Why Disney Employees Revolted over “Don’t Say Gay”

Will the Great Reshuffle make the voice of the employee more powerful? That’s a question many are asking as corporations react to vocal employees in the wake of current events. Case in point: on March 11, Disney CEO Bob Chapek apologized to all employees (and especially to LGBTQ+ employees) for how the company has handled the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in Florida.

The bill, approved by the Florida Senate on March 8, restricts what classrooms can teach about sexual orientation and gender identity and permits parents to sue schools that engage in those topics. “Don’t Say Gay” has sparked controversy. The Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida polled a representative sample of voters registered statewide and found 49 percent of respondents oppose the legislation and 40 percent support it, either somewhat or strongly.

Disney found itself in the eye of the storm for a number of reasons including:

  • Bob Chapek and Disney as a corporate entity remained silent about the legislation as it gained traction, which angered the company’s LGBTQ+ employees.
  • It was revealed that Disney’s political contributions in Florida included sponsors and co-sponsors of the legislation.

On March 7, Chapek addressed growing employee dissent by issuing an all-company email in which he dismissed the value of taking a stand on social issues and said that Disney’s political contributions had supported politicians on both sides of the Don’t Say Gay issue, not just the bill’s sponsors. He also extolled the value of Disney’s inclusive content.

“I believe the best way for our company to bring about lasting change is through the inspiring content we produce, the welcoming culture we create, and the diverse community organizations we support,” he wrote.

His email only intensified employee anger from departments across the company and divisions such as Pixar. An internal response from Pixar Animation Studio employees stated, “We are writing because we are disappointed, hurt, afraid, and angry. 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 alleged that Disney executives have cut “nearly every moment of overly gay affection” from its feature films, too. “We at Pixar have personally witnessed beautiful stories, full of diverse characters, come back from Disney corporate reviews shaved down to crumbs of what they once were,” the letter said.

The employees also pointed out instances when in fact Disney has made statements about other social and political issues. For instance, Disney spoke out against controversial legislation in Georgia that was perceived to be harmful to the LGBTQ+ community — and arguably helped stop it.

Facing the heat, on March 9 Chapek said Disney opposes “Don’t Say Gay” and announced that Disney is contributing $5 million to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and other organizations protecting LGBTQ+ rights. The HRC rejected the contribution and instead demanded that Disney take “meaningful action” to fight the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.

Then Chapek issued an email on March 11 in which he apologized for his statements and inaction. He wrote, “It is clear that this is not just an issue about a bill in Florida, but instead yet another challenge to basic human rights. You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry.”

He also said Disney is going to pause all political donations in the state of Florida, re-evaluate its framework for political giving, and increase its support for advocacy groups to fight similar legislation in other states. As of this writing, Disney has not addressed the claim that it has censored Pixar movies.

Opponents of “Don’t Say Gay” have pointed out that Disney’s actions are too little, too late — and by pausing all political donations, Disney has actually withdrawn financial support for opponents of the bill. Supporters of “Don’t Say Gay” have also criticized Chapek for changing course from silence to action. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responded by voicing his support for the bill and lashing out at Disney.

The public fallout for Disney over “Don’t Say Gay” is extraordinary because Disney has a reputation for closing ranks on issues and controlling its message tightly. But employees have disrupted the corporate narrative as their reaction gets publicly reported (certainly a result of employees leaking information to news outlets).

What’s happening at Disney is but one example of how employees are making their voices heard in opposition to the actions of their employers. Amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, software company Epam halted operations in Russia and committed to help its Ukranian employees amid public employee criticism that the company was not doing enough. In 2021, Netflix employees staged a walkout in protest of the internal handling of Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special, “The Closer.” Activision Blizzard employees organized a walkout over the company’s treatment of women.

Right now, businesses everywhere are waging a fierce war for talent amid the post-Covid Great Reshuffle, which refers to a record number of employees leaving their jobs since the pandemic hit. According to LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends 2022 report, the Great Reshuffle is causing employers to rethink their values and culture in response to employees who increasingly want support and empathy from their employers. If employers don’t respond, they risk losing valuable talent.

Meanwhile, you can be sure Disney employees will watch what Disney does next.

Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

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