Disney’s Public Reckoning Over LGBTQ Equality Has History

LSean Griffin, like many other children, grew up watching Disney films. He can remember going to the movies as a child. The Jungle Book He was a little boy who lived with his father, but his favourite child was his mother. Snow White and Seven Dwarfs. Today, he’s a film scholar who has written extensively about Disney’s relationship to the LGBTQ+ community, but at the time, his reasons for preferring the studio’s first full-length animated feature were fairly literal: His mother had dark hair and seven children.

Disney films hold a particular resonance for “proto-queer kids” like the child he used to be, Griffin tells TIME. Griffin says that before many LGBTQ+ youth ever think about gender identity or sexual orientation, movies like “Disney” were a big influence on their thinking. BeautyAnd the Beast and Frozen tell stories “about characters who feel like they’re misfits.” It helps these kids feel seen and like their stories matter, which is one of the many reasons Disney has developed such a devoted LGBTQ+ fanbase over its nearly 100-year history.

“Eventually what it is that makes them feel like an outsider ends up being the thing that is valued about them,” Griffin, the author of Tinker Belles, Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company From the Inside Out, says of Disney’s protagonists. “Seeing cartoons that show you that there’s somebody else who feels that way and then seeing a happy ending at the end is really powerful.”

The investment LGBTQ+ fans feel in Disney was tested earlier this month when the company’s CEO, Bob Chapek, defended its reported $250,000 in donations to backers of Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill. This legislation, if passed into law will ban the discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation in classrooms K-3. The bill has passed both chambers of the state legislature and is now headed for the Republican governor. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the bill.

In an email to employees on March 7, Chapek said that Disney has “contributed to both Republican and Democrat legislators who have subsequently taken positions on both sides of the legislation” and did not commit to halting donations to anti-LGBTQ+ lawmakers. He also said that “the best way for our company to bring about lasting change is through the inspiring content we produce.”

The fallout from Chapek’s letter was swift. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest LGBTQ+ advocacy group in the U.S., said it would no longer accept money from Disney until it took “meaningful action” to stop the “Don’t Say Gay” bill from becoming law. GLAAD (the media watchdog) announced that they would start grading films studios on the basis of political donations. Numerous Disney employees publicly criticized Chapek, in addition to Walt Disney’s grand-niece, Abigail Disney. Some employees are reportedly planning walkouts in protest of the company’s mishandling of the controversy.

While Chapek has since apologized and vowed to pause all donations to elected officials across the U.S., a public reckoning regarding Disney’s treatment of its LGBTQ+ employees and fans has been years in the making. Pixar employees wrote their own letter last week, accusing its parent company of gutting “nearly every moment of overtly gay affection” from its films. The letter alleged that Disney executives “shaved down” Pixar’s intended LGBTQ+ storylines “to crumbs of what they once were,” although the anonymous authors declined to name specific examples.

To critics, this controversy showcases Disney’s longstanding attempt to have it both ways on LGBTQ+ representation. While the company tried to attract queer dollars while not alienating conservatives against equality, that strategy was no longer feasible as LGBTQ+ Americans across America are facing unprecedented attacks on their rights. Disney did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment.

Disney’s relationship with the LGBTQ+ community has long been a complicated one—both onscreen and off. Queer people were instrumental to the studio’s resurgence in the ’80s and ’90s: Elton John won an Oscar for composing and writing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” forThe Lion King The soundtrack sold over 18 million copies around the world. Howard Ashman was the lyricist for songs like “Songs For You”, which sold 18 million copies worldwide. The Little MermaidAnd AladdinHe was posthumously awarded the Academy Award for Beauty and the Beast by Bill Lauch in 1992.

However, even though it has queer talent in the background, the Mouse House struggles to pay respect for those who have influenced its films. Since 2012, it has received a “poor” or “failing” grade from GLAAD each year in the watchdog’s annual reports on LGBTQ+ inclusion, except on two occasions. (The studio received an “N/A” in 2020, as GLAAD didn’t give out any grades that year.)

Critics have frequently described Disney’s attempts at actual LGBTQ+ representation as “blink-and-you-miss-it.” According to the tech news site Gizmodo, at least eight films have been touted as featuring the studio’s “first” gay character, including Moving on, ZootopiaPlease see the following: Jungle Cruise.

Although out gay director Bill Condon hyped Disney’s first “exclusively gay moment” leading up to the release of the live-action Beauty and the Beast The 2017 remake took only seconds to complete the scene. LeFou, the bumbling henchman of villainous Gaston, is paired with a same-sex dance partner in the musical’s closing number, much to his surprise and delight. Even Josh Gad, the actor who portrayed LeFou, said that the film “didn’t go far enough” in recent comments to The Independent Disney+ ended a Disney+ spinoff centered on him character.

