Disney CEO Bob Chapek addresses employees on silence over Florida LGBTQ bill
Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Chapek on Monday sent a lengthy email to employees to address the concerns of LGBTQ+ staff over the company’s public silence on legislation in Florida that would limit instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.
Disney has not issued any public statements condemning the Florida legislation, which states that “instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
For the record:
12:24 p.m. March 9, 2022An earlier version of this post cited the original Florida bill that would have forbade schools from encouraging classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity “in primary grade levels.” The bill was amended.
Activists describe the legislation as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has signaled his support of the bill, which has yet to be passed by the state senate.
Some critics have taken issue with Disney’s reticence, given the company’s significant presence in the state and its past willingness to take a stand on legislation that would affect members of its staff. Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando employs tens of thousands of people. The company last year said it was moving 2,000 jobs from Southern California to Florida.
For nearly two years, Bob Iger and Bob Chapek have run the company together. After an Iger farewell tour, one Bob remains.
Chapek said in his memo that he met on Friday with “a small group of Disney LGBTQ+ leaders” for a conversation in which employees expressed “disappointment” at the company’s lack of a public statement. While he described the meeting as “meaningful, illuminating, and at times deeply moving,” Chapek did not commit to taking an aggressive stance on the Florida bill.
Instead, he sought to explain why the company had not waded into the battle, saying that corporate statements “do very little to change outcomes or minds” and instead 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,” Chapek wrote, referring to Disney’s movies and shows and its philanthropic support of LGBTQ+ organizations.
Chapek also addressed internal worries about Disney’s political contributions in Florida, where the company has donated to both Republicans and Democrats. He said Geoff Morrell, the entertainment giant’s new chief corporate affairs officer, would be “reassessing our advocacy strategies around the world — including political giving.”
This was not enough to stop multiple people who have worked for Disney from speaking out publicly about the company’s reticence. In fact, the email appeared to inflame passions online.
“I love working for you so much Disney, it’s all I ever dreamed of and still all I want to keep doing,” tweeted animation writer Benjamin Siemon, whose credits include “DuckTales,” after posting a video on Sunday asking the company to take a stand. “But you really hurt the LGBTQ+ community today. We’re in pain.”
Dana Terrace, creator of Disney’s animated series “The Owl House,” posted her own emotional video that criticized Chapek’s letter for using “flowery and compassion words to shut you up” while continuing to donate to politicians who support anti-gay legislation.
“I’m someone who had a hard time coming to terms with my queerness until my mid-20s because of stuff like this,” Terrace said in the video, referring to the Florida bill.
Disney weighed into political matters under prior CEO Bob Iger, who once toyed with the idea of running for president.
Iger would occasionally take a vocal stance on legislation in Georgia, where many Marvel Studios movies are filmed. In 2019, Iger told Reuters it would be “very difficult” to continue filming movies in the Peach State if a restrictive anti-abortion bill became law.
Years before that, Disney threatened to boycott Georgia over an anti-gay bill that sought to expand individuals’ and businesses’ rights to deny services to those whose way of life conflicts with their religious beliefs. That bill was vetoed by the governor.
Chapek, who took over as CEO in February 2020, has been less inclined than his predecessor to take political stances. In one exception, Disney on Feb. 28 said the Burbank studio would be pausing the release of theatrical movies in Russia amid Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Disney is among a multitude of companies that have decided to pull business out of Russia.
In his memo, Chapek said he believes Disney is more effective at creating social change through its movies and TV shows, citing releases including “Black Panther,” “Encanto,” “Pose,” “Summer of Soul” and “Love, Victor.”
“These and all of our diverse stories are our corporate statements — and they are more powerful than any tweet or lobbying effort,” Chapek wrote. “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.”
Chapek’s full memo:
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.
There’s a reason content is at the top of this list. For nearly a century, our company’s stories have opened minds, inspired dreams, shown the world both as it is and how we wish it could be, and now more than ever before, represent the incredible diversity of our society. We are telling important stories, raising voices, and I believe, changing hearts and minds.
Encanto, Black Panther, Pose, Reservation Dogs, Coco, Soul, Modern Family, Shang-Chi, Summer of Soul, Love, Victor. These and all of our diverse stories are our corporate statements — and they are more powerful than any tweet or lobbying effort. 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.
Powerful content that changes hearts and minds only springs from inclusive cultures, which not only attract and retain the best and most diverse talent, but also give those employees the freedom to bring forth ideas that reflect their lives and experiences. We must work together to ensure Disney always remains such a place.
In terms of our communities, we are and will continue to be a leader in supporting organizations that champion diversity. In 2021, we provided nearly $3 million to support the work of LGBTQ+ organizations. And, we have a long history of supporting important events like Pride parades, and for being there in times of need, just as we were following the Pulse shooting in Orlando. All this is why we have earned a 100% rating from the Human Rights Campaign for 16 years in a row.
Finally, I want to address concerns about our political contributions in Florida. While we have not given money to any politician based on this issue, we have contributed to both Republican and Democrat legislators who have subsequently taken positions on both sides of the legislation. I can also share that Geoff Morrell, our new Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, will be reassessing our advocacy strategies around the world — including political giving — as he begins to integrate the communications, public policy, government relations and CSR teams.
Our company has been a force for inclusion for a long time — and that will not change on my watch. We all have a role to play in this effort — from the Cast Members who make magical memories for fans and families of all kinds, to storytellers who take audiences on journeys to new storyworlds that illuminate our own, to everyone in between who is responsible for ensuring our culture lives up to our values. I hope we will all continue rowing in the direction of a better tomorrow.
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