The recent controversy over Disney's statements about Florida's anti-LGBQ+ legislation showcase the weaknesses of corporate rainbow washing and neutrality. Both consumers and workers need to recognize the emptiness of corporate PR and realize their power to hold companies accountable.
Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill was signed by Governor Ron DeSantis on March 28th. The bill codified into law heavy restrictions on what can be taught and discussed about gender and sexuality, as well as restrictions on counseling and mental health services as a whole. The lead-up to the signing has been filled with heavy backlash, from school walkouts and protests to statements at the Oscars. One such statement surrounding the signing of the bill came from Disney, who said the bill should “never have been signed into law.” The statement even went further, claiming that the company’s goal would be for the “law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts.” For the casual observer, this statement may seem like a strong one from the company, which has a massive role in the Floridian economy between its world-famous Walt Disney World Resort and its recent move to bring employees from California to Florida. The Governor responded incredibly harshly to Disney’s statement, claiming that Disney “crossed a line.” Conservative commentator Ben Shaprio vowed that his company, the Daily Wire, would invest $100 million to make its own kids’ content to rival Disney’s, Tucker Carlson accused Disney of having “a sexual agenda for six-year-old children,” and Laura Ingrham sarcastically remarked that Disney World should rename its roller coasters “Sex Mountain.” Clearly, Disney’s statement struck a nerve. However, in the weeks leading up to this moment, Disney was facing backlash from a very different group of people: the LGBTQ+ community. A mere week prior to the signing of the bill, Disney employees staged a walkout, protesting the lack of response to the Don’t Say Gay Bill. How has Disney managed to find itself in this situation? The answer lies in its calculated move to play both sides, appealing to the LGBTQ+ community publicly while stuffing the pocketbooks of right-wing, homophobic politicians quietly. It’s a playbook that many other companies share, and it’s one that is critical to understand, especially with Pride Month just around the corner.
The timeline of Disney’s Don’t Say Gay response is chaotic and contradictory, with CEO Bob Chapek making statement after statement in order to soothe the situation. The saga began slowly on February 23rd, when the bill initially advanced in the Florida House. As the bill gained national notoriety, the focus turned to Disney, especially considering the company’s presence in Florida. There was significant pressure for Disney to make some sort of statement against the bill in order to support its LGBTQ+ employees and fanbase. That pressure reached a critical point on February 25th, when the Orlando Sentinel broke the story that Disney had donated money to every single sponsor of the bill. Although Disney was not alone in its support for the politicians in question—Comcast NBCUniversal, Charter, Publix, Amazon, Walgreens, and AT&T are just some of the other donors—Disney’s special position in Florida politics as well its significant LGBTQ+ consumer base meant it was in a much sharper focus. Many felt that Disney’s influence and lobbying could possibly stop the bill or at least change some aspects of it. Amongst this pressure, Disney released its first statement on March 3rd. This statement did not address the bill directly, nor did it even remotely touch on Disney’s donations to the politicians in support of it. Rather, Disney focused on its identity as a “unifying force,” and suggested that “the biggest impact” the company could have in advocating for LGBTQ+ rights was its “inspiring content…welcoming culture…and the diverse community organizations we support.” Disney employees were furious at this statement, which did not directly address any of the issues they and others had been concerned about. Some higher-ups tried to calm the flames, citing upcoming meetings focused on diversity and encouraging employees to make individual donations to organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign. However, these efforts were overshadowed by Chapek’s personal message to employees sent out on March 7th, where he explicitly defended the initial statement. Although he once again reaffirmed the company’s support for the LGBTQ+ community, he claimed that corporate statements “do very little” and are used “to further divide and inflame” by opposing sides and expressed worry about the backlash that would ensue from those in support of the bill. He echoed the previous sentiment about “inspiring content” at the end of the message, citing properties like Encanto, Black Panther, and Modern Family, and downplayed the bill, saying it was only in “one state.” The memo acknowledged Disney’s contributions to the bill’s sponsors, with Chapek stating they did not donate to any politician based on their position on the bill. He did not, however commit to ending political contributions. If the previous statement was received badly, this one was received horrifically, especially as it