Without a doubt, Disney is the quintessential, “All American” company. When the public thinks of Disney they think of the typical nuclear American family with two parents and two children. This, as we know, is not the case in 2013 America. Disney has all types of fans and they even go out of their way to embrace, “nontraditional” families. More so than that, some would make the argument that Disney goes out of its way to embrace the American LGBT community. There is no mistaking that there is a serious conversation going on today in America between people who are strongly for and against civil rights and privileges for the LGBT community. So with so much noise, and arguing going on today in America about the LGBT community, how is it Disney gets by as being the “All American” company for the “All American” family; while at the same time being one of the most loved and cherished companies by the LGBT community? To find this answer to this perplexing riddle, we must ask a few questions:
Is Disney pro LGBT?
Well that depends on what you mean by “pro”. Does Disney hate gay people but love their money? Some people may find this a bit too cynical and others might find it to be an accurate statement of a large, global, entertainment company in today’s world. One of the most difficult things to asses with Disney and most other major companies is if they cater to the LGBT community out of respect and love, or if they do it just to tap into another stream of revenue. The truth probably lies somewhere in between those two. Certain companies go out of their way to include the LGBT community in their marketing strategies, etc so they can profit from that segment. This approach is as much forward thinking as it is good business. Again, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Disney once had a policy against same sex dancing in the theme parks, but when asked by gay rights groups to change it, then Disney CEO Michael Eisner relented and allowed same sex dancing on property. Today, that might seem silly, but back in 1985 it was big deal. Eisner said in his 1998 autobiography Work in Progress, “I prevailed to Dick Nunis, the head of our parks, to allow same sex dancing. The first night, a handful of same sex danced cheek to cheek. No one made a fuss.” Combine this decision with a few other decisions that have been made by Disney over the last 25 or so years, and one might say that Disney has gone out of its way to include rights and privileges that are afforded to heterosexuals, to the LGBT community.
Some people may even say that Disney goes too far. Many people know about the annual June migration of the LGBT community to Disney World known as, “Gay Days”. This event sparks a lot of outrage, opinions, and more from people on both sides of the fence. Many misinformed people think that this is an event that is officially sponsored by Disney, but during a 60 minute interview, Eisner himself said, “The homosexual organizations arrange that day themselves. We do not put up signs that say, ‘No Blacks Allowed,’ ‘No Jews Allowed,’ ‘No Homosexuals Allowed.’ As long as they are discreet and handle themselves properly, are dressed properly, they’re welcome in our doors, and I think it would be a travesty in this country to exclude anybody.” This type of forward looking statement is what endears the Disney company to the LGBT community and what leads many to believe that Disney treats the community in a manner that makes them think that Disney is not just concerned with making money off of the gay community. Some cynics, however, are still questioning Disney’s motives.
If they do hate gays why do so many of them work in their theme parks and at some of the highest levels in the company?
There is no mistaking when you walk into a Walt Disney World theme park that a large portion of the employees there are LGBT. While, of course, Disney does not compile or release those types of numbers, one only has to walk into one of the many shops, restaurants, or attractions to see that the LGBT community is well represented in the Disney “cast.” Why? Well that is really hard to answer. No one says, “Hey, I’m gay! I guess I should go work for Disney World!” Now the forward looking company policies that in the previous paragraph couldn’t hurt and are a welcome thing for the community. This combined with some employee perks that LGBT members can benefit from, such as shared health care, help make Disney World a more comfortable place for community members to work in. Maybe, just maybe, a cynic might tell you that the community works there because of all the dancing, theater, glitter, pixie dust, etc. And while that may be just a little bit offensive, we all know its partially true.
The representation of the LGBT community even reaches to some of the highest levels of the Disney ranks. New Walt Disney World President, George A. Kalogridis, is a member of the LGBT community and this is well known to the public and the Disney World cast. When Disney song man, Howard Ashman, who died of AIDS complications in 1991, made the decision to share with Disney Studio executives that he was dying of AIDS he was somewhat surprised by their response. Far from the fear and anger he thought they would have, Disney Studio chief Jeffery Katzenberg said, “What do you need?”, and “How can we help?” Disney then proceeded to move operations, at huge expense, for Beauty and the Beast to a hotel in Manhattan so Ashman could work on the project without having to fly to Los Angeles. After his death in 1991, Disney donated money to AIDS foundations in Ashman’s name and even asked Ashman’s partner Bill Lauch, to accept the Academy Award for Best Song, Beauty and the Beast¸ in 1992.
Make no mistake about it, the LGBT community is a huge part of the Disney staff and there seems to be a great working relationship and lots of understanding between the two groups. If Disney does hate the gay community they have a very funny way of showing it.
How can Disney be pro gay and family friendly at the same time?
It is a wonder that Disney can host some groups that are seen as intolerant of gays in the same parks on the same days where gay people walk the same streets and eat in the same places. This kind of harmony can only exists inside the walls of Walt Disney World. I’m not sure if some of these Christian groups are aware of the fact that they are surrounded by gay people, or if they are unaware, maybe they are so enthralled with being in the magical world of Disney, they just don’t care about who is around them at that moment.
Maybe there is no easy answer to this question. Maybe Disney finds itself in the same position that a lot of American corporations, families, and churches find themselves in today. Not entirely comfortable with gay marriage and civil rights, but at the same time, not wanting to appear bigoted and stubborn on the issue of gay rights. Disney will always be gay friendly and they will always be family friendly, and they have managed to do both at the same time with what seems to be relative ease. Maybe Disney is a picture of America today. Maybe Disney is so far ahead of the times, they are a picture of what America will be in 10 or so years; an America where the LGBT community blends in with the rest of America as seamlessly as other minority groups do today; an America where people aren’t seen as gay, straight, or whatever; instead they are just seen as regular Americans enjoying a stroll down Main Street USA. Is this Disney’s intention, probably not.
This kind of forward thinking culture did not come easily with Disney. Like most companies in the 60’s and 70’s, LGBT rights and company privileges were not in the forefront of the minds of Disney executives. From all indications, we can turn to two different defining moments in Disney history that helped move the company on a more progressive path. The first is when new Disney CEO came on board in 1985. He seemed to walk into the company with no reservations or qualms with the LGBT community. In fact, he was quite open minded. When faced with open heart surgery and having to pick a possible successor he said of then Fox studio chief, and rumored gay executive Barry Diller, “ I think my first choice now will be Diller. He is a creative executive, and the fact that he is a homosexual should have no weight. I mention this because someone will surely say something about his lifestyle. Or at least think it. You crossed a much larger hurdle in 1984 naming a Jew“. This is the kind of attitude that Eisner came brought into the Disney Corporate culture.
The other watershed moment in Disney was in 1995 when Disney purchased Capital Cities ABC. Capital Cities at the time had a very inclusive and progressive gay rights policy. Part of the terms was that Disney would adopt the policies from ABC.
So there are a few different contributing factors that lead to the environment we are in today; an environment where Disney host, in its theme parks, a lot of members of LGBT community and, at the same time, the all American wholesome family. Or maybe, Disney is a microcosm of what is happening in America; a place where the LGBT community and the rest of America can play, dream, and live together without hate or prejudice. I think a lot of people in America today who stand in the way of LGBT right can learn a lesson from their favorite company, Disney.
FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER @wakefieldreport