Rainbow warriors

Once known for its ‘traditional’ values, Disney’s increasingly overt support for LGBTQ+ rights is riling US conservatives

By Steve Rose






‘CHRIST. THEY’RE GOING AFTER MICKEY MOUSE,” said President Joe Biden in April, bemoaning the Republican party’s targeting of another American institution. A few days earlier, Florida governor Ron DeSantis had stripped Disney World of its self-governing status. Since its inception in 1967, Disney’s Florida estate has effectively operated under its own jurisdiction. Disney funds and manages public services in the district in return for autonomy over governance and development. Disney World has become the cornerstone of Florida’s tourist economy, employing 75,000 people. In Disney World’s 50th year, the company is in danger of being cast out of its own magic kingdom. DeSantis’s move was explicitly in retaliation to Disney’s opposition to HB 1557, better known as the “Don’t say gay” law. This vaguely worded bill prohibits discussion of, or instruction on, issues of sexual orientation or gender identity in Florida schools. After the weaponisation of “critical race theory” (an academic field that considers systemic discrimination in public life), Republicans have identified LGBTQ+ rights as another potential wedge issue, even linking them with paedophilia and grooming. DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, tweeted that the bill could be “more accurately described as an anti-grooming bill”. Disney responded with a statement calling for HB 1557 to be struck down in the courts. To Republicans, Disney had crossed a line by interfering in politics. Viewed from the opposite side, DeSantis is using the power of the state to punish a private corporation for its political views – a significant escalation in the culture wars, and a worrying look for a democracy. How did it come to this? Conservatives have been going after Mickey Mouse for a long time. Disney is the US’s pre-eminent cultural superpower, with particular influence over children. In recent years it has been targeted for its “woke” values in terms of inclusion and diversity in matters of race, gender and sexuality, in its content and employment practices. But Disney’s relationship with the LGBTQ+ community goes far deeper. Walt Disney was never a card-carrying homophobe but was a steadfast conservative, and long after his death in 1966, Disney’s output continued to promote “traditional” and “family” values. That didn’t discount “coding” Disney characters (usually villains) as queer, in that they exhibited stereotypically gay attributes such as effeminate behaviour or indifference to the opposite sex: Jafar in Aladdin, for example, or Scar in The Lion King, or even Shere Khan in The Jungle Book. And Disney stories have lent themselves to queer readings regardless of their makers’ intentions. Many classic Disney stories concern characters moving between two worlds, feeling like outsiders in their communities, transforming and becoming their true selves. These themes could equally be interpreted as explorations of sexuality or gender identity. Cinderella goes from dowdy domestic to sparkling princess; Mulan masquerades as male to join the Chinese army, during which time she forms an ambiguous bond with the handsome captain. Elsa in Frozen is urged by her parents to suppress her true nature but after she is figuratively “outed” (as a sorceress), she flees her heteronormative destiny, preferring to belt out Let It Go in icy isolation: “Don’t let them in, don’t let them see / Be the good girl you always have to be / Conceal don’t feel, don’t let them know …” Disney films have helped queer people discover their sexuality, says George Youngdahl, a lifelong fan. “Tarzan, Aladdin, Peter Pan, Hercules – all of those were people who I wanted to emulate and I was attracted to. I wasn’t looking at the princesses, or I was because I wanted to be them.” After his first visit to California’s Disneyland, Youngdahl applied for a job at Florida’s Disney World when he was 25. He moved to Florida and worked for Disney for 15 years. Although Disney would never admit it, queer themes have sometimes been more deliberate. One of the unsung LGBTQ+ heroes of Disney lore, for example, is Howard Ashman, the openly gay lyricist and producer, who died of an Aids-related illness in 1991. With a background in musical theatre, Ashman was instrumental in bringing The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin to the screen. In The Little Mermaid, for example, Ariel is told by her domineering father that the human world is evil and forbidden, but to Ariel, it looks like more fun. “Up where they stay all day in the sun / Wanderin’ free, wish I could be / Part of that world,” she sings. “Kids, even in the most accepting of environments, grow up knowing that they’re different and unsure of how that’s going to play out in the world,” says Eddie Shapiro, coauthor of Queens in the Kingdom, an LGBTQ+ guide to Disney’s theme parks. “So there’s a sense of otherness. And in the Disney universe, the characters who triumph are frequently also