was made public. Multiple Disney employees made public statements denouncing Disney and Chapek, with a statement from Owl House creator Dana Terrace gaining over 110,000 likes on Twitter. The day after this statement from Chapek, the bill passed the Florida Senate, effectively guaranteeing it would become law as Governor DeSantis was a vocal supporter of it from the beginning and heavily pushed for some of its more extreme aspects. The bill was hanging over Disney’s shareholder meeting on the 9th when Chapek finally began to take a more definitive stance on the issue, saying the company “opposed” the bill and that the previous statements “didn’t get the job done.” This time, Chapek outlined specific measures Disney would be taking to combat the bill, including discussions with Governor DeSantis and a $5 million donation to the Human Rights Campaign. However, these actions did not soothe the issue. A spokeswoman for the governor claimed that a call made that day was the first they had heard from Disney about the bill and that no other talks had been scheduled. Perhaps most embarrassingly for Disney and Chapek, the Human Rights Campaign outright refused the donation, saying that “until…[they] build on their public commitment” to work with the LGBTQ+ community and ensure that bills like Don’t Say Gay don’t become laws or are repealed, the organization would not be accepting any money from Disney. The situation became even more fraught after a statement made by Pixar employees was released that claimed that Disney censored “nearly every moment of overtly gay affection,” and, in response to Disney’s inspiring content claim, stated that “even if.. [that] was the answer to fixing the discriminatory legislation in the world, we are being barred from creating it.”
On March 11th, only a little over a week since Disney’s first statement was released, Chapek sent out yet another employee memo (for those counting, we are at statement number 4). In this version, Chapek said he was “sorry” for not being “a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights” and backtracked on the focus on “inspiring content.” He announced that Disney would be “increasing support for advocacy groups” and “pausing all political donations” in Florida. Part of these efforts seemed to be a response to the previous statement made by Pixar, as a lesbian kiss from the upcoming Pixar film Lightyear was restored after initially being censored by Disney. And yet, to many, this still felt like too little, too late. On March 15th, a Twitter account named “Disney Walkout” announced that they had planned a full walkout on March 22nd. While acknowledging Chapek’s initial apology, the group demanded a clear, “actionable plan” to “protect employees from hateful legislation.” Among their goals was to prevent Disney from moving the previously mentioned California jobs to Florida. The walkout made headlines on Twitter, with employees tweeting about their participation, in addition to various Disney-associated accounts like that of ABC and Hulu sending messages in support of the walkout. Disney itself’s response, however, was more of the same. Yet another statement was released reaffirming that they “oppose any legislation that infringes on basic human rights.” Interestingly, though, the Disney Walkout account claimed that Disneyland cast members were not allowed to wear any pride-related pins to support the walkout, which places the previous statements Disney made into question. Less than a week after this walkout, the Don’t Say Gay bill was signed, and Disney released the previously mentioned statement claiming it would try to repeal the bill. Finally, it seemed like most of the backlash against Disney due to a lack of response was dying down. Unfortunately for Disney, it was replaced by right-wing backlash. This brings us to where the situation stands today: hyper-conservative America is furious at Disney, with many taking to Twitter to share they were boycotting all Disney products and to demand that others do the same. Governor DeSantis has even gone as far as to suggest that he would repeal the 1967 Randy Creek Improvement Act, legislation that allows Disney to act as its own government in the Disney World area.
Somehow, in less than a month, the company has managed to anger nearly every single faction under the sun with its whopping six statements and constant flip-flopping. But why did Disney take this approach? Much can be said about Disney’s response to the situation. Yet although Disney was the company that by far caught the biggest flack for its Don’t Say Gay response, it wasn’t the only one who donated to these politicians while claiming to be an LGBTQ+ ally. In fact, Comcast, who owns Disney’s top theme park rival in Orlando, Universal, has said nothing about the bill, despite also being a donor to the bill’s sponsors. Most of the other notable donors have completely escaped scrutiny for the donations, with the focus squarely on Disney. And yes, Disney may deserve the heat, especially due to its unique role in Floridian politics as opposed to these other companies. However, to ignore the overarching theme of the company publicly accepting queerness while donating to homophobic politicians on the side is to ignore a serious issue in today’s market.
