“We’re here because it’s Gay Days, it’s that simple,” Stegall said Saturday. “Disney welcomes everyone. Maybe the governor of Florida doesn’t, but Disney does.”
The Pride Month mass gathering marked a show of defiance this weekend in a state where librarians have been pulling gay-themed books off shelves, teachers can no longer talk about gender identity or sexual orientation, and many LGBTQ families they feel attacked. Organizers said bookings at the host hotel came in slower than normal. One event, the Taste of Gay Days, was removed after restaurateurs raised concerns.
But the show went on. Rainbow-colored Disney-designed merchandise, including a stuffed Mickey Mouse waving a Pride flag, flew off shelves almost as fast 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 CEO Joseph Clark said travel advisories from civil rights and equality groups advising against travel to Florida had affected turnout.
“For some it’s the security 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 LGBTQ individuals and families together in an environment where they felt included rather than marginalized. While the entertainment giant does not sponsor the event, it has welcomed hundreds of thousands of Gay Days visitors over the years, making it one of the largest Pride Month events in the country. Travelers dress in red shirts to identify themselves at theme parks. There’s also an LGBTQ expo, pool parties, and a Miss Gay Days beauty pageant at other nearby locations.
“The birth of Gay Days was really about being visible at a time when it was dangerous to be,” said Brandon Wolf, director of communications for Equality Florida. “The same is true now.”
The meeting has run into headwinds 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 seen flying over Central Florida. The Florida Family Association, a group that defines its mission as “standing up for American values,” said it had raised more than $16,000 to fly the banners.
“The primary goal of this project is to warn families before they expose their children to the Gay Day revelry,” the group said in a press release at the time.
Now that DeSantis is sparring with Disney, the park has become an epicenter of the governor’s culture war against all things “woke,” a term he frequently invokes to push through legislation imposing restrictions on the LGBTQ community. The dispute has drawn criticism even from Republicans who say it has crossed a line by using the powers of the state to target an independent corporation. Disney recently sued DeSantis, alleging that the governor violated his First Amendment rights when he was attacked after expressing his disapproval of a law critics call “Don’t Say Gay.”
The Parental Rights in Education Act, which prohibits instruction on gender and sexuality in schools, was expanded earlier this year to cover all grades. Many teachers and school administrators say the law’s vague language has led them to remove rainbow flags and safe space stickers from their classrooms for fear they might spark prohibited conversation.
A list of additional laws targeting the LGBTQ community went into effect recently or will take effect later this summer, including legislation that prohibits gender-affirming care for minors, prohibits the use of preferred pronouns for students and teachers, and allows medical providers refuse treatment based on morality. , ethical or religious beliefs.
DeSantis blames Disney and others for trying to indoctrinate children and has said their policies “protect” children.
“I know all these Republicans are lining up against me to side with Disney,” DeSantis said during a recent speech in Iowa, shortly after announcing his presidential campaign. “But I’ll tell you this. We stand up for the protection of our children. We will fight those who seek to rob you of your innocence and at that point, there will be no compromise.”
Neither Disney nor DeSantis responded to a request for comment about the Gay Days event.
In the months leading up to this year’s Gay Days, some visitors called in concerns for their personal safety or expressed fear of arrest if they attended one of the event’s sponsored drag shows, Clark said. DeSantis recently signed a law banning children from attending “live adult performances,” including drag shows, though he punishes venues, not parents. Organizers said they added additional medical and security personnel.
“I don’t blame them for thinking maybe we’re playing with fire,” Clark said. “They have to trust me and the organization and know that we are not going to put them at risk.”
For the most part, the event looked and felt like years past, with a few exceptions. Taste of Gay Days was curtailed after the “current political climate” raised concerns from a “large group of our restaurant partners,” the organization announced in a Facebook post.
“While we tried hard to recruit additional vendors, it became clear that we would not be able to deliver the exceptional experience our guests have come to expect,” the group wrote.
Justin May was mingling at a pool party on Friday dressed in a Marilyn Monroe-esque tangerine orange one-piece swimsuit, preparing for the next phase of the Miss Gay Days pageant.
“I’m literally what they’re aiming for,” May said. “It’s all so heartbreaking. And the travel warnings only prevent people from supporting our community.”
Events like bingo and pool parties were held outside of Disney World, but Inside the Magic Kingdom and the other Disney theme parks, Gay Days guests filled lines for rides and souvenir shops: one visitor, clad in a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Don’t Say DeSantis.”
“A lot of people come to me and tell me they love it,” said Matt Thompson.
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 world’s largest LGBTQ+ workplace equality event,” in September.
“It says something that Disney hasn’t been willing to bow to DeSantis and his brand of authoritarianism,” said Wolf, director of communications for Equality Florida. “I think Disney’s refusal to be intimidated into submission is a good reminder to others that you can’t negotiate with people like Ron DeSantis right now.”
Clark said many Gay Days fans were torn between making the annual pilgrimage to Orlando or staying away to comply with travel advisories. But he believes the current political environment is “all the more reason to do what we’ve been doing annually for more than 30 years.”
“And that is to show everyone that we have a community that supports each other and that together we are strong,” he said.
That’s the message Orlando’s James Couick and his friends hoped to send by their presence at the Magic Kingdom on Saturday.
“We are being targeted by politicians, but our community remains strong,” Couick said. “We’re here to have fun, but we’re also here to say we stand up for ourselves.”