There is a person who is known as the Disney Gay—as the name suggests, an identity offshoot of the more all-encompassing Disney Adult. Within the LGBTQ+ community, it can be common, if cruel, to mock the Disney Gay for what is perceived as a basic, childish, and normie obsession—at least within a group that is stereotypically supposed to be the arbiter of taste, coolness, and progressive art.
Heavens, I would never call myself a Disney Gay.
I mean, sure, I was raised on the renaissance of Disney animated musicals, and still count the days to the release of new films as if they’re my version of a Marvel movie. Disney World, for all the ways the crowds, lines, and price gouging make it a special hell, is legitimately a fun place to visit. It wouldn’t be unheard of for a Disney song to find its way onto an everyday music playlist of mine, and I can’t say that I’ve not taken several Disney-themed Peloton classes.
Oh no. Not this. Am I… a Disney G… No, I can’t finish that sentence. I won’t. But while I wait for my therapist to respond to a request for an emergency session, this is indeed a heartbreaking and angering time to be a Disney fan, particularly if you identify as LGBTQ+—Disney Gay or otherwise—or, frankly, are a person with any decent sense of morality and awareness for how a corporation’s diabolically crass interests will trump humanity every damn time.
What are these fans supposed to make of the events of the last week, in which Florida lawmakers passed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, legislation that is being called “controversial” (a better description might be “hateful” or “dangerous”) in that it will censor teachers and students from discussing or acknowledging LGBTQ+ issues or people.
It quickly came out that Disney had donated to every single politician who supported the bill, which was a shock to people who might have assumed the bigoted nature of the legislation, let alone its unjustifiable pretense, would run contra to the values of a company associated with stories about happily-ever-afters, embracing what makes you special, and the importance of acceptance within families.
How does one square what a company like Disney’s output has meant to them and their lives with its support of values that are completely at odds with what you believe in? It’s not a new conversation. (What’s up, J.K. Rowling?) But it’s still difficult each time we’re forced to confront it.
There was immediate outrage, not only from Disney consumers but from employees within the company. It prompted Disney CEO Bob Chapek to pledge his support for the LGBTQ+ community, but also maintain that the company was still going to continue to donate money to those politicians. The company also opted not to publicly condemn the measure because, as Chapek wrote in a memo to employees, corporate statements “do very little to change outcomes or minds” and instead are “often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame.”
Beyond having all the apparent conviction and courage of Piglet in a Winnie the Pooh movie, Chapek’s “both sides” manifesto went on to say that the biggest impact the company could have “in creating a more inclusive world” is “through the inspiring content we produce.”
Ha! Sir! My man! Are you aware where you work? Is it Disney? Talking about inclusivity through “the inspiring content we produce?” Well, let’s have a hearty laugh out loud at that.
Would that be the content that, to this day, has never featured a LGBTQ+ character in a major theatrical film role? That patronized the gay community with a tease about an “exclusively gay moment” in Beauty and the Beast (one man essentially maintains eye contact with another man for several seconds), or touted a character in Onward who had about three lines as LGBTQ+ progress?
The company’s Disney+ TV series have been remarkably more inclusive on that front, and that really is wonderful. But let’s also think about how, in the wake of Chapek’s foot-in-mouth tour, “How to Protect Our Corporate Conservatives Interestspalooza,” a letter signed from Pixar’s LGBTQ+ employees alleged that the company’s executives have demanded cuts from “nearly every moment of overtly gay affection… regardless of when there is protest from both the creative teams and executive leadership at Pixar.”
“We at Pixar have personally witnessed beautiful stories, full of diverse characters, come back from Disney corporate reviews shaved down to crumbs of what they once were,” the letter says, according to Variety. “Even if creating LGBTQIA+ content was the answer to fixing the discriminatory legislation in the world, we are being barred from creating it.”
Inspiring, inclusive stuff! And it is having an impact—the same impact that this bill is intended to have: to continue to other and ostracize those who identify as LGBTQ+ and their families, and continue the tradition of shame, self-harm, and societal hatred that comes because we continue to invalidate these people’s right to exist.
It’s no secret that Disney has a legion of passionate gay fans, just as it also has a reputation for being a large and welcome employer of members of the LGBTQ+ community. They sell pride merchandise and host Gay Days and pride events (though there’s a bit of ugliness associated with that, even.) But what does any of that mean when, as the opportunity arises to protect these people—fans and employees alike—financials rank above safety? The bottom line over the right thing?
It seems silly to single out one particular demographic’s affinity for Disney, given the fierce nostalgic fondness most adults have for wisecracking candlesticks, singing crustaceans, and lion cubs growing up to be mighty kings.
But for a community whose childhoods are so often defined by being “a funny girl… different from the rest of us” and wondering “when will my reflection show who I am inside?”, the messaging, the whimsical escape, and, for the love of Minnie, the camp of it all made the House of Mouse a safe space.
For all the erstwhile gayness of these animated musicals, they’re equally problematic. Gay panic, stereotypes, closeting, and equating homosexuality with perversion pervades these films just as much as any celebration of otherness or flamboyance. Mulan may be rejecting societal expectations and exercising her freedom to marry whomever she loves, but try to watch the effeminate young Pinocchio’s fretting over not knowing how to act like “a real boy” through the prism of queer anxiety.
Believing fiercely in the meaningfulness of the positive messaging also means believing in progress and evolution—change that still hasn’t come. In fact, the opposite has happened. With this Florida bill and Disney’s involvement, we’re rolling back the clock.
When you grow up gay, or wondering if you might be gay, you search for yourself in any way you can in pop culture staples that become integral parts of your childhood. It’s not just gay people who do this. We all do; it’s just harder for some of us to see ourselves.
We see ourselves in the outcasts; those who are different. Dumbo, with his big ears, or Pinocchio, who doesn’t share the same human makeup as the rest of the kids, physically manifest the otherness we feel inside. We empathize with Peter Pan’s desire to stay in Neverland and Mowgli’s hesitance to leave the jungle. It’s where they feel safe and accepted. Who knows how their uniqueness would be treated in the real world?
And wouldn’t it be nice to see ourselves without undercurrents of shame?
As part of the damage control plan this week, Chapek announced a $5 million donation to the Human Rights Campaign—which they promptly rejected.
“Businesses have had and continue to have a major impact in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, from marriage equality to the defeat of House Bill 2 in North Carolina and beyond,” HRC president Joni Madison said. “While Disney took a regrettable stance by choosing to stay silent amid political attacks against LGBTQ+ families in Florida—including hardworking families employed by Disney—today they took a step in the right direction. But it was merely the first step.”
I don’t presume to know or dictate how a Disney Gay, or anyone, should feel about their passion for Disney in the wake of all this. But I do know one thing: It’s been so long already. We’re tired of all the back-and-forth.