Disney 'Saw the Light' on 'Don't Say Gay' Bill but 'Too Late': Eric Cervini

Historian Eric Cervini said Disney's initial hesitancy to publicly weigh in on a piece of legislation known by opponents as Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill was "heartbreaking" and made worse when the company's political donations in support of bill sponsors came to light.

The bill was passed by the Florida state Legislature earlier this week and is now awaiting Governor Ron DeSantis' signature. It was introduced as addressing "parental rights in education" and seeks, in part, to block "classroom instruction" for students in kindergarten through third grade about sexual orientation or gender identity "in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards."

Those against the bill's implementation have said the language used in the legislation is unspecific and could open a door for teachers to be punished for discussing any topics related to sexual orientation or gender identity in their classrooms.

Eric Cervini Disney Don't Say Gay bill
Historian Eric Cervini told Newsweek's 'The Parting Shot' podcast that Disney "saw the light" about Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill "a bit too late." Above, people hold placards as they protest the bill on March 9, 2022, in Coral Gables, Florida. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

Cervini, a historian of LGBTQ politics whose book The Deviant's War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, spoke with Newsweek podcast host H. Alan Scott on an episode of The Parting Shot that was released Friday.

The bill's use of the term "instruction" is fueling much of the concern about how the legislation would be implemented, Cervini said. He cited hypothetical scenarios involving a student being targeted by a homophobic slur and another of a student growing up in a household with two mothers or two fathers to question how teachers under the new legislation would be expected to react.

"It's the uncertainty that is the scariest part," Cervini said. "Because it's so vague, and because we don't know how it will be implemented, it's very concerning to all of us that teachers will just be prohibited on multiple layers, but mostly just because they're going to be scared of losing their jobs."

As the bill advanced in the Legislature, the Walt Disney Company began receiving criticism for not taking a stand against it. Disney's hesitancy was interpreted by some of the bill's opponents as hypocritical, Cervini said, in part because Disney participates in Pride events and sells Pride-themed merchandise.

"Companies all across the country, all across the world, slap on a rainbow and proclaim that they're an ally," Cervini said. "There's this normalcy of corporations donating to both sides of the aisle," he continued, adding that those donations help companies like Disney maintain influence regardless of which political party is in power.

"For me, it was heartbreaking to find out that Disney, a company that, of course was near and dear to my heart as a child, but also a company that, every single year, claims to be on the side of LGBTQ-plus rights" was initially silent on the bill in Florida, Cervini said. He pointed to recent reporting by The Orlando Sentinel that found Disney had made political contributions to all of the bill's sponsors and co-sponsors, a revelation Cervini said "shocked" him.

Disney's support for the bill's sponsors and co-sponsors left behind feelings of "inconsistency" and "dishonesty," Cervini said.

"You are literally profiting from us, you're telling us that you're on our side, and yet you're actively funding our persecution," he said. "It just doesn't hold up."

After initially refraining from speaking out about the bill, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said during a shareholder meeting last week that he called DeSantis to discourage the governor from signing the bill. DeSantis later criticized Disney for objecting to the legislation.

On Friday, Chapek announced Disney was initiating a pause on all political donations in Florida and issued an apology to the company's employees.

"Speaking to you, reading your messages, and meeting with you have helped me better understand how painful our silence was," Chapek said in a statement. "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. I am sorry."

Talking with Scott before the release of Chapek's Friday statement, Cervini said it seemed to him that Disney "saw the light" but did so "a bit too late."

"If there's anything the last week has taught us, it's just how influential and inspiring and effective Disney employees are at holding their leadership accountable," Cervini said. "It's remarkable."