Heidi Stevens: Disney hosting LGBTQ+ summit is a poke in DeSantis’ eye — and sign of a ripple effect toward progress

Tribune Content Agency

My husband and I were sitting in the stands of my daughter’s gymnastics competition a few years ago when a couple of moms behind us started talking about a recent Disney trip gone awry.

One of the moms accidentally booked their family trip the same weekend as Gay Days, an annual Disneyland/Disney World event that welcomes LGBTQ+ visitors to the theme parks. Disney doesn’t officially endorse the event, but the resort has a long history of supporting it, setting up photo ops around the park for couples, adding rainbow merch to their shops and rainbow desserts to their menus.

This was not a happy accident for this mom, who told the other mom that her daughter saw two men kissing and asked her parents, “Why are those two men kissing?”

“I told her, ‘They’re brothers,’” the woman said. “And she said, ‘Brothers kiss like that?’ And I said, ‘Some do.’”

My husband and I exchanged the universal look for Guess What We’re Talking About On The Car Ride Home because, truly, normalizing incest rather than telling your kid about same-sex couples struck us as … noteworthy.

In hindsight, it was our sneak preview of “Don’t Say Gay,” which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is now moving to expand through 12th grade. The law forbids classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, unless it’s part of reproductive health classes … which students can opt out of.

Florida educators, who can be sued for violating the law, have been speaking out about the chilling effect since the measure was implemented for younger grades last year. Can they have photos of their own families on their desks if those families include a same-sex couple? Can they let a student share a story about her two moms? Can they acknowledge that a historical figure was openly gay? Can they affirm students’ own feelings or questions, if students sense the teacher is a safe place for them to bring those feelings and questions?

Orlando art teacher Clinton McCracken, who is gay, told NPR reporter Melissa Block he is acutely aware of the increased suicide risk for LGBTQ+ youth, and how banning discussions about their identity frames their very existence as inappropriate or deviant.

“I’m not teaching kids how to be gay in my classroom,” McCracken said. “But I’ll tell you what I am doing. I am trying with all my power to teach kids to be OK with who they are.”

He’s brave and he’s right. And he shouldn’t have to be a lonesome voice in the white noise of a culture war that turns vulnerable kids into collateral damage.

Which brings us, believe it or not, back to Disney.

Walt Disney World, the Florida park, is scheduled to host what’s billed as the largest LGBTQ+ conference in the world, in September, Out & Equal just announced. The organization, which campaigns for gay, lesbian and transgender rights in the workplace, hosts the annual summit.

Apple, Uber, McDonald’s, IBM, Walmart and Google are among the companies reportedly attending. Several governmental bodies, including the U.S. Department of State and Central Intelligence Agency, are scheduled to have booths at the conference, according to the Miami Herald.

The summit is being framed as a poke in the eye of DeSantis, who moved to take control of Walt Disney World’s self-governing district after the Disney corporation condemned Florida HB 1557 (better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.)

“Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts,” Disney said in a statement released in March 2022, “and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that.”

Maybe this summit is payback. Maybe we’re watching the beginnings of a battle that will reverberate all the way to — or away from — the White House in 2024.

I’ll leave that to the political analysts to debate.

I’m more interested in — and heartened by — the ripple effect toward progress.

For a place as soaked and cemented in family-friendly lore as Disney to take the side of humanity, to plant their corporate flag on welcoming ground, to get a taste of political wrath and retaliation and still choose inclusion? It’s powerful.

It says families look all different ways. It says we affirm and welcome and celebrate them all. It says children will grow up to love who they love. It says we affirm and welcome and celebrate that love.

It says we believe these things so centrally — and, yes, we recognize the financial benefits of practicing these beliefs so strategically — that we will host an enormous summit devoted to making more workplaces operate with a similar approach.

It says we’re working toward a world where a kid asks her parents, “Why are those two men kissing?,” and the mom is likelier to say, “Same reason Dad and I kiss, sweetie. They’re in love.”

And that will be just fine. Better than fine. It will be beautiful. And it’s coming.