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11 months ago

New Florida Laws Spark Concern Among Organizers Of Gay Days Events At Walt Disney World And Other Sites

This year’s Gay Days, the annual LGBTQ+ pride event that draws tens of thousands to Walt Disney World and other attractions around Orlando, is taking place amid concerns over the ultimate impact of a series of new laws championed by Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis.

Although Disney is not a sponsor of the event, the attendees’ annual visit to the company’s theme parks, in which they wear red to stand out among the guests, takes on special resonance given the company’s own battle with DeSantis, who has made the culture wars a signature part of his presidential campaign.

Organizers expect both safety and an inclusive atmosphere in visiting the Magic Kingdom, but they are taking other precautions given the series of bills that DeSantis signed earlier this month that target the LGBTQ+ community. The new laws compelled Equality Florida and the Human Rights Campaign to issue a travel advisory to the state.

“We continue to be that blue speck in a sea of red, but ultimately laws are laws, and that is the interesting situation we are in,” said Joseph Clark, the CEO of Gay Days.

The event typically draws about 150,000 to 180,000 people, but it is unclear how many will show this year, Clark said.

The host hotel, the Doubletree by Hilton at Sea World, is sold out, Clark said. But he said that he’s aware of concerns over traveling to the state, via messages on social media and in the direct messages he’s received from concerned attendees. He said that he heard from about 20 in the past week, with some wondering whether it is safe to come to Florida, and others don’t want to support an event in the state, knowing that portions of sales taxes will go to the state government. One prospective attendee told NBC News early this month that while he believes the theme park will be a “safe space,” “everything around it, everything else you have to do to get there is scary right now.”

“The feedback has been all over the place,” Clark said. “Guests just don’t know.”

Clark said that it was “extreme importance that our guests are safe,” which is one reason that Gay Days bought out the Doubletree as a base hotel for the weekend.

He said that greater security precautions for the event have been in place for some years. “After the Pulse nightclub shooting [in 2016] and going into this year, there are extra eyes” on what is happening at the event venues.

A spokesperson for the Orange County Sheriff declined to talk about specific measures they are taking.

“We continue to support the theme parks and other venues in our tourist corridor with off duty deputies that are scheduled for daily coverage, in addition to our scheduled patrol deputies,” the spokesperson said. “For large events, there are contingency plans that are visible to the public, and some that are not. We will have deputies in marked and unmarked vehicles, on bicycles, motorcycles and even horseback when that’s necessary.”

Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, said in a statement, “Orlando has always been and will continue to be a diverse, welcoming and inclusive community.  As the top travel destination in the country and longstanding leader in the travel industry, our community has a history of welcoming all to our destination. ”

Gay Days was started in 1991 as a single day for the LGBTQ community to visit the Magic Kingdom, held on the first Saturday in June. Initially promoted on a computer bulletin board and via fliers in bars, the event was designed as a fun Pride event rather than an overt protest. At the time, Disney reportedly had concerns, but did not try to stop attendees, who wore red shirts as a way to stand out.

Spin forward more than 30 years, and Gay Days not only stretches over a weekend, but it is a key revenue driver for the Orlando area.

Disney still does not sponsor the event, but its opposition last year to the Don’t Say Gay bill, and the fallout from it, has reinforced the view among attendees that they will feel safe and welcomed at the parks. “Disney takes security very seriously,” said Brandon Wolf, press secretary for Equality Florida.

The company sued DeSantis in April, claiming that the governor’s efforts to strip the company of control over a special district that oversees its theme parks was an act of political retribution. Disney cited DeSantis’ remarks after the company announced its opposition to the parental rights legislation, which detractors dubbed “don’t say gay,” last year.

“We know that Disney has had values of inclusion for a very long time. They are in the position they are in because they stepped up” in support of the LGBTQ community, Wolf said.

The company did not respond to a request for comment on this year’s event, but park enthusiasts have posted images on social media of a new display installed at EPCOT: a rainbow mural with the word “LOVE.” In September, the the Disney resort is hosting the Out & Equal Workplace Summit, the largest of its kind in the world. The company’s co-sponsorship of the event comes as DeSantis continues to hammer Disney as a “woke” corporation, trying to turn its support for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives into a negative.

Other companies, including Target and Bud Light, also have been the source of backlash on the far right, in what is emerging as an effort to pressure corporate support for Pride in general. Clark said one longtime corporate sponsor of Gay Days, who he declined to name, pulled out of the event, although the circumstances for the decision are murky.

The tensions in Florida escalated earlier this month when DeSantis signed bills that ban gender affirming care for minors and another that targets drag shows, which go into effect immediately. Other laws, which go into effect on July 1, prohibit schools from having students use their preferred pronouns, and restrict transgender individuals from using public bathrooms different from their sex at birth.

Appearing at a signing ceremony before a banner that read, “Let Kids Be Kids,” DeSantis characterized the legislation as a way to keep children safe. “They’re having third-graders declare pronouns? We’re not doing the pronoun Olympics in Florida,” he said, per the AP.

The drag show bill imposes fines on venues that admit children to adult live performances where they are exposed to “lewd” behavior.

But critics say the bill is vague. The law attempts to define the performances as those that are sexually explicit, but one venue, Hamburger Marys, has sued, characterizing it as a chill on freedom of speech.

Gay Days is moving forward with two events open to all audiences that will feature drag performers: A drag bingo and a Miss Gay Days pageant. Clark said he had performers sign acknowledgements knowing that they were aware of the state law. “We informed all drag queens of the specifics in the bill that passed,” he said, adding that they had the performers “sign off that the understand the ramifications of how they choose to act.”

He said that the drag shows have not been an issue in the past, but “we are just dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. The fines are substantial fines and they affect the host hotel. We don’t want to put them at risk at all.”

Wolf said that the law “is written in a vague way with the hopes that it will induce self-censorship. The hope of Republican lawmakers and the governor is that people read it to the extreme and cave to intimidation and threats.”

He said that Equality Florida’s travel advisory was not meant as a call to boycott the state, but to make visitors “clear eyed” about what has happened there, including the moves that have been made against Disney. He encouraged those attending gay days to be aware of the concerns, but also to “tap into the spirit” of the origins of Gay Days, one of “visibility and unapologetic resistance and pride.”

“The show must go on,” Wolf said. “We can’t self censor to the most extreme right wing reading of the law. As a result we should carry on.”

Groups on the right have protested Gay Days in the past, but Clark notes a difference this year. “It is not Jerry Falwell on a billboard,” he said. “These are real laws.”

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