What Disney and other companies are engaging in when they hide behind a veneer of pride merch and “inspiring content” is rainbow washing (sometimes also known as pinkwashing). Basically, rainbow washing is when a company frequently utilizes symbols of queerness, such as pride flags and slogans, in their products and public but does not actually commit to actions that would tangibly benefit LGBTQ people and, in cases like this one, may actually be directly harming the community with their actions. This can be seen during Pride Month, when almost every company's social media logo is redesigned to be rainbow colored, regardless of whether the company has contributed anything to LGBTQ+ organizations. Companies want customers to think they are accepting, especially considering LGBTQ+ adults have “a combined $3.7 trillion buying power.” The motivation here is not genuine care for LGBTQ rights—it’s money. That’s why, come July 1st, much of the Pride-related marketing is taken down: it’s simply no longer as profitable during other months. It’s also a reason why companies like Disney, who has substantial Pride merch year round and continuously advertises to a queer audience, donate to right-wing, homophobic politicians. Although companies often use the excuse that donations are non-partisan, that doesn’t match reality. In fact, 80% of the $4.8 million in campaign contributions Disney made in 2020 went to Republicans. This bias is not necessarily because these companies are secretly homophobic themselves. It’s because these politicians are “pro-business” and are usually on the side of corporations when it comes to business policy. And to corporations, that’s the most important thing. They may pretend to care about LGBTQ customers, and many individual employees are honest about their intentions, but ultimately, the bottom line is always money. The strategy Disney and many other companies are utilizing is one of careful neutrality in order to maximize profit. While these companies may be vocal about “supporting inclusivity” and mask themselves in rainbows, they won’t actually make any real efforts to improve the rights of LGBTQ people, as that would alienate those who are firmly against equal rights for LGBTQ people. They may not be homophobic, but they’ll pay politicians who are large sums of money because it pays to have someone “pro-business” in the company’s back pocket. This is the strategy that companies have decided makes them the most money and largely shields them from any controversy.
But this roadmap for success failed miserably in Disney’s case. Instead of not upsetting anyone, the vendetta against Disney has crossed partisan lines, with the backlash shifting from a left-wing to a primarily right-wing one. Why? To put it quite simply, playing two sides does not work. Companies can never go far enough either way because one group will get angry. Their method before was to simply bask in the middle. But something’s changed—people have caught on. They’ve started paying attention to the actions of companies and have begun holding them accountable for the things they say. This activism might not be perfect, as it completely missed critiquing other companies for their actions as well and made the situation out to be a uniquely Disney issue, but it still is a lot more than we’ve seen in the past. This will not be the first time a company deals with these issues. People have already begun to ask questions of the other companies involved. As long as the strategy of neutrality remains, the threat of another Disney-like situation will and should loom over executives. Neutrality becomes even more confusing when you consider what one side actually thinks. One side was, by and large, respectful and factual with their critiques. They have calmly but forcefully advocated for their goals, focusing on hashtags like #DisneyDoBetter and #DisneySayGay that call the company to action. More high-profile advocates have taken a similar, measured approach, with actress Kerry Washington going so far as to say Disney was her “family.” Dana Terrance’s previously mentioned tweet served as an announcement for a charity stream that raised over $70,000 for the Zebra Coalition, an organization based in Florida that supports LGBTQ+ youth. On the other hand, the other side has accused Disney of grooming children and insinuated gay people are pedophiles. They’re the side that has spread footage of a company’s private meeting, and are harassing people in it they disagree with and accusing them of being pedophiles. They’re the side that calls Disney “the most dangerous place on Earth.” Instead of a simple call to action, their focus has been focused pretty much solely on accusing Disney of sex crimes. The sheer difference between the largely left-wing response and the largely right-wing response is laughable at best and terrifying at worst. The initial backlash was forceful, but many focused on how much they loved Disney and why their love and support for the company and its products influenced their decision to critique it. While they were certainly not fans of Bob Chapek, not a single person baselessly accused him of being a sex criminal because they disagreed with him. To any outside viewer, it is clear that appeasing bigots is not only a morally reprehensible choice but also a nonsensical one. One side is holding corporations to a higher standard. The other is a group of people who immediately turn to vicious lies and hatred once they are not appeased. It is impossible to play both sides when one side is completely unreasonable, and neutrality is no roadmap to success. It’s actually the complete opposite.
