Disney Is Embarrassing Themselves

While no one has believed that Disney is a perfect company – far from it in fact – they are still a beloved institution in households across all social, economic, and political spectrums, and within the animation industry and community.

This month, Disney has received unprecedented flak for its long-criticized apathy and/or disdain toward LGBTQ+ representation and issues. In fact, it appears Disney is engaged beyond disdain, acting in intentional harm.

As Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill has passed through its legislature, it leaked that Disney is funding all of the bill’s sponsors and many of its other proponents, in addition to several Florida politicians opposed to the bill.

Abigail Disney, an activist, filmmaker, and effectively estranged member of the Disney family, tweeted out her disappointment after the news broke, saying “I could not be more unhappy with their [Disney’s] political activities, both in terms of whom they fund and how they lobby.” Abigail Disney is the granddaughter of Disney’s co-founder Roy O. Disney and a great-niece of Walt Disney.

President Joe Biden called the legislation “hateful” in a tweet, while White House press secretary Jen Psaki addressed the bill in a White House press conference, saying “Every parent hopes that our leaders will ensure their children’s safety, protection, and freedom. Today [February 10], conservative politicians in Florida rejected those basic values by advancing legislation that is designed to target and attack the kids who need support the most.”

Many in the animation industry condemned the legislation. With some humor, Warner Brothers Animation Executive Producer Brendan Hay tweeted “I’d rather say gay and not teach my kids about Florida.”

Disney, however, stuck to their guns through Thursday, March 10. On Monday, March 10, Disney CEO Bob Chapek released a memo to Disney employees, transcribed in full below:

Team,

Before getting to the heart of my message, I want to acknowledge all those impacted by the invasion of Ukraine, especially our team in Europe and our employees around the world who have family in the region. This is an unimaginably difficult time, and my thoughts are with you. I also want to thank the ABC News team covering the horrific events there. Their courage and dedication to informing the world during this crisis is exemplary.

On Friday, I met with a small group of Disney LGBTQ+ leaders to discuss controversial legislation pending in Florida that would impact their communities. I want to thank them for a meaningful, illuminating, and at times deeply moving conversation. I told the group I would write to the entire company with my thoughts on the issues we discussed. I wish every one of our employees could have heard not just the passionate voices in the room, but the bravery, honesty, and pride those voices expressed. It is a conversation I will not forget.

One common theme was disappointment that the company has not issued a public statement condemning the legislation. That disappointment was compounded by the fact that, while not perfect, our company has a long history of supporting the LGBTQ+ community—and in fact, has played an important role in the personal journeys of so many of our employees.

I want to be crystal clear: I and the entire leadership team unequivocally stand in support of our LGBTQ+ employees, their families, and their communities. And, we are committed to creating a more inclusive company—and world. I understand that the very need to reiterate that commitment means we still have more work to do.

I also believe you deserve an explanation for why we have not issued a statement. We are going to have a more fulsome conversation about this at the company-wide Reimagine Tomorrow Summit in April, but I will preview that discussion now as it is so timely.

As we have seen time and again, corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds. 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.

I do not want anyone to mistake a lack of a statement for a lack of support. We all share the same goal of a more tolerant, respectful world. Where we may differ is in the tactics to get there. And because this struggle is much bigger than any one bill in any one state, 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.

If, as Chapek says, “we all share the same goal of a more tolerant, respectful world,” then Disney wouldn’t be funding politicians who don’t share in those goals. And if he truly believes “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 and Disney would not support politicians who actively work against that mission.

With the language in the bill, classroom discussion will have to omit children discussing parents who are gay or queer. Kids would also not be able to discuss television programs and film that have characters who are gay, gender non-conforming, or canonically or otherwise part of any LGBTQ+ community.

Moreover, if Disney truly wanted to support LGBTQ+ people, they would have used their lobbying ability to try and prevent passage of the bill, as the Animation Guild, the animation industry’s labor union, pointed out. The Animation Guild said in part, “As one of the world’s most successful brands and a family company that claims to care about its employees and customers, it’s disheartening to see Disney’s failure to take any action to help prevent passage of the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in Florida. Moreover, Disney CEO Bob Chapek did not unilaterally condemn this homophobic bill, but instead defended the company’s contributions to legislators who supported it.”

