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Disney’s “Don’t Say Gay” stance wasn’t the first time it betrayed its LGBTQ fans

Disney Gays have learned to love Disney, even if Disney hasn’t always loved them back.

People in rainbow Mickey Mouse-themed shirts in a parade.
People (who are probably gay) representing the Walt Disney Company at the LA Pride Parade in 2019.
David McNew/AFP via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

It’s proof of Disney’s success that almost everyone has a favorite Disney movie: The Little Mermaid, Mulan, Frozen, Tangled, WALL-E, the list goes on. Over the last few decades, no company has done a better job at capturing fans across seemingly every kind of demographic — all races, all religions, young and old, straight and gay — all while slyly becoming the most powerful entertainment entity on the planet. Disney’s uncanny ability to minimize controversy (even when it comes to navigating human rights violations in China) and maximize sunny feelings is part of what makes its current controversy so uncharacteristic.

Over the past week, the entertainment juggernaut flipped and flopped in an attempt to reassure its employees and its massive fanbase about its position on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The bill, passed in the Senate but yet to be signed into law, seeks to prohibit teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with young students.

At first, Disney said nothing and was criticized for its lack of action, as well as for previously donating money to Republican politicians who have directly sponsored the bill. In response to the backlash over Disney’s inaction, CEO Bob Chapek said that the company unequivocally stood with its LGBTQ employees, expressing that support through “the inspiring content” that the company produces. After an open letter from LGBTQ Pixar staff and their allies alleged that Disney had actively scrubbed “overtly gay affection” and queer representation from their movies, Chapek emailed employees that the company would halt all political donations in Florida on Friday, and donate to groups fighting similar legislation in other states.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the bill into law at any moment. It would go into effect July 1.

“I felt like I was just robbed,” Francis Dominic Garcia, a social media content creator who promotes Disney, told me. “I’ve given them so much blood, sweat, tears, and money. I also do influencer work for them. And now it almost looks hypocritical — all of a sudden, this company is like, ‘No, we’re not about that life.’ But they make literally so much money off of us!”

The current controversy has illuminated the disconnect between one of the world’s biggest companies and its very devoted fanbase, which includes large numbers of devoted LGBTQ fans. Disney has parlayed the feel-good, empowering message of its movies to position itself as a progressive, diverse, inclusive, and highly profitable company. Its inaction in Florida paints a different, perhaps more realistic picture that this company isn’t living up to the promises it’s trading on. And it’s far from the first time the company has fallen short on queer issues. For Disney’s LGBTQ fans and employees, it’s a betrayal that can’t even come as a surprise.

How Disney Gays feel about the company and its “Don’t Say Gay” stance

When the LGBTQ Disney fans I spoke to explained why they love Disney, the name Howard Ashman came up over and over. Ashman was one of the most talented lyricists of all time. He was also gay and died of AIDS in 1991. He’s credited with playing a large part in creating some of Disney’s best movies. He also remains an example of how Disney both relies on and minimizes its LGBTQ employees and fans.

Ashman wrote iconic lyrics for 1989’s The Little Mermaid and 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, and contributed to 1992’s Aladdin (lyricist Tim Rice finished the songwriting for Aladdin after Ashman died prior to Beauty and The Beast’s theatrical release). He won Oscars for Best Original Song for The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea” and Beauty and the Beast’s eponymous song, and was nominated against himself multiple times in those categories.

Ashman drew upon his personal experiences to give us a mermaid who wants to live in a different world, a beauty who finds love where she’s not supposed to, and the terror of a mob coming after a “beast” they’ve been taught to fear.

“Howard Ashman’s films, which are just dripping with queer longing and subtext, speak to my soul on an incredibly deep level,” Robert Berg, a writer based in the UK said. Berg self-identifies as a “Disney Gay,” having worked at the Disney Store in the Mall of America. “There’s always been such a strong queer sensibility to Disney’s work, which is of course because of how many queer people have always been creating that work.”

As rich and nourishing as these stories are, the queer sensibility that resonates with queer Disney fans only operates in allegory. Despite the existence of singing flatware and an undersea kingdom where the buff mermaid sea king’s favorite thing is musicals featuring his many daughters, there are no actual gay characters in Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid.

Little Mermaid had songs written by a gay person in the late ’80s. This is a man who died from AIDS in the middle of making Beauty and the Beast,” Adam Sass, an author living in Los Angeles, said, explaining the tension and frustration. Sass and other fans I spoke to pointed out Disney has never really discussed Ashman’s personal life.

