In summary

Corporations can no longer pay lip service to the rights of LGBTQ+ people while actively undermining them through their political donations.

By Christina Fialho, Special to CalMatters

Christina Fialho is an attorney and the managing director of the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at USC’s Marshall School of Business. She also is a bisexual queer woman.

Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek recently condemned Florida’s House Bill 1557, or the Don’t Say Gay bill, at Disney’s quarterly shareholder meeting. For many, Disney’s virtue signaling was too little, too late.

Companies like Disney have been increasingly taking corporate positions on social matters in recent years. Stepping into social issues is relatively new terrain for many of today’s corporate executives. While nearly 80% of consumers in the United States believe companies have an obligation to address important social issues, advocates and consumers have condemned corporate public gestures of support that are not backed by tangible action.

The Human Rights Campaign, which is the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, has stated that they will not accept money from Disney until they see the company build on its public commitment and work with LGBTQ+ advocates to take actual steps to fight this bill. 

Even Disney’s employees have been hosting walkouts during their breaks to protest Chapek’s slow response, culminating Tuesday with a walkout at Disney worksites in Florida, California and elsewhere. While hundreds of employees walked out at Disney’s headquarters in Burbank, Disneyland employees who did not feel safe walking out were told they could not wear “pride/trans Mickey pins,” according to organizers.

The Florida bill, euphemistically titled Parental Rights in Education, would censor teachers from talking about LGBTQ+ issues or people, preventing students from experiencing inclusive classrooms. Nine other states are considering similar laws, according to PEN America.  A bill introduced this month in Kansas would make it a misdemeanor for any teacher who uses material depicting same sex relationships in any way, not just sexually explicit content. These laws that erase LGBTQ+ people’s identities further stigmatize students and lead to bullying, attacks and poorer academic outcomes.

Even in California, which has some of the most inclusive laws and education codes, fewer than half of LGBTQ+ students report feeling safe in school, according to a recent study funded by the California Department of Education.  However, the study also found that if LGBTQ+ students experienced similar levels of support and safety as other students, disparities in their mental health, academic motivation and academic performance would shrink by half.  

While addressing social problems is no longer the sole responsibility of government and civil society organizations, business operations that maximize shareholder profits are also no longer enough to compete in the global economy.  It is clear that what companies say and do combined with where they choose to donate has a real effect on the lived experience of people impacted by social issues.  

Disney’s main consumers are children and their parents. LGBTQ+ children have been excluded for decades from seeing themselves reflected in Disney movies.  Since 2012 when GLAAD began grading companies on LGBTQ+ inclusion, Disney has received a “poor” or “failing” grade in the watchdog’s annual reports with only one exception in 2013, when the company received an “adequate” grade. Often, Disney has been cited as having “the weakest record when it comes to LGBT-inclusive films of those studios tracked.” 

So we cannot be surprised when Disney fails to take action or swiftly speak out against anti-LGBTQ+ laws. But Disney and other leading corporations can and must do better.

Backlash against Disney might have been avoided if the company had embedded its social impact goals into the core of its business model and corporate strategy. Disney has an opportunity and even an obligation to its stockholders and its stakeholders – the consumers and communities that use Disney products – to align its corporate strategy with a transparent and inclusive social policy. Had Disney’s corporate strategy already been supportive of LGBTQ+ people, then the company would likely have spoken out quicker and not donated a quarter of a million dollars to the bill’s supporters.

Gone is the day when maximizing shareholder profits was enough. And gone is the day when corporations can pay lip service to the rights of LGBTQ+ people while actively undermining them through their donations. 

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