Inside Disney’s Chaotic “Don’t Say Gay” Bill Response
Disney is "established as being a place safe for children, inspiring for children and accepting of children. This goes against all of that," one TV animation writer told The Hollywood Reporter amid the ongoing controversy over the company's actions as the Florida bill moved through the statehouse.
In the days leading up to CEO Bob Chapek’s apology, Disney’s LGBTQ employees didn’t hold back in their criticism of the company’s public silence on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and were already gearing up for an increasingly fraught and “exhausting fight.”
In interviews with The Hollywood Reporter, and in letters to Disney leadership, LGBTQ staffers across the company denounced Chapek’s defense of Disney’s initial decision to not release a public statement regarding the passage of HB 1557/SB 1834.
“All corporations are involved in things like this,” Molly Ostertag, a Disney TV Animation writer who worked on its groundbreaking animated series The Owl House, told The Hollywood Reporter prior to Chapek’s apology Friday. “I think people are responding to the hypocrisy of Disney. They’re established as being a place safe for children, inspiring for children and accepting of children. This goes against all of that.”
The bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign, and which has been labeled by the ACLU of Florida as a government censorship bill, bans classroom discussion on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade by school officials and third parties.
On Friday, Chapek announced in an employee memo that Disney would pause all political donations in Florida pending a review and that the company would increase its support for advocacy groups to combat similar legislation in other states. He also said Disney was working on a new framework for its political giving “that will ensure our advocacy better reflects our values.”
In response to the company’s decision, Ostertag said she was proud of “everyone inside and outside Disney who came together.”
“This is a start, and we are going to use that solidarity and energy to hold Chapek to his promise to be ‘an ally we can count on,'” she continued. “I hope this stands as a clear message that a company cannot claim to be a positive force in the world and then be neutral on issues of discrimination and human rights happening in their backyard. I expect the fight will be ongoing, and I encourage everyone to hold the line and admire what we can do when we work together.”
One staffer who spoke to THR on condition of anonymity said the CEO’s latest action came “after a wrong call” and that he must “make sure that the right action comes out of it,” including making his decision public in a statement, not just an internal communication. Another employee said the outcome was “the result of the brave and exhausting work of the LGBT community.”
“I hope Disney is truly taking this time of paused political donations to Florida to reassess a tangible and meaningful change to how they approach financial support. We want to see a commitment to real world change that reflects what the company says are their values.”
Chapek’s apology and reversal on public donations speak to the degree of upset within the company. When talking to shareholders on Wednesday, Chapek had said the company was “opposed to the bill from the outset,” but that Disney had remained publicly neutral ahead of its passing because he believed it “could be more effective working behind the scenes.”
Before Friday’s news, LGBTQ Disney staffers, some of whom spoke to THR on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation, said Chapek and Disney leadership’s initial silence on the rights of LGBTQ youth and their families in Florida was not only loud but personal — a deeply antithetical move for a company whose brand is based on “morality, wholesomeness and family friendliness.”
They also vocally rejected the CEO’s pledges made during the Wednesday shareholder meeting, internally and, in an unusual move for company employees, publicly on social media, with hashtags like #DisneySayGay and #DisneyDoBetter. Chapek’s announcement that $5 million would go to various LGBTQ rights organizations and a scheduled meeting between Chapek, LGBTQ members of Disney’s senior team in Florida and Gov. DeSantis to address the bill’s contents was roundly spurned.
“Every time this happens, the line of what is acceptable to do and say to queer people gets pushed farther into a dangerous place,” Ostertag said. “So, when are you going to stand up for us?”
Employees demanded Chapek release a statement explicitly condemning the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and similar legislation in other states, with others also asking the company to acknowledge the wave of anti-trans legislation proposed and passing in states like Georgia, Texas and Idaho. They had also demanded the company immediately cease political donations to Florida representatives who supported the bill. “You can’t monopolize the entire entertainment industry and then say that you don’t have any pull,” a Disney animation director told THR.
