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DeSantis appointee to new Disney oversight board suggested tap water could turn people gay

(CNN) An appointee to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' new oversight board in control of Disney's special tax district called homosexuality "evil" last year and shared a baseless conspiracy theory that tap water could be making more people gay.

On Monday, the Republican governor appointed Ron Peri, an Orlando-based former pastor and the CEO of The Gathering -- a Christian ministry focused on outreach to men -- as one of five people who will now oversee the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the government body that has given Disney unique powers in Central Florida for more than half a century.

DeSantis signed a bill in February that allowed him to replace the district's existing board -- mostly people with ties to Disney -- with a five-member body that he hand-picked. The move to remove power from Disney comes nearly a year after the company spoke out against a Florida bill -- which DeSantis later signed into law -- to restrict certain classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity.

A CNN KFile review of Peri's past comments found that he frequently made derogatory remarks about the LGBTQ community.

"So why are there homosexuals today? There are any number of reasons, you know, that are given. Some would say the increase in estrogen in our societies. You know, there's estrogen in the water from birth control pills. They can't get it out," Peri baselessly said in a January 2022 Zoom discussion, later put on YouTube. "The level of testosterone in men broadly in America has declined by 50 points in the past 10 years. You know, and so, maybe that's a part of it."

"But the big part I would suggest to you, based upon what it's saying here, is the removal of constraint," he continued. "So our society provided the constraint. And so, which is the responsibility of a society to constrain people from doing evil? Well, you remove the constraints, and then evil occurs."

Testosterone levels in men have dropped in recent decades, and researchers are unsure why, but the drop is not 50%, and there is no indication that a drop in testosterone affects sexual orientation. Likewise, there is no evidence that estrogen in the water supply, for which birth control pills account for a statistically insignificant amount, affects sexual orientation. The claim that chemicals in tap water could turn people gay has gained ground with conspiracy theorists over the years, most memorably with fringe commentator Alex Jones, who said chemicals in the water were "turning the friggin' frogs gay."

In the same discussion, Peri called homosexuality "shameful," linking it to disease.

"There are a lot of unhealthy effects of a homosexual lifestyle," said Peri. "There are diseases, but it goes beyond that."

Peri has also said that LGBTQ people "don't have a stake in the future" because many do not have children, and he called gay people "deviant."

In one discussion, he linked homosexuality to the fall of the Roman Empire -- a fringe historical belief occasionally pushed by some Christian activists.

"Homosexuality was praised," Peri said. "LGBTQ today is being emphasized everywhere, even on children's shows. And so ultimately the Romans had become weak."

Peri's discussions, which focused on seeing the modern world through a Biblical viewpoint, often touched on social topics. In other discussions uploaded on YouTube, Peri said that "not very long ago being a mother was the pinnacle of being a woman," and he compared abortion to genocides like the Holocaust.

"It has boggled my mind that you have not seen a massive backlash from the Black population for what is effectively a genocide. And if you look to the right, you can see that in world history, there have been great killers. The Holocaust, 11 million were killed. Six million Jews," said Peri, pointing to a chart comparing abortion to genocide.

Peri and DeSantis did not respond to CNN's requests for comment.

DeSantis and Disney

Peri's appointment to the oversight board comes after a long-standing battle between DeSantis and Disney over the Parental Rights in Education Act -- which critics have called Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law. The law bars schools from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms and in older classrooms that do not meet yet-to-be-defined standards.

After Disney's then-chairman spoke out against the bill last year, DeSantis stripped the company of its unique governing power within the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the special taxing district created more than half a century ago that effectively gave the entertainment giant control of what has grown to 25,000 acres around its Orlando-area theme parks.

On Monday, DeSantis changed course and signed a new bill that extended the life of the Reedy Creek Improvement District but gave the governor new powers over its future. The new law ousted the existing board, renamed it the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and allowed DeSantis to appoint all five members -- one of whom was Peri.

This week, DeSantis told supporters that Disney's opposition to the Parental Rights in Education Act was a "only a mild annoyance" and that the motivation for effectively punishing the company was in response to it allegedly injecting "a lot of this sexuality into the programming for young kids." He has suggested that the new board could influence Disney's business decisions by adding park discounts for Florida residents and even altering the company's entertainment offerings.

"When you lose your way, you know, you gotta have people that are going to tell you the truth, and so we hope that they can get back on," DeSantis said. "But I think all these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate."

Historically, the Reedy Creek board oversaw a fire department, water systems, roadways and building inspections around the Disney theme parks and could issue bonds and take on debt for long-term infrastructure programs. Democratic lawmakers in Florida who opposed DeSantis' takeover of the board warned that a politically motivated body could wield that power over Disney.

"Are we going to see board members vetoing projects that are considered to go against any governor?" state Rep. Rita Harris said during floor debate on the proposal. "For instance, Walt Disney just changed Splash Mountain. They made it Tiana's Bayou (Adventure). What if the governor didn't like that? Would the board then be able to push a company into changing their business model just so that they don't misalign (with) them?"

In addition to Peri, DeSantis also appointed to the board Martin Garcia, a Tampa lawyer whose private investment firm contributed $50,000 to the governor's 2022 reelection campaign, and Bridget Ziegler, a co-founder of the conservative organization Moms for Liberty and the wife of Christian Ziegler, the new chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

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