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Op-ed

Michelle Goldberg: The right’s Disney freakout | GUEST COMMENTARY

Advocates march at a rally at the Walt Disney Company in Orlando, Florida, spearheaded by advocates from AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) on Thursday, March 3, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

I don’t know Latoya Raveneau, but I feel terrible for her. An executive producer at Disney, she was a speaker at a recent virtual all-hands company meeting about Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Inside Disney, there had been considerable anger that the company, one of the state’s largest employers, had donated to politicians behind the bill and hadn’t done more to fight it. Ms. Raveneau stepped up to defend the company’s queer friendliness, only to become a national object of right-wing fury and disgust.

On a video call, Ms. Raveneau spoke about her initial apprehension about taking a job at Disney, fearing she wouldn’t be allowed to include gay characters in the projects she worked on. Instead, she said, everyone she’s worked with has welcomed her “not at all secret gay agenda,” letting her add “queerness” to the animated show she directs, a revival of an early-aughts series called “The Proud Family.”

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The results of Ms. Raveneau’s agenda seem sweetly anodyne. The show’s main character, Penny Proud, has a flamboyant gay friend who has to deal with bullying, and another character has gay dads. There’s been some reporting about the groundbreaking nature of the show in the entertainment press, but as far as I can see, it hadn’t caused much if any controversy. Then conservative activist Christopher Rufo stepped in.

Mr. Rufo obtained video of the all-hands meeting, and he presented clips of Ms. Raveneau’s remarks, along with those of several other Disney executives, as evidence that Disney is sexualizing children. The story has blown up on the right, where Ms. Raveneau’s arch reference to a gay agenda is being treated as an admission that she has a plan to corrupt kids.

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“This isn’t programming, this is propaganda for grooming,” hissed Fox’s Laura Ingraham. “Disney isn’t just grooming children with radical sexual propaganda — now they’re bragging about it,” said a writer for The Federalist. Ms. Raveneau has landed in the middle of a renascent moral panic, one that combines elements of QAnon with old tropes about gay predators.

When I spoke to Mr. Rufo on Thursday, he was frank about wanting to punish Disney for giving in to employee pressure to oppose the Florida law. “Perhaps the lesson that they’re learning — and certainly the lesson that they should be learning — is that they should stay out of politics,” he said.

Until recently, Mr. Rufo was best known for his work mobilizing the right against critical race theory. But lately, both he and the movement he helped catalyze have turned their attention to gender and sexual identity. He believes there’s a lot of latent alarm among parents over changing ideas about gender, and he intends to tap into it. “I think there’s an opportunity to do the reporting, to build the narrative, much in the same way as critical race theory,” he said.

Mr. Rufo’s work helped inspire a wave of state legislation limiting the way teachers can talk about race, history and current events, under the guise of banning critical race theory. Now, a new wave of legislation is targeting what teachers can say about LGBTQ issues.

The most notorious of these new laws is Florida’s HB 1557, the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for kids below fourth grade, and any such instruction that is not “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” for older students. It has an enforcement mechanism similar to Texas’ recent abortion bounty law, allowing individual parents to sue for damages and recoup attorney fees if they win. What constitutes “classroom instruction” is unclear, but many fear it could include any mention of gay or transgender people, including students’ families. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it last week.

To justify the law, the right has taken to accusing anyone who opposes it of wanting to expose young kids to explicit material in order to prime them for abuse. On Twitter, Mr. DeSantis’ press secretary wrote, “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.” The QAnon idea that the right’s political opposition is a cabal of pedophiles has gone mainstream.

This is, of course, not the first time that gay and gender-nonconforming people have been framed as a moral threat to children. In 1977, Anita Bryant, a former beauty queen and spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission, started the anti-gay Save Our Children campaign. “Homosexuals cannot reproduce, so they must recruit,” she said. “And to freshen their ranks, they must recruit the youth of America.”

In recent years, the Republican Party has largely eschewed such language, appearing to make their peace with the presence of gays, lesbians and transgender people in public life. Now such rhetoric is back, and it’s potentially explosive.

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Companies’ most valuable asset is their brand, said Mr. Rufo, “and we’re going to start to erode that.” In the video of the Disney meeting that Mr. Rufo released, Ms. Raveneau enthused about how much freedom she’s been given to depict queer characters. But the price of that freedom just went up, and it remains to be seen if Disney will be willing to pay it.

Michelle Goldberg (Twitter: @michelleinbklyn) is a columnist for The New York Times, where this piece originally appeared.


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