Walt Disney Co. employees at corporate locations across the U.S. got up from their desks and headed to the exits Tuesday to protest CEO Bob Chapek's response to Florida legislation that LGBTQ advocates have dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill.
Hundreds of protesters marched outside Disney's headquarters in Burbank on Tuesday afternoon, with some toting signs (#DisneyDoBetter) and others chanting slogans such as "Say gay!"
"It was amazing to see everyone out here in support of all of our queer employees and their families," said Nora Rogers, a production supervisor at Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Throughout the day, several Disney employees also expressed solidarity with the protesters on social media.
In recent weeks, Chapek has come under intense internal criticism and public scrutiny for not having taken a more forceful stand against HB 1557, a bill that would prohibit instruction about "sexual orientation or gender identity" in kindergarten through the third grade in Florida.
Chapek drew pointed criticism for saying in a companywide memo March 7 that the corporation can make the "biggest impact" by "creating a more inclusive world through the inspiring content we produce."
The corporation's position on the bill appeared to be especially galling to some of the tens of thousands of Disney employees in Florida, home to the sprawling Walt Disney World theme park and resort in Orlando.
Chapek, who ascended to the throne of the Magic Kingdom in 2020, apologized directly to employees in a letter released March 11.
"It is clear that this is not just an issue about a bill in Florida, but instead yet another challenge to basic human rights. You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down," Chapek said in the letter. "I am sorry."
He also announced that the company would pause all donations to elected officials in Florida.
But the letter did not end the outcry.
LGBTQ employees started making plans for a series of protests during breaks, culminating in the general walkout Tuesday. They announced their plans on a website (whereischapek.com) and an Instagram account called disney_walkout.
"The recent statements and lack of action by TWDC [The Walt Disney Co.] leadership regarding the 'Don’t Say Gay or Trans' bill have utterly failed to match the magnitude of the threat to LGBTQIA+ safety represented by this legislation," the employees said.
"We have been forced into an impossible and unsustainable position. We must now take action to convince TWDC to protect employees and their families in the face of such open and unapologetic bigotry."
Chapek tried to rectify the situation in a virtual town hall Monday, according to The Wall Street Journal, telling employees that he and other top executives were “determined to use this moment as a catalyst for more meaningful and lasting change.”
The Journal, citing people who attended the event, reported that Chapek said he and other senior leaders would go on a global listening tour of employees.
In a statement Tuesday, a Disney spokesperson said: "We know how important this issue is for our LGBTQ+ employees, their families and allies, we respect our colleagues' respect to express their views, and we pledge our ongoing support of the LGBTQ+ community in the fight for equal rights."
The furor underscores a new reality for corporate titans, especially in the media and entertainment industries: Employees are increasingly unafraid to push back against policies they view as offensive or wrongheaded.
The backlash has also amounted to a public relations crisis for Chapek, who is trying to navigate the corporation through the streaming revolution and pandemic-era business challenges.
We have been forced into an impossible and unsustainable position.
— statement from disney employees planning a walkout tuesday
Bob Iger, Chapek's predecessor, came out against Florida's Parental Rights in Education bill on Feb. 24 — weeks before Chapek apologized.
In an emailed response to a list of questions, the employees behind the walkout said their main goal is stop the corporation from donating to elected officials who sponsor "weaponized and hateful legislation."
The organizers said they expected the company to take a stand against a similar "Don't Say Gay" bill in Georgia, a key production hub for films and television shows.
"We believe TWDC's recent statements about their commitment to our community means that any time legislation like this comes up again, they will take a more visible stand, and we plan to hold them accountable for that," the organizers said.
The walkout's organizers are separate from the various business employee resource groups (BERGs, in company parlance) and Disney-sponsored Pride organizations.
In the hours before the protests, various units of the empire expressed solidarity with the LGBTQ community.
The verified Instagram account for Disney’s theme parks vowed to “oppose any legislation that infringes on basic human rights.” ESPN, the Disney-owned sports giant, tweeted in part: “We stand with our LGBTQIA+ colleagues, friends, families, and fans.”
Republican legislators in Florida who advocated for the bill have contended that parents — not teachers — should be the people talking to children about sexuality and gender issues.
Democrats argue that the bill demonizes LGBTQ people and effectively bars students from speaking freely about sexual orientation and gender identity. President Joe Biden called the bill "hateful."