Bob Chapek’s Big Misstep: How Disney CEO’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Response Sparked Staff Revolt

Bob Chapek

Disney CEO Bob Chapek is facing a major test of his leadership, after the company’s botched response to an anti-gay bill in Florida sparked a staff revolt among LGBTQ employees and their supporters.

Chapek apologized to the staff on Friday, saying he should have been “a stronger ally.” But for some employees, who found the company’s silence on the bill profoundly alarming, the statement came too late.

“This is a CYA [cover your ass] for Chapek — this is a weak statement,” one Disney staffer told Variety. “We should have gotten this apology on March 1, not weeks after — and after this bill was passed in Florida.”

For Chapek, the apology capped a full week of attempted damage control. On Monday, he explained in an internal memo that the company had not condemned the bill because it might be “counterproductive.” By Wednesday, Chapek was acknowledging missteps and publicly opposing the bill for the first time. But the opposition came a day after the Florida state senate passed the bill, and weeks after the controversy first erupted.

Those comments also did nothing to quell internal outrage from employees who felt the company had failed to stand up for the LGBTQ community. Disney usually manages to contain its internal disputes, making the public dissent all the more striking.

Disney has a “Pride” channel on Slack for LGBTQ employees and allies, which has tripled in size to more than 2,000 members in recent days. As Chapek was speaking on Wednesday, employees were responding with short bursts of outrage.

The company is a major employer in Florida thanks to its theme park and cruise ship operations, with nearly 80,000 personnel in the state. Disney has long flexed its muscle in the state by contributing to both Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature.

Many of Disney’s LGBTQ employees have been urging the company to cut off donations to lawmakers who supported the bill, which opponents have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. The bill would prohibit classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, and require that all such discussions in later grades be “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” Parents would also be given the power to sue over alleged violations.

The bill passed both houses of the Florida Legislature along mostly partisan lines, with nearly all Democrats opposed and all but a few Republicans in favor. Gov. Ron DeSantis has indicated support for the measure, and said at an event in Boca Raton on Thursday that he would not back down to “woke corporations.”

“You have companies, like at Disney, that are going to say and criticize parents’ rights. They’re going to criticize the fact that we don’t want transgenderism in kindergarten and first grade classrooms,” DeSantis said. “If that’s the hill they’re going to die on, then how do they possibly explain lining their pockets with their relationship from the Communist Party of China?”

In his comments on Wednesday, Chapek said the company would reassess its political donations in Florida and elsewhere, as other states are also considering similar bills. In the Friday apology memo, Chapek said the company would pause all political donations in Florida while the company undertakes a review to “ensure our advocacy better reflects our values.”

On the company Slack channel, some employees suggested that the latest statement seemed insincere. They also expressed skepticism of the review and questioned how it would be undertaken.

“I’m done with memos promising action,” one employee told Variety. “Also now he’s no longer donating money to good politicians in Florida?”

Some also expressed gratitude that an apology was finally made.

The company has also has numerous Business Employee Resource Groups (or BERGs), which are forums for employees to come together based on shared identity. On Thursday, the Pride BERG held its regularly scheduled “Brave Conversations” roundtable on Zoom, which at one point had 900 employees participating. According to a participant, the conversation became highly emotional, with some employees sharing their experiences trying to work on LGBTQ content, and others crying.

Several BERGs have also sent statements to Disney’s senior leadership imploring them to publicly denounce the bill and cease funding politicians who supported it. One statement, attributed to LGBTQ employees and allies at Pixar Animation Studios, also alleged that Disney corporate executives have censored scenes with same-sex affection in its films.

Sarah Kate Ellis, the CEO of GLAAD, issued a statement Friday calling Chapek’s announcement on pausing political donations a “step in the right direction.” In an interview, she praised the company’s employees for speaking up, saying they were taking a real risk, and also said she hoped Disney would recognize its own power.

“[Disney] is a place that has political and fiscal clout,” she said. “You can help protect a community that is under attack.”

Chapek’s reluctance to wade into the controversy came in contrast with his predecessor, Bob Iger, who tweeted his opposition to the bill on Feb. 24. Chapek is said to be less willing than Iger to take political stands in general. But he is facing a climate in which employees have become more emboldened to demand action from their bosses.

Just last October, there was a similar outcry at Netflix over Dave Chappelle’s latest standup special, which included jokes about the trans community. In that case, co-CEO Ted Sarandos fumbled the initial communications with employees, leading to internal backlash.

Peter Newman, head of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts’ MBA/MFA program, argued that Chapek had erred by catering “almost exclusively” to Disney shareholders, while neglecting relationships with talent, employees and the public.

Chapek was also slow to address Scarlett Johansson’s demand for compensation after the disappointing hybrid release of “Black Widow” last summer, leading to a lawsuit and an ugly — though short-lived — public feud.

“At the very least, Chapek has done a bad job at defining himself,” Newman said. “As long as he’s there, there’s going to be confusion about where he stands on a variety of issues.”