So, what should be the takeaways from Disney and others’ experiences with the Don’t Say Gay bill? The answer differs based on who you are. For companies, the roadmap of neutrality needs to be done away with. Beyond the previously mentioned nonsensical goal of trying to reason with a group that is primarily unreasonable, people are starting to catch on to this strategy, and the backlash is going to be swift. It is ironic that Chapek was so fearful of these people because, by his indecision and flip-flopping on the issue, he’s likely drawn far more attention to Disney than needed. Simply put, Disney and other companies' goal of neutrality has backfired on them because they have managed to anger both sides by not taking one. Instead of trying to play a game of neutrality that people have figured out, companies should instead be clear about their support for the LGBTQ+ community. In the short term, that may mean some lost customers from reactionaries. However, by taking a side, companies like Disney will actually be angering less people overall, since their current neutrality has upset pretty much everyone. In addition, when companies stop being neutral, members of the LGBTQ+ community will feel more welcome when interacting with the company, either as customers or as employees, which contributes to overall acceptance and inclusion of the community in society. When neutrality is done away with, everyone benefits.
For consumers, there are two main takeaways. The first: you cannot escape problematic companies. The phrase “No ethical consumption under capitalism” has been beaten like a dead horse at this point, but there still is a strand of truth behind it. Although much of the focus has been placed on Disney for how it handled its response to the bill, it’s important to remember that this is not exclusively an issue with Disney. One company is not inherently better than another: each must be held accountable for their actions. All corporations are, first and foremost, out to make a profit, and no amount of rainbow washing will change that fact. It’s impossible to boycott every problematic corporation because you’d be boycotting every corporation, but knowing what lies behind the rhetoric is a way to stay vigilant and fact-check the information you’ve been given. But all is not entirely hopeless. Disney’s response went from refusing to even mention the Don’t Say Gay bill to openly advocating for its repeal. While not the ideal outcome for many, the difference between the first and most recent statements from Disney is astounding. This is the second takeaway for consumers: pressure and exposure are the best ways to hold corporations accountable. Disney’s situation became so fraught because of two factors. One, the heavy involvement of those who work at Disney at placing pressure on the company to speak, and two, the extensive coverage of the debacle on social media and beyond. The corporations where employees and outside forces have not caused a scene have gotten away with not commenting on their contributions or even mentioning that they support their LGBTQ+ employees, which is the bare minimum of what the community is asking for. The Disney Don’t Say Gay saga exemplifies why it’s so critical to support and amplify the voices of workers on the inside. Supporting politicians who advocate for more pressure on corporations and supporting unionization efforts, like the recent union at Amazon, are just some of the ways that actual change can be made on this front.
The situation with Disney does not seem poised to end anytime soon. The pendulum may have abruptly swung to the other side, but the mess still remains largely the same. There’s no question that this debacle was poorly handled on the part of Bob Chapek and Disney as a whole, and the specifics of Disney’s involvement are worth looking into. However, the takeaway from Disney and Don’t Say Gay is not that one corporation is uniquely bad. Rather, it is that it’s crucial to look under the progressive veneer that they put on to see what lies beneath and that exposure, pressure, and allyship with workers is how people can effectively cause change.
Elise Noonan is a freshman in the School of International Service. She is a staff writer for the American Agora.
Image courtesy Kaleeb18, Creative Commons.