As Disney enters final stretch before Oscars, LGBTQ+ controversies rumble on

The scandal over the company’s lukewarm position over Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill and the censorship of scenes of affection between same-sex characters is casting a shadow over its chances at Sunday’s Academy Awards

A protest staged by Disney employees on Tuesday at the company's HQ in California.
A protest staged by Disney employees on Tuesday at the company's HQ in California.Octavio Jones (AFP)

Disappointment in the happiest place on Earth. Disney is being tainted by scandal just days before the upcoming Academy Awards, which will be held on Sunday in Los Angeles. The communications and entertainment giant, which owns the biggest studio in Hollywood, is not a topic of conversation right now because of the dozens of nominations that its productions have garnered for this year’s Oscars, but rather the internal battle that has been sparked by its timid response to homophobic attitudes and lack of commitment to the rights of LGBTQ+ collectives.

Shortly after 11am on Tuesday, dozens of employees abandoned their work stations for 15 minutes in the company’s central headquarters, in Burbank, California, to reject the position that the CEO, Bob Chapek, expressed over the approval in early March in Florida of a draft bill that would greatly restrict public school teachers’ ability to discuss LGBTQ+ themes in the classroom. The state of Florida is home to four Disney theme parks.

Chapek took over from Bob Iger two years ago at the head of the company. Unlike his predecessor and his predecessor, Michael Eisner, the current CEO arrived at Disney with no experience in television or media. He had risen through the ranks in roles such as the head of video sales and then theme parks. Initially, Chapek sought to avoid publicly positioning Disney with regard to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, as the Republican-backed legislation is known. But this low-profile strategy, which the executive thought was neutral, sparked a wave of indignation that forced him to have to apologize to staff for having let them down.

A still from 'Encanto,' one of the films that Disney will be competing with at this year's Oscars.
A still from 'Encanto,' one of the films that Disney will be competing with at this year's Oscars.Disney (AP)

But the issue didn’t end there. The internal strife uncovered a scandal that threw fuel on the fire. A number of employees from Disney’s Pixar studio revealed on March 9 that the company had censored sequences from their films that showed displays of affection between same-sex characters. The scandal prompted Disney to reinstate a kiss between two women that had been cut from an upcoming Toy Story franchise release, Lightyear.

Chapek also promised to pause donations to politicians in Florida who supported the Don’t Say Gay bill. During 2020, which was an election year in the United States, the company distributed $4.8 million between Republicans and Democrats. In Florida, the conservative party – which governs the state – received $913,000, while the opposition got $313,000. The Daily Wire, a right-wing media outlet, has claimed that the company is preparing a campaign to condemn a law in Texas, another Republican stronghold, which would affect families who are seeking gender-reassignment therapies for their children.

Disney CEO Bob Chapek in a file photo from 2017.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek in a file photo from 2017.Joshua Sudock (Walt Disney Television via Getty)

Staff from Pixar, Lucasfilm (home of Star Wars, and purchased by Disney in 2012) and the company’s animation studios were all present at a demonstration on Tuesday, where they waved flags in support of LGBTQ+ collectives. Marvel, another valuable property that the group acquired in 2009, also published a message of support on social media. “We strongly denounce any and ALL legislation that infringes on the basic human rights of the LGBTQIA+ community,” the company wrote on social media.

Disney, which employs 200,000 people all over the world, organized a virtual meeting 30 minutes before the protest in Burbank on Tuesday so that staff could hold an “honest conversation” to “rebuild trust” within the company and with rights groups. Employees were invited in Los Angeles, New York, Buenos Aires, Paris, Mumbai, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo.

The controversy caught Disney’s rivals at the upcoming Oscars by surprise, and they could end up benefiting from the ongoing saga. The entertainment giant will find out on Sunday if award victories will be enough to reduce the tensions. “People usually vote for whoever gives them work,” a marketing executive told EL PAÍS not long ago. The predictions are in.

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