the bill as expected — and he doesn't believe Disney's mixed messages this week will impact the company's bottom line. "At the end of the day, there's plenty of people who want to go to the theme parks and see the next season of the Mandalorian."

Disney's about-face comes after protests

Actor and writer Ben Siemon isn't satisfied with today's news. Siemon, whose credits include Disney's DuckTales, tweeted, "Please don't be fooled by this half-hearted triage. The bill was allowed to pass with no public position from Disney, and they still intend on funding all the politicians that passed it."

According to the accountability news site Popular Information, "in the last two years, Disney has donated $197,162 to members of the Florida legislature that have already voted for the 'Don't Say Gay' legislation," including to sponsors of the bill, Florida Rep. Joe Harding (R) and state Sen. Dennis Baxley (R). On Wednesday, shareholders voted to reject a proposal that would've required Disney "to report on its state and federal lobbying expenditures, including indirect funding of lobbying through trade associations and social welfare groups."

On Sunday, before the so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill passed the state Senate, Siemon posted an impassioned video plea calling for Disney to say the legislation is wrong.

Siemon credits one of his middle school teachers for helping him understand that it was OK to be gay. Had there been a bill like the one being considered in Florida, Siemon says, "That would've never happened to me. I would've been left alone and scared. And LGBT kids are going to be left alone and scared and hurt by this bill."

Siemon implored the company to stop supporting those politicians, ending with the words, "Disney, please say gay."

Animator and director Dana Terrace, who created Disney's animated series The Owl House, joined in the protest. Terrace called for action: a livestream for charity on March 13 to go to organizations that support LGBTQ+ youth.

"Working for this company has...made me so distraught," Terrace says in the video. "I hate, I hate having moral quandaries about how I feed myself and how I support my loved ones."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.