“Disney fans are not stupid. There’s always a little bit of compartmentalizing we have to do. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance there,” Sass added. He explains that fans are aware they rarely show up in these films, and historically have felt lucky for what feel like small nods.

When it comes to supporting its LGBTQ fanbase and its employees, Disney conducts itself in a similarly understated fashion.

Since the inception of “Gay Days” (a day where LGBTQ people go en masse to a Disney theme park) in the 1990s, Disney has passively supported the unofficially organized celebrations. The company has also courted queer influencers and sells rainbow-inspired merchandise. Behind the scenes, Disney extended partner benefits to LGBTQ employees in 1995 and last year implemented a new, more gender-inclusive dress code at Disneyland.

It’s only recently that Disney has begun to create out LGBTQ characters, like the lesbian cyclops cop in 2020’s Onward. Audiences who watched the movie found out that the one-eyed law enforcement officer was queer because she mentions that she has an (unseen) girlfriend. Some critics said that character was more of a hollow pander than a genuine effort at creating its “first animated LGBTQ character.”

Berg explained that these small actions have allowed queer fans to forget about how Disneyland once had a policy that prohibited same-sex dancing, ultimately struck down by the Orange County Superior Court in 1984, or that a gay executive filed a sexual orientation discrimination suit against the company in 2021.

Disney’s stance on “Don’t Say Gay” and its alignment with Florida’s anti-gay lawmakers was a reminder that the company isn’t as progressive as it says it is.

“To now have it revealed that behind those surface gestures, they’ve actually been contributing the money they made off of these queer fans to [these] politicians — that’s a huge, deep betrayal,” Berg said.

From the way fans describe their relationship to the company, being an obsessed LGBTQ Disney fan seems a lot like having a long-term relationship with someone who’s deeply in the closet. It’s magical when you’re together, but everything feels like a secret. There’s affection there, but it comes in crumbs. They can’t wait to hang out again, but they don’t want to be seen with you. You tell your friends about how this person makes you feel, but they don’t quite believe you. And no one understands why you won’t just move on.

How do fans protest a company as big as Disney

In the days following Chapek’s statement and the backlash, Disney ultimately announced that it would halt and reassess all of its political donations in Florida. At the same time, there’s a call for boycotting Disney — an act of ethical consumption that might be easier said than done.

“Listen, if you were emotionally moved in any way by WandaVision, you’re in the same pot with the rest of us Disney Gays,” Sass said, summarizing how hard it is for anyone upset about the “Don’t Say Gay” bill to avoid Disney’s properties.

Fans at an expo walk past a huge display of Avengers superhero portraits.
“All your superheroes belong to us” — Disney, probably!
Angela Papuga/Getty Images

While boycotts focus on park visits, cruises, or canceling a Disney+ subscription, the company’s reach is much wider than that. Disney owns Marvel, Star Wars, Fox, ESPN, ABC, Hulu, the Muppets, and other cultural touchstones.

It’s unlikely that the company would feel the pinch of someone canceling their streaming service or not visiting Disney World, when it counts dollars by the billion. The same goes for the Human Rights Campaign’s very public rejection of Disney’s $5 million donation, which has been largely seen as an apology donation or publicity grab — that kind of money is loose change for a company like Disney.

Perhaps the realization here is that Disney’s greatest trick was making its fans believe — through its products or its gestures — that it wasn’t like other corporations. There hasn’t been nearly as much conversation about how “Don’t Say Gay” would affect Universal Studios and its Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which also operate in Orlando.

Still, Disney won’t just stop being a beacon of creativity for LGBTQ creators and fans. The magic and nourishment its movies create are very real too. The hope for some like Garcia, the social media content creator, is that this moment and backlash push the company forward.

“I would like to see Disney be overtly gay and be overtly vocal about their support for its LGBTQ fans and employees,” said Garcia, explaining that anything but serious action just seems like a PR move. “I really want Chapek to put his money where his mouth is.”

Garcia, who says he is “hella gay” and has over 95,000 followers on Instagram, promotes Disney’s theme parks on social media. He has also posted extensively about his displeasure with Disney’s “Don’t Say Gay” stance. But, at the same time, because of his financial relationship to Disney, it isn’t simple for him to boycott.

Garcia wants to wage his fight from within, stating that there are many LGBTQ people and allies within Disney that are still fighting to push the company forward. He wants to support those people but also make sure people know his displeasure with Disney and Chapek’s actions.

“Literally every attraction, movie, short, anything Disney, has been done with someone from the LGBT community,” Garcia said. “I know a lot of [people] are aggravated and angry about this. I just want people to know that this is not okay. And even though Disney’s something I love, I’m going to call it out.”