The swift, critical swell that met the company surprised even some of its employees. For many in animation’s LGBTQ community, they said the “bar is on the ground” when it comes to expecting genuine and informed support from Disney or any other Hollywood animation studio. But in the hours following Chapek’s initial memo to staff on Monday, staffers quickly began mobilizing, their energy matching the urgency they felt around the legislation’s larger implications.
Much internal discontent was tied to the issue of whether silence from Disney on a bill focused on the state’s LGBTQ youth — and some of whom may be the children of employees — would create a “ripple effect” when it came to future legislation that directly impacts them.
“In a state where the Pulse [nightclub] shooting happened, which [Disney] invoked themselves [in the memo], you would think they’d have more decency and understanding,” said an animation writer, echoing a similar concern. “We are a targeted group of minority, marginalized people working for someone with a larger platform that can actually protect them.”
Chapek’s “inspiring content” line from his Monday memo drummed up a significant portion of the backlash, with employees emphasizing how slim Disney’s inclusive offerings are. Beyond blink-and-you-miss-it moments found in Beauty and the Beast, staffers pointed to shows like The Owl House, canceled after just two seasons, as an indicator the company is not equally invested in its LGBTQ-led content. Others highlighted Love, Victor — which Chapek noted in his staff memo — as a title initially produced by 20th Century Fox Studios and then distributed by Disney, who then moved it from Disney+ to Hulu.
For the Disney CEO to use the handful of characters and storylines in its library to defend remaining silent around the Florida bill — even as employees like those at Pixar claim Disney has censored their inclusion efforts — was particularly “insulting,” Ostertag said.
“It’s hurtful to see Disney not standing up to it and, instead, just saying they are making inspiring content,” she explained. “I was a part of making that inspiring content, and it really sickens me to feel like I helped give them an excuse to not take tangible action in the real world because they allowed a storyline on an animated show to go forward.”
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. producer Drew Z. Greenberg, The Ghost and Molly McGee creator and EP Bill Motz, Andi Mack star Lilan Bowden and The Owl House creator Dana Terrace were among a growing group of front-facing creatives and talent also disavowing Disney’s initial response.
“I know I got bills to pay, but working for this company has … made me so distraught, and I hate having moral quandaries about how I feed myself and how I support my loved ones,” Terrace said in a video, which criticized various aspects of Chapek’s memo and has since been retweeted over 30,000 times.
Disney animation writer Benjamin Siemon, who worked on DuckTales, tweeted early in the week about how Disney’s LGBTQ employee community is devastated over the company’s refusal to take a firmer stand. Three days later, Sofia the First creator Craig Gerber shared on his Twitter that a company-wide meeting had also taken place, where he’d “never seen employees so collectively upset at upper management in over 12 years at Disney.”
Some staff, meanwhile, received internal communications through the week from division executives in an attempt to show solidarity or support even as groups across Disney continued to deliver their own employee-backed statements to the company, according to a source familiar with the situation. Some industry workers had at one point considered physical actions but were still working out whether a boycott or rally was feasible.
Many animation workers used established communication channels, through the Guild and employee groups, empowered in part, they say, by the momentum and frustration around compounding political and social issues. The summer 2020 racial justice protests and the ongoing union contract negotiations were among past and present events that heightened responses and helped spur action, sources said.
While having co-workers who are just as furious was meaningful support, some LGBTQ employees said they were “gearing up for a more frustrating and exhausting fight” than they wanted, one writer told THR.
Multiple sources also said Chapek’s moves over the last week made them question staying on the job. Several employees expressed that Disney’s size and industry prominence, however, make it “difficult to walk away” as doing so may mean no one is left to “challenge them” both narratively and in Disney’s hiring practices.
“If we quit, it’s LGBT people out of work. We’re punished for powerful people’s decisions. And if we leave, Disney goes back to what it was and we stop making the content that we needed as kids,” one Disney animation staffer shared. “There is something empowering about being able to do that through one of the world’s most powerful companies.”