They continued, “The Walt Disney Company has the opportunity to be a leader in service to the LGBTQ+ community in a way that few other brands can match. The reach and scope of Disney’s operations mean that there are few avenues of everyday life where Disney does not reach. To quote one of Disney’s newly acquired properties, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ You have failed that test in Florida.”

But aside from the hypothetical omission or curbing of discussions, Chapek’s statements about supporting LGBTQ+ artists at Disney and using their “content” to speak their views rather than a toothless “corporate statement” appear to be lies.

On Thursday, March 10, “LGBTQIA+ employees of Pixar and their allies” released a statement accusing Pixar’s parent company Disney of censoring content related to LGBTQ+ people, deleting representation from scenes in their films. Their full statement is below:

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.

Monday’s email, “Our Unwavering Commitment to the LGBTQ+ Community”, rang hollow. It began with the claim that Disney has a long history of supporting the LGBT community, but Disney Parks did not officially host Pride until 2019, in Paris alone. Disney has a history of shutting down fan-created Pride events in the parks, even removing same-sex couples for dancing together in the 1980’s. Additionally, Disney began capitalizing on Pride in 2018 with The Rainbow Mickey Collection, (while de-emphasizing the terms like LGBTQ+ and not even featuring explicitly LGBTQIA+ pieces such as Pride flag pins until 2021). To this end, it feels terrible to be a part of a company that makes money from Pride merch when it chooses to “step back” in times of our greatest need, when our rights are at risk.

The second claim stated that “corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds”. However, the very email making this claim opened with a corporate statement regarding the ongoing situation in Ukraine. Eight days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Disney paused the release of theatrical films in Russia and announced “We will make future business decisions based on the evolving situation.” Following the siege on the capital in 2021, Disney stopped all political donations to members of Congress who had objected to the presidential election results. In 2016, Disney told the state of Georgia: “We will plan to take our business elsewhere should any legislation allowing discriminatory practices be signed into state law” in response to the controversial Religious Liberty bill. By taking a stand, Disney directly affected the legislative outcome in Georgia. It has been proven that Disney’s corporate statements can and do make a difference.

Finally, we come to the push for Content as the answer. 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. 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. Even if creating LGBTQIA+ content was the answer to fixing the discriminatory legislation in the world, we are being barred from creating it. Beyond the “inspiring content” that we aren’t even allowed to create, we require action.

We are calling on Disney 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. While signing on to donate to the HRC is a step in the correct direction, the shareholder meeting on Wednesday made it clear that this is not enough. Throughout the shareholder meeting, Disney did not take a hard stance in support of the LGBTQIA+ community, they instead attempted to placate “both sides” – and did not condemn hateful messages shared during the question and answer portion of the meeting. This is not what it means to “unequivocally stand in support of our LGBTQ+ employees, their families, and their communities.”

Disney taking a stand by honoring their company values has changed the course of legislation in the past. If Disney is true in its values, it will take a decisive public stand against the discriminatory legislation occurring in Florida and offer tangible support for the LGBTQIA+ communities affected by bigoted legislation sweeping the country. Stand against this bill in Florida and against the similar bills in South Carolina, Arizona, Virginia, and Tennessee. Stand against the transphobic legislation in Texas, Iowa, Utah, Kansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, and Alabama. Many hateful groups are attempting to eradicate us through legislation – we need you to stand with us entirely, not in empty words.

This matter is not something that can wait until Reimagine Tomorrow in April, or Pride Month in June. This matter needs to be addressed now. This is urgent. 42% of LGBTQIA+ youth seriously considered suicide in 2021, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth, with a large factor being the lack of support that these discriminatory legislations enable. Disney claims to care for the welfare of children, but supporting politicians like this directly hurts one of their most vulnerable audiences. There are lives at stake and Disney’s support could save those lives. “We still have more work to do,” your email said. This is that work.

Signed with Pride,

The LGBTQIA+ employees of Pixar, and their allies

Today, March 11, Chapek relented, releasing a statement apologizing for being a poor ally and announcing Disney would no longer donate to politicians. His statement read in part, “You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry…. Yes, we need to use our influence to promote that good by telling inclusive stories, but also by standing up for the rights of all.”

Chapek called Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to discuss the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. No meeting has been set and DeSantis announced there is “zero” chance he will revoke the bill. Further analysis of Disney’s saga this week, including the new apology, has been reported by CNBC here. Further reporting on the animation industry’s reaction to the ordeal was compiled by Animation Magazine here.

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