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How Disney worked behind the scenes against the ‘don’t say gay’ bill

Disney has gotten scrutiny for not taking an aggressive public stand against the bill. Here’s a little more backstory.
The newly painted Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World is seen with the crest to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the theme park Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)
The newly painted Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World is seen with the crest to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the theme park Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File) [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Mar. 12

TALLAHASSEE — Disney worked behind the scenes for the past two months to try and convince Florida lawmakers that a bill restricting LGBTQ school lessons was not good policy.

The legislation — which Florida Democrats and LGBTQ activists nicknamed the “don’t say gay” bill — was on the company’s radar since it was filed in January. Three lawmakers, two Republicans and one Democrat, spoke to the Times/Herald on Friday about their role in Disney’s efforts as the company’s stance spilled into public view.

Disney lobbyists set up a series of calls with Senate Education Committee Chairman Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, before the bill received a hearing.

“They said they didn’t think it was the right policy for Florida and that they had a lot of employees that expressed frustration and that they didn’t want the bill,” said Gruters, who is also the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

Related: Disney pauses Florida political donations amid 'don't say gay' bill clash with DeSantis

The lobbying effort by one of Florida’s largest employers and political contributors did not work.

Gruters put Senate Bill 1834 — which would have prohibited districts from encouraging classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels — on the agenda. The proposal cleared his committee, on a party-line vote, on the first week of February.

By that time, House Bill 1557 — the bill that is now heading to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis — had cleared all of its committee stops in the House and was ready for a vote on the chamber’s floor.

The House bill bars schools from teaching lessons on gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade — or in ways that are not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate in other grades. Such instruction is already not part of the public school curriculum in K-3.

When the House voted for the measure, the fate of the bill was up to the Senate — so Disney revamped lobbying efforts in the chamber.

Historically, Disney has been able to sway lawmakers on policy issues. But this year, it twice failed to soften language as the proposed legislation neared its final passage.

First, Disney’s team tried to collaborate with Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. It aimed to fix the most contentious portion of the bill, which would bar school lessons on gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade — or in ways that are not age-appropriate in other grades.

Related: 'Don't say gay': Senate panel rejects Republican’s attempt to tone down bill

Brandes sought to amend the bill to say that schools should not conduct lessons on “human sexuality or sexual activity.”

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“If the intent is not to marginalize anyone, let’s make sure we aren’t,” Brandes said when arguing for the amendment last month. “Let’s be clear and clearly define and say that conversations about human sexuality or sexual activity that fall outside of state guidelines should not occur.”

The amendment was voted down. At that point, Brandes said Friday, he knew Republicans wanted more than just the specific language. There also were the broader culture war implications.

After that, Disney turned to Senate Education Committee vice chairperson Shevrin Jones, the chamber’s only openly gay lawmaker.

Jones, a Democrat from West Park, wanted to change the bill to say that classroom instruction “intended to change a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity” should not occur in any grades.

“Disney was very active in pushing the amendment,” Jones said in an interview Friday. “They were providing me with suggestions and working with me.”

Jones said he also sent the language to the governor’s office for review. But he never heard back from them.

The amendment was voted down on the Senate floor, a day before the Senate passed the measure nearly along party lines. Brandes and Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, were the only Republicans who voted against the measure in the chamber.

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