Like many children, Sean Griffin grew up on Disney movies. One of his earliest memories is going to see The Jungle Book with his father as a kid, although his favorite was always Snow White and the 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. Before many LGBTQ+ youth even think about their sexual orientation or gender identity, he says that movies like Beauty and 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 and 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. If signed into law, the legislation would ban discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity in K-3 classrooms. After passing both houses of the state legislature, the bill is headed to the desk of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it.
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. The media watchdog group GLAAD announced on Thursday that it would begin grading film studios on political donations in its annual LGBTQ+ inclusion reports. 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. The company has sought to court queer dollars without alienating conservatives opposed to equality, but that strategy is simply no longer viable as LGBTQ+ people across the U.S. face an unprecedented assault 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” for The Lion King soundtrack, which sold 18 million copies worldwide. When Howard Ashman, the lyricist who worked on songs for hits like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, won a posthumous Academy Award for Beauty and the Beast in 1992 after dying from complications related to HIV/AIDS, his partner, Bill Lauch, accepted the honor on his behalf.
But despite having queer talent behind the scenes, the Mouse House has struggled with paying respect to those influences in 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 Onward, Zootopia, and 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 remake in 2017, the eventual scene took mere seconds of screen time. 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 after a spinoff centering on his character was scuttled by Disney+.
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 had previously claimed that Luke Skywalker is gay if the viewer wants him to be.) 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 later cut the scene to appease censors in Singapore, where same-sex intimacy is illegal.
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.
As a company, Disney has also come under fire for its treatment of queer employees and customers. In 1995, Disney became one of the last studios to offer domestic partner benefits over industry-wide concerns regarding the costs of HIV/AIDS treatment, as the Los Angeles Times reported. Attendees of Disney parks were banned from dancing with people of the same sex until 1985, when it dropped the policy following a court ruling. Prior to that decision, the company had defended its same-sex dancing ban in court for four years.
Even after Disney claimed that it would allow same-sex dancing at its parks, it continued to quietly enforce the policy until 1989. 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. Disney rescinded those rules after a second lawsuit.
These kinds of struggles would continue for years. When Gay Days, one of 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. Today, Gay Days is estimated to be a $100 million industry, with the Orlando event alone bringing in over 100,000 attendees annually to what is now a nearly weeklong schedule of activities. In contrast, the 1991 gathering drew just 3,000 people, along with a handful of protesters.
Still, much work remains to be done. 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 worries signing that language into law might keep LGBTQ+ students from confiding in teachers when they need support. When he saw children crying in the halls of the Florida Legislature during hearings on the bill, he says it brought him back to the closeted, terrified kid that he used to be.
“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.”
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 says the controversy is an important reminder for corporate leaders like Disney that attempts at allyship are empty gestures if they also back politicians who oppose LGBTQ+ equality. “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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