ORLANDO, Fla. - Mark Stegall and Robert Motz knew they’d made the right decision to travel to Florida when they spotted a sea of people wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Say Gay” in front of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
The partners from Galesburg, Ill., have been coming to the annual Gay Days celebration at Disney for years and ultimately decided they weren’t going to let travel advisories, new state laws targeting the LGBTQ community and a bitter public feud between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the entertainment giant keep them away.
“We’re here because it’s Gay Days, it’s that simple,” Stegall said Saturday. “Disney welcomes everybody. Maybe the governor of Florida doesn’t, but Disney does.”
The massive Pride Month gathering marked a show of defiance this weekend in a state where librarians have been pulling gay-themed books off the shelves, teachers are no longer allowed to discuss gender identity or sexual orientation and many LGBTQ families feel under attack. Organizers said reservations at the host hotel came in slower than normal. One event - the Taste of Gay Days - was scratched after restaurateurs voiced concerns.
But the show did go on. Rainbow-hued merchandise designed by Disney - including a plush Mickey Mouse waving a Pride flag - flew off the shelves almost as quickly as it could be restocked. Drag queen bingo was held. In the end, all 1,001 rooms at the host hotel were booked, though Gay Days chief executive Joseph Clark said travel warnings from civil rights and equality groups advising against travel to Florida had impacted turnout.
“For some it’s the safety aspect, for others, they don’t want to spend money in a state that doesn’t support them,” Clark said. “My message has been, ‘We need your help here in Florida.’”
Gay Days at Disney began three decades ago to bring together LGBTQ people and families in an environment where they felt included rather than marginalized. While the entertainment giant doesn’t sponsor the event, it has welcomed hundreds of thousands of Gay Days visitors through the years, making it one of the nation’s largest Pride Month events. Travelers dress in red shirts to identify themselves while at the theme parks. There is also an LGBTQ expo, pool parties and a Miss Gay Days pageant contest at other venues nearby.
“The birth of Gay Days was really about being visible at a time when it was dangerous to be visible,” said Brandon Wolf, communications director for Equality Florida. “The same is true now.”
The gathering has encountered head winds in Florida before. Religious groups including the Southern Baptist Convention have protested and boycotted the parks in the past. In 2013, a plane with the banner “Warning: Gay Day at Disney 6/1″ was spotted flying around Central Florida. The Florida Family Association, a group that defines its mission as “defending American values,” said it had raised over $16,000 to fly the banners.
“The primary objective of this project is to warn families before they expose their children to Gay Day’s revelry,” the group said in a press release at the time.
Now as DeSantis spats with Disney, the park has become an epicenter for the governor’s culture war against all things “woke” - a term he frequently invokes to push legislation placing restrictions on the LGBTQ community. The feud has drawn criticism even from Republicans who say he has crossed a line in using the powers of the state to target an independent corporation. Disney recently sued DeSantis, alleging the governor violated its First Amendment rights when it was targeted after voicing disapproval of a law critics dub “Don’t Say Gay.”
The Parental Rights in Education law, which prohibits instruction on gender and sexuality in schools, was expanded earlier this year to cover all grade levels. Many teachers and school administrators say the vague language of the law has led them to remove rainbow flags and safe space stickers from their classrooms for fear they could spark a prohibited conversation.
A slate of additional laws targeting the LGBTQ community have recently gone into effect or will later this summer - including legislation banning gender affirming care for minors, prohibiting the use of preferred pronouns for students and teachers, and allowing medical providers to refuse treatment based on moral, ethical or religious beliefs.
DeSantis blames Disney and others for trying to indoctrinate children and has said his policies “protect” children.
“I know all these Republicans are lining up against me to take the side of Disney,” DeSantis said during a recent speech in Iowa, shortly after announcing his presidential campaign. “But I’ll tell you this. We stand for the protection of our children. We will fight those who seek to rob them of their innocence and on that point, there will be no compromise.”
Neither Disney nor DeSantis responded to a request for comment on the Gay Days event.
In the months leading up to this year’s Gay Days, some visitors called in, worried about their personal safety or expressing fear of arrest if they attended one of the event-sponsored drag shows, Clark said. DeSantis recently signed a law forbidding children from attending “adult live performances,” including drag shows, though it punishes venues, not parents. Organizers said they added extra security and medical personnel.
“I don’t blame them for thinking that maybe we’re playing with fire,” Clark said. “They have to trust me and the organization and know that we’re not going to put them at risk.”
For the most part, the event looked and felt like it had in years prior - with some exceptions. The “Taste of Gay Days” was scaled back after the “current political climate” sparked concern from a “large group of our restaurant partners,” the organization announced in a Facebook post.
“Though we adamantly tried to recruit additional vendors, it became clear that we would be unable to provide the exceptional experience that our guests have come to expect,” the group wrote.
Justin May was mingling at a pool party Friday dressed in a tangerine orange one-piece Marilyn Monroe-style bathing suit, getting ready for the next phase of the Miss Gay Days contest.
“I am literally what they’re targeting,” May said. “It’s all so disheartening. And the travel advisories are just keeping people away from supporting our community.”
Events like bingo and pool parties took place outside of Disney World, but inside the Magic Kingdom and Disney’s other theme parks, Gay Days visitors filled lines for rides and souvenir shops - one visitor, dressed in a T-shirt with the words “Don’t Say DeSantis.”
“A lot of people are coming and telling me they love it,” Matt Thompson said.
Rights activists said it’s significant that Disney continues to embrace the event. The company is hosting the annual Out & Equal Workplace Summit, billed as “the largest LGBTQ+ workplace equality event in the world,” in September.
“It says something that Disney has been unwilling to kowtow to DeSantis and his brand of authoritarianism,” said Wolf, the communications director with Equality Florida. “I think that Disney’s refusal to be bullied into submission is a good reminder to others that in this moment, there is no negotiating with people like Ron DeSantis.”
Clark said many Gay Days fans were torn between making the annual pilgrimage to Orlando or staying away to honor the travel advisories. But he believes the current political environment is, “more of a reason to do what we’ve been doing on an annual basis for more than 30 years.”
“And that’s to show everybody that we have a community that supports each other, and that together we’re strong,” he said.
That is the message James Couick, of Orlando, and his friends hoped to send with their presence at the Magic Kingdom on Saturday.
“We’re being targeted by politicians, but our community is still strong,” Couick said. “We’re here to have fun, but we’re also here to say we’re standing up for ourselves.”