other. And they come out on top, or they come out loved, supported, safe. And that’s a big comfort.” Disney initially resisted attempts by LGBTQ+ visitors to express their fandom at its theme parks. In the 1980s, the company was twice sued for prohibiting men dancing together at Disney World, for example. But in June 1991, a man named Doug Swallow organised a mass trip to Disney World, attended by 3,000 LGBTQ+ people, wearing red shirts to identify themselves. This was the park’s first Gay Day, and it has continued ever since. The event brings more than 150,000 LGBTQ+ people to Orlando every June. In the early years, Disney would warn “straight” visitors when it was Gay Day and hand out white T-shirts to nonparticipants who had inadvertently turned up wearing red. While Disney does not officially recognise Gay Day, it soon came to appreciate the commercial clout of the LGBTQ+ community. There is no end of rainbow-coloured Disney merchandise on sale, and Disney accommodates and facilitates the Gay Day schedule of events. After his first Florida Gay Day in 1998, Shapiro founded a sister Gay Day Anaheim at the Los Angeles Disneyland. “Gay Day was never formed with a political agenda,” says Shapiro. The idea was always integration rather than segregation. “You’re mixing with traditional families, and hopefully changing some hearts and minds. It was not at all lost on us that we were showing up at America’s number one family destination with our families of choice, and announcing by being there, that [we] were worthy, and should absolutely be there, and stand up and be counted. And we’re still doing that.” DISNEY HAS LEARNED TO EMBRACE LGBTQ+ friendliness on screen and off in recent decades. In 1995 it became one of the first companies to offer health benefits to same-sex partners of employees (prompting a considerable conservative backlash). Meanwhile, it has taken tentative steps towards representation on screen. Even if its “openly gay character” proclamations rarely live up to the billing, there have been fleeting references to same-sex relationships in movies including Toy Story 4 and Onward ; the live-action Beauty and the Beast remake (the character LeFou, played by Josh Gad, is telegraphed as gay and dances with another man, but not even Gad was particularly proud of that one; “I don’t think we did justice to what a real gay character in a Disney film should be,” he said). Jack Whitehall went a step further, playing a gay man in Disney’s Jungle Cruise last year. And Pixar was reportedly casting for a voice actor to play a “14-year-old transgender girl” in an upcoming project. But Disney has always balanced its support for the LGBTQ+ community with its appeal to more conservative-leaning consumers, which could be seen as playing both sides. The corporation was recently revealed to have donated almost $1m to the Republican party of Florida in 2020, and $50,000 directly to DeSantis – none of which appears to have deterred him from targeting Disney. Many insiders blame Disney’s mishandling of the Florida issue on its new chief executive, Bob Chapek. His predecessor, Bob Iger, is regarded as a hero for presiding over Disney’s acquisitions of Lucasfilm, Marvel and Pixar, and launching Disney+, while vocally supporting progressive causes. Chapek is reportedly more conservative-leaning and less experienced at this kind of political diplomacy. When DeSantis first announced the “Don’t say gay” bill in March, Chapek’s response was to stay silent. He emailed Disney staff expressing his support for the LGBTQ+ community but claiming “corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds”. This enraged Disney’s LGBTQ+ staff and their allies. Pixar employees released a statement alleging that Disney executives had demanded cuts from “nearly every moment of overtly gay affection” in its movies. In response, Chapek gave a public apology: “You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry.” That was not enough to prevent a series of staff walkouts leading up to the signing of the bill on 22 March. Hence Disney’s more confrontational statement about seeking to have the law repealed and struck down. If it happens, the removal of Disney World’s special status is likely to hurt local citizens more than Disney itself. The burden of running the district’s public services would fall to taxpayers, and could translate into additional bills for locals. But potentially more harmful than the attacks on Disney is the “Don’t say gay” bill itself. As with previous occasions when conservatives have “gone after Mickey Mouse”, this latest attack is likely to blow over. Maybe Disney doesn’t have to pick a side. The Republicans’ tactics feel like an attempt to turn back the clock. But Disney is compelled to look in the opposite direction, led by a market that is increasingly global, young and diverse. While Disney’s centralism can be interpreted cynically as playing both sides or, more generously, catering to all tastes, the important thing is that “centre” has moved a considerable way during the company’s lifetime – and Disney has moved with it •