Disney Steps Into It

First, they came for women seeking abortions. Since I did not need an abortion, I did not say anything. Then they came for transgender youth. My kids are not transgender, so I did nothing. Then they came for drag queens. Really?? While I love drag queens, this seems like a diversion. Then they came for me, gay men, and I’m worried about who is left.

If you feel like something isn’t right, you’re not alone. Our communities are under attack in America’s courts, state legislatures, and governors. This is the culmination of 50 years of planning. The word “woke” is really a dog whistle. It says the world is changing and you may not like the direction. “Woke” now divides America along lines of race, gender, gender identity, whom you love, and the right to bear arms. It leaves a two-class society where one side decides how everyone else can live, work, love, own guns, and have access to healthcare.

Tennessee is ground zero in the fight. Not only has the Governor turned back core federal HIV prevention funding, but he also signed state bills that would ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth and restrict drag performances in public. These actions are coordinated, and our movement needs to be worried about other states.

Texas’ 88th Legislative Session has 3,605 house bills and 1,610 in the senate. Getting through these bills takes time, money, and cooperation between state and national activists. While there are some good bills, an initial review showed multiple pieces of legislation targeting communities highly impacted by HIV. We need to monitor what gets out of committee. The number of bills makes this task overwhelming.

The Weber Standwick Collective recently invited me to speak to some of their corporate clients. I talked about Disney and how the CEO got caught flat footed. The old days of staying neutral are gone. The culture wars are here and companies must choose a side. In the case of Disney, the CEO tried to be neutral, but that got him in trouble with employees. Talent is a key factor for how companies are valued. Disney’s staff, particularly their creative teams, want their employer to share their values. The CEO overcorrected into a war with Governor DeSantis. In truth, the governor was looking for a fight. Ultimately, the CEO lost his job, and Disney’s stock took a huge hit. In this upside-down world, these decisions have real financial consequences.

Corporations understand their markets are at risk. The culture wars mean work force destabilization and chaos. Every CEO needs a strategy before their backs get pressed to the wall. Until the markets decide, at least in Tennessee, hundreds will lose their jobs, thousands will lose access to HIV prevention services, and an unknown number of American will get HIV because they were not educated about disease prevention.

Just because you live in a deep blue state, do not assume you are immune. Key to the 50-year plan was control of the Supreme Court. They are using the courts to legislate nationally on abortion, affirmative action, voting, student loan forgiveness, and gun control. I worry about the Texas case on HIV PrEP and the ACA. Their real goal is to destabilize the ACA by getting rid of the Prevention Task Force.
There are good people working hard to figure out solutions not only for TN, but also for the rest of the country. Given the political climate, it is a difficult needle to thread. How to work around the governor without escalating the fight? Disney showed the wrong way, can HIV do better? Like Disney, federal leaders cannot be neutral. You tried last time with the DEBBIs and EBBIs. Our movement spent too much time and money on programs that tried to placate conservatives but could not be scaled at the levels needed to end the epidemic. HIV testing, PrEP, and PEP are the best HIV prevention tools, but they require cooperation and collaboration from the communities hardest hit by HIV. Like Disney employees, HIV prevention, care, and treatment must share the values of the communities we need to reach. For HIV that means gay/bi men, particularly gay men of color, the transgender community, and Black women.

Yours in the Struggle,

Paul Kawata

Paul Kawata