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Feb. 26, 2024

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After DeSantis tussle, Disney World will host a major summit on gay rights

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The Walt Disney Company will host a major conference promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in the workplace in Central Florida this September, gathering executives and professionals from the world’s largest companies in a defiant display of the limits of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign against diversity training.

Disney’s decision to host the conference this fall comes amid a yearlong dispute between the company and the Republican governor, who signed a law that ended decades of autonomy at the Disney resort. It was seen as punishment over the company’s opposition to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education legislation, known widely as the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibits any discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in classrooms before fourth grade.

Disney has had a longstanding relationship with Out & Equal, the organization behind the event, and is listed on its website as one of its most generous sponsors.

The Florida resort has committed to hosting the conference this year and next, which will coincide with the presidential election campaign in 2024. DeSantis is widely expected to challenge former President Donald Trump for the Republican nomination.

Michael Chamberlain, chief marketing officer for Out & Equal, confirmed the conference would be held at The Walt Disney World Resort, Sept. 11-14. Last year’s summit was held in Las Vegas.

Dozens of iconic American companies — including Apple, McDonald’s, Uber, Walmart, Hilton, Amazon, Boeing, Cracker Barrel and John Deere — are sponsoring the Out & Equal Workplace summit, which over 5,000 people are expected to attend. Several agencies, including the State Department and the CIA, are listed as government partners and will have booths at the conference.

The conference comes after DeSantis declared victory over Disney in February when he signed a law that gave him the power to appoint a five-member board overseeing government services at the Disney district near Orlando.

“Today, the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” DeSantis said when he signed the bill. “This is what accountability looks like.”

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In his recently released book, DeSantis describes how, after “Disney declared war on Florida families” by opposing the Parental Rights in Education bill and “indulged in woke activism,’’ he asked the Legislature “to reevaluate — and even eliminate — Disney’s special deal.” DeSantis married his wife, Casey, at the Disney World resort in 2009.

Squaring off against Disney was “a political battle that would reverberate across the nation,’’ he wrote.

The subsequent legislation left most of Disney’s special powers in place despite the governor’s attempt to dissolve the district. The conservative members the governor appointed to the board hinted at the first meeting of the new board that they would exercise leverage over Disney, such as prohibiting COVID-19 restrictions at Disney World. But legal experts have said that the new board’s authority has no control over Disney content.

Hosting the conference is another demonstration of the limits on the Republican governor’s ability to influence the content and scope of events at Disney.

‘Largest LGBTQ+ conference’

Out & Equal says its summit “is the largest LGBTQ+ conference in the world,” bringing executives, employee resource group leaders, human resource professionals and experts in diversity, equity and inclusion together to promote equality.

“Over more than 20 years, Summit has grown to become the preferred place to network and share strategies that create inclusive workplaces, where everyone belongs and where LGBTQ+ employees can be out and thrive,” the website states.

DeSantis has campaigned against diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, pushing for them to be eliminated at state colleges and universities in Florida and asserting that the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank was caused by its focus on DEI programs.

He has accused large corporations that engage in DEI training of attempting to “advance woke ideology through its employee ranks — and virtue signal in the process.”

Rep. Randy Fine, a Palm Bay Republican who last year sponsored the bill to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which governed land use, fire protection, and sewer services on the Disney resort, said he had never heard of the summit and was not troubled by it.

“I’m not willing to interpret it as some grand conspiracy to stick it in the eye of the state of Florida,” Fine said Monday. “Disney is part of the fabric of the Florida economy. … If they weren’t holding any conferences at Disney World, that would be news because that would be a big problem.”

He said that even the Legislature used to hold annual events at the resort “before all this woke stuff took over” and that, as a former gambling industry executive, he knows that in organizing a large conference, “there are only two places where you can have a conference and increase your attendance — Las Vegas and Orlando.”

Last year’s Out & Equal conference in Las Vegas included multiple speakers who advocated for the rights of transgender youth, and provided attendees with guidance on how to navigate anti-LGBTQ bills at the state level.

Year of tension

Tension between DeSantis and Disney arose last spring, when Disney publicly opposed Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The measure prohibits discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, and in older grades when deemed “not age-appropriate.”

When Disney officials did not publicly lobby against the measure, some employees marched out of the company’s California headquarters in protest. Others urged executives to join corporations that were condemning DeSantis, who signed the bill into law.

After Disney published a statement demanding that the law be repealed, DeSantis retaliated by expanding the agenda of a special session on redistricting to include dissolving Disney’s special taxing district. An obscure provision in state law prohibits the state from dissolving the district until its bond debt — which amounted to more than $1 billion — was paid off.

In April, Disney quietly sent a note to its investors to show that it was confident the Legislature’s attempt to dissolve the special taxing district violated the “pledge” the state made when it enacted the district in 1967, and therefore was not legal.

Disney’s decision to host this year’s Out & Equal summit was announced several months later, to participants of the 2022 conference held in October.

After more than nine months of stalemate, legislators approved a measure in February that renames Reedy Creek as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, and the Disney-appointed board was replaced by conservatives named by DeSantis. But the measure also leaves most of the district’s special powers intact, including the company’s ability to tax itself to pay off its $1 billion in debt.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to requests for comment. Spokespeople for Disney declined to comment.

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