Disney Employees Rally to Protest Fallout From ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill: ‘It’s Been Really Painful and Soul-Crushing’

Disney employees gather outside Walt Disney Studios to protest Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' Bill on March 22, 2022 in Burbank, California.
Michael Buckner for Variety

Disney’s LGBTQ employees and their supporters are rallying virtually and in-person for a full day of solidarity actions to call attention to the company’s response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

A group of about 75 Disney employees gathered Tuesday morning at the Bette Davis Picnic Area, down the street from Disney’s Burbank studio, where they held signs and chanted “Disney say gay! We won’t go away!” and “We are queer! We are here!”

Several of the protesters said their supervisors had been generally supportive of the walkout. A lot of meetings had been rescheduled to accommodate the walkout.

At the rally in the park, several employees said it was important for the company to stop funding Florida legislators who supported the bill that prohibits instruction around gender identity and sexual orientation. But several also expressed concern that Disney been has transferring workers from California to Florida.

“Florida is not a safe place right now for the LGBTQIA community,” said Rachel Anderson, an employee in Disney Music Group who has a transgender son.

Jenz, an employee at Disney’s streaming division who declined to give her last name, said she too has a child who is trans.

“I’m really strongly against forcing people to move to a state that’s very restrictive in terms of its political ideology,” she said.

She said she was unconvinced by the company’s initial claim that it wanted to stay out of political controversies, noting that Disney CEO Bob Chapek has been politically active on opposing mask mandates at theme parks.

“They are willing to take political stands when it generates money,” she said.

The protesters are also looking for Disney to stand up against similar bills in neighboring states.

Anderson said the Florida bill marks a step backwards for kids’ mental health, and she was alarmed to discover that the company has backed legislators who voted for the bill.

“It’s been really painful and soul-crushing on a personal level,” she said.

Others were encouraged that the company had reversed course within days of the employee protest.

“I think that’s a big thing for a huge multi-national corporation like this, because some people are going to be unhappy, but I think it’s important to take a stand,” said Beth, an employee at Hulu.

Meanwhile, Disney companies including ABC, ESPN, Disney Plus and Hulu, released Twitter statements in support of the LGBTQ community and against “legislation that infringes on the basic human rights of the LGBTQIA+ community.” The statements come a week after Marvel Studios made the same gesture on social media.

Though many employees at Disney’s Burbank, Calif., headquarters have not returned to their offices, they are being asked to support the campaign by not working on Tuesday and sending messages on Slack and social media with the hashtags #DisneyDoBetter, #DisneySayTrans, #DisneySayGay and #WherelsChapek.

Others gathered in front of the Animation building for a photo shared by animator Rebecca Perez.

On Twitter, Disney Walkouts affirmed their approval of the corporate messages shared today by Disney brands. “They were tirelessly advocated for by our own LGBTQIA+ co-workers to show support today,” they wrote. “It’s an act of magic and is a true marker of how far we’ve pushed.” Organizers also shared their gratitude for the support shown from allies, including ESPN anchors Elle Duncan, Carolyn Peck and Courtney Lyle, who all spoke up about the effort during their Mach Madness coverage, pulsing their broadcasts in solidarity last week.“ Most of those shows of support have been independent of our efforts – even we didn’t know they were happening!” they commented. “We’re pleased to have so many allies throughout the company.”

The week of actions kicked off last Monday with a statement from the LGBTQ community across the Walt Disney Company.

The letter read, “The recent statements by The Walt Disney Company (TWDC) leadership regarding the Florida legislature’s recent ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill have utterly failed to match the magnitude of the threat to LGBTQIA+ safety represented by this legislation.”

“We must now take action to convince TWDC to protect employees and their families in the face of such open and unapologetic bigotry,” the letter continued.

The group is asking Disney to indefinitely cease all donations to politicians supporting anti-gay legislation, as well as committing to stop construction and investment in the state of Florida until such legislation is repealed, stop efforts to move employees to Florida and guarantee no employees will be terminated for denying relocation to Florida.

On Monday, Disney held another company-wide virtual town hall in an effort to address’ employee concerns. The session featured a long Q&A on diversity and inclusion issues between Latondra Newton, Disney senior VP and chief diversity officer, and Nadine Smith, the leader of nonprofit org Equality Florida, on why the legislation proposed in Florida would be harmful to LGBT students. Chapek appeared at the beginning of the pre-recorded session, acknowledging the anger and harm provoked by the wedge-issue legislation. But Disney HR chief Paul Richardson quickly took over to detail the company’s response to the Florida bill and other concerns about how Disney treats LGBT issues that were stirred up by the “Don’t Say Gay” flap. Chapek also postponed a senior executive retreat that had been set for Orlando, Fla., later this month, acknowledging that the time nor the setting wasn’t right given the recent ripples across the Magic Kingdom.

Some Disney employees and stars didn’t have the option of not working Tuesday. “Moon Knight” star Oscar Isaac, who was doing interviews for the show at a virtual junket, was asked for his opinion on the protest. The star said, “I guess my comment would be [starts singing] gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gayyyyyy! Yeah, it’s an absolutely ridiculous law. It’s insane. It’s insanity. And I hope that Disney as a company comes out as forcefully as possible against this idea. It’s astounding that it even exists in this country.”

— Adam B. Vary, Cynthia Littleton and Angelique Jackson contributed to this report.