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Disney, “Don’t Say Gay,” and its LGBTQ representation issues

The Walt Disney Company has faced a lot of heat over the past few weeks. The reason? In Florida, the state legislature and governor are planning to pass what’s been nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It basically bans schools from discussing or teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity, under threat of the school district being sued.

It basically reverts things to being like when I was in school years ago. We never heard the words “gay,” “transgender,” or “LGBTQ” (or anything tied to such) mentioned, not even in health class; things like safe spaces, gay/straight alliances, etc. didn’t exist; and the sole mention of gays was about “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in high school social studies class. Only in Florida’s case, teachers would be under the threat of being sued for violating this ban. (I gather this also makes teaching about historical figures like Alan Turing, James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, and the like limited at best.)

Fortunately, since the time I was in school, things have changed for the better. (The internet’s helped a lot.) The idea of schools pretending LGBTQ people don’t exist is untenable, as the backlash against Florida’s bill shows.

Disney and the “Don’t Say Gay” bill

This backlash has extended to the Walt Disney Company itself. To summarize, Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek said the company would stay neutral on the bill, despite A) the large number of LGBTQ employees Disney has (including animators and at Walt Disney World) and B) Disney has provided donations to the conservatives who support the bill, albeit for business-oriented reasons. After a lot of public backlash, including from Disney’s own employees, Chapek spoke out and stated Disney was officially standing against the bill.

That said, Disney’s stance comes as too little, too late. The bill’s on its way to the governor’s desk, where it’s all but assured to be signed into law. While there’ll be inevitable lawsuits, the conservative makeup of the US Supreme Court (if it gets that far) isn’t in LGBTQ folks’ favor.

Disney and LGBTQ representation

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse statues
Photo by HenningE (Pixabay)

Chapek tried in his initial response to cite Disney as dedicated to diversity in its movies and TV shows:

Encanto, Black Panther, Pose, Reservation Dogs, Coco, Soul, Modern Family, Shang-Chi, Summer of Soul, Love, Victor. These and all of our diverse stories are our corporate statements—and they are more powerful than any tweet or lobbying effort. I firmly believe that our ability to tell such stories—and have them received with open eyes, ears, and hearts—would be diminished if our company were to become a political football in any debate.

A generic response listing a bunch of random Disney-owned properties, some without any LGBTQ representation, obviously didn’t help Disney’s case.

Granted, it also points out the lackluster and/or problematic ways Disney’s handled LGBTQ representation in its movies and TV shows. Recent years have seen some openly LGBTQ characters appear in Disney productions. However, they tend to fall under one of three categories:

  • As secondary or supporting characters, versus being the main stars.
  • In blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments that are either ambiguous or easily edited out for release in countries unfriendly toward LGBTQ folk. See: “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” “Onward,” “Avengers: Endgame,” and their live-action “Beauty and the Beast” film.
  • In TV shows that are in their final season or canceled soon after. See: “Gravity Falls” (the series finale), “The Owl House” (Disney canceled it soon after the second season finale), etc.

Not fitting into the above, but there’s also the case of “Love, Victor.” The “Love, Simon” TV spin-off was moved just before launch from Disney+ to Hulu for supposedly being “too mature,” despite Disney+ carrying “The Simpsons.”

On top of all this is Disney staff stating (in public letters to Disney) how the studio’s put up roadblocks in LGBTQ representation. A letter from Pixar workers specifically called this out:

Finally, we come to the push for Content as the answer. 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. Nearly every moment of overtly gay affection is cut at Disney’s behest, regardless of when there is protest from both the creative teams and executive leadership at Pixar. Even if creating LGBTQIA+ content was the answer to fixing the discriminatory legislation in the world, we are being barred from creating it. Beyond the “inspiring content” that we aren’t even allowed to create, we require action.

Conclusion

Pixar's Out
Pixar’s “Out.” (Disney / screenshot by author)

I didn’t want to be silent on this topic, thus this post. Unfortunately, fighting the large number of anti-LGBTQ bills in Florida and other states isn’t easy. Still, the obvious advice is to vote for politicians that vow to fight against such bills. (Ditto putting pressure on politicians.) There’s also donating to LGBTQ groups at the local, state level, and/or national levels.

Some have suggested a boycott of Disney, as another protest tactic. However, getting a massive number of people to boycott everything from a company the size of Disney is very much an uphill fight. Of course, the fact that a single company can have this much influence over political affairs is itself problematic. Never mind Disney’s already way too big as a company.

Image by janeb13 from Pixabay

(Updated 4/23/22)

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