One of the most notable examples of Disney’s path-of-least-resistance corporate brand was Rise of the Skywalker, which director J.J. Abrams teased prior to its release as containing Star Wars’ first explicit LGBTQ+ representation. Mark Hamill previously stated that Luke Skywalker was gay, if the viewer wishes him to. The actual reveal offered even less than Abrams’ vague description promised: a kiss in the background between two female Resistance fighters during a celebratory scene. Disney cut out the scene in Singapore to placate censors.

Griffin, who is a film professor at Southern Methodist University, says these issues reflect a “both-and” brand of LGBTQ+ representation that Disney has been pushing for years. The studio has tried to be “strategic in trying to reach out to the LGBT community without necessarily sacrificing the Southern Baptists at the same time,” he says.

“The strategy that they had been doing was trying to keep from offending any group, and it accidentally backfired on them,” he says.

Read More: I Know What It’s Like to Be a Florida Teen Who Can’t Say Gay. This is the One

Disney, as a company has come under fire from critics for how it treats queer staff and fans. Disney, which was one of the few studios that offered domestic benefits to partners in 1995 over concerns from the industry about HIV/AIDS costs, is now the most prominent. Los Angeles Times reported. The policy banning people from sharing sex with Disney park guests was in effect until 1985 when the court ruled that it had dropped this ban. The company had been defending its ban on same-sex dancing in court for the past four years.

Even though Disney said it would permit same-sex dance at its parks until 1989, the company continued quietly to enforce this policy. While queer parkgoers could dance together during faster songs at venues like Disneyland’s teen dance club Videopolis, which has since closed, they were still barred from participating in slower numbers. Following a second lawsuit, Disney removed those restrictions.

These struggles would last for many more years. When Gay Days, one of the Disney World’s most popular unofficial events, launched in 1991, the park hung signs outside the entrance warning heterosexual visitors that “members of the gay community have chosen to visit the Magic Kingdom today in their recognition of Gay and Lesbian Pride Month,” according to the New York Times. Eddie Shapiro, who co-founded an offshoot of the event at Disneyland in 1998, tells TIME that Disney employees used to hand out “plain white shirts” to straight customers who accidentally wore red, the color Gay Days participants use to identify one another.

“People who demanded refunds because it was Gay Days would get them,” he says. “Those were conversations that had to be had with Disney each step of the way to say, ‘Hey, by the way, that’s the definition of homophobia.’ Those kinds of things had to be pointed out and fought for.”

Shapiro says he is proud of the progress Disney has made in the past few decades—success he credits to the LGBTQ+ people working tirelessly to push the company forward. Gay Days has grown to become a $150 million industry. Its Orlando location alone attracts more than 100,000 visitors annually, and the schedule includes nearly a week of events. Contrary to this, only 3,000 people attended the 1991 event, with just a few protestors.

There is still much to do. Even today, Gay Days isn’t actually sponsored by Disney, although Shapiro says the company works with his team to coordinate the festivities.

“In supporting Gay Days, they’re able to be inclusive, but by not producing it themselves, they’re able to say to their right-wing base, ‘Hey, everybody’s welcome at Disneyland. We didn’t invite these people. They just came, but they’re certainly welcome to be here,’” Shapiro says. “They don’t have to take full responsibility for what goes on in the park, whereas if they were producing it, they would.”

If Disney wants to continue taking steps forward, many believe that one way to do so is to help prevent Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill from becoming law. Shevin Jones, the state’s first out LGBTQ+ state senator, testified against the legislation in an emotional March 7 speech to colleagues. What worries him most about the bill is that Jones says it doesn’t define the limits of what is “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate” for Florida students, meaning it could be used to ban discussions of LGBTQ+ identity in any K-12 classroom.

Jones is concerned that signing the language into law could prevent LGBTQ+ students and their families from confiding to teachers when they are in need of support. Jones said he was a closeted and terrified child when he witnessed children crying during the hearings.

“I already didn’t have anyone who I could speak with,” he says. “I felt as if I were locked in my own little closet, and I never shared my life or who I was with anyone. You don’t know who is a safe space.”

Read More: Florida Just Passed The “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. Here’s What It Means for Kids

Having grown up going to Disney World every opportunity he got, Jones says he is encouraged by the company’s moves in recent days. In an address to staff during Disney’s annual shareholder meeting on Friday, Chapek confirmed that he had telephoned DeSantis to “express our disappointment and concern” regarding the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. He also claimed that he had scheduled a meeting with the Florida governor “to discuss ways to address” Disney’s misgivings over the legislation.

Jones said that this controversy was a stark reminder to Disney executives and corporate leaders about the futility of allyship if they support LGBTQ+ politicians. “It doesn’t work like that,” he says. “You have to pick one. There’s no such thing as ‘I support you, but.’ It’s ‘I support you, period.’”

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