“Lightyear,” Pixar’s latest attempt to frack its “Toy Story” franchise for profit, is not a very good movie. But it is a useful barometer of the current conservative backlash against LGBTQ rights. If people are truly angered by the lesbian relationship depicted in “Lightyear,” then maybe what seemed like a huge leap into a more tolerant future was just a moment of calm in an ongoing, and intensifying, culture war.
At issue is an early sequence in the film when space ranger Buzz Lightyear (now voiced by Chris Evans) attempts to break the light speed barrier. Each one of his test flights lasts only a few minutes for him, but years for everyone else, particularly his best friend, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba).
Every time Buzz returns, Alisha has reached a new milestone: she’s engaged to a woman named Keiko; she’s pregnant; her son is a little boy, then a graduate in a cap and gown; she and her wife celebrate their 40th anniversary, marking the occasion with a chaste kiss so fleeting it’s barely visible. Buzz and the audience only ever glimpse the couple through the door of their podlike apartment, giving the impression that the movie’s lesbian relationship takes place entirely inside — you guessed it — a closet.
Ahead of the release of “Lightyear,” conservative commentator Ben Shapiro warned that “Disney works to push a ‘not-at-all-secret gay agenda’ and seeks to add ‘queerness’ to its programming. … Parents should keep that in mind before deciding whether to take their kids to see ‘Lightyear.’”
While Shapiro might be cynical — his company, the Daily Wire, is investing $100 million in family content in a challenge to Disney — he is technically correct. Alisha and Keiko’s conventional domesticity is exactly the image that last decade’s gay rights advocates used to fight for marriage equality, arguing that LGBTQ people wanted to join historically straight institutions, not destroy them. That effort culminated in the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision that the 14th Amendment protected the rights of same-sex couples to marry and have their marriages recognized by other states.
In the seven years since, support for marriage equality has continued to grow, reaching 71 percent in a Gallup poll released in June. Yet in recent months, broader anti-LGBTQ animus has reemerged on the national scene with real force and venom.
On June 11, 31 members of a white nationalist group were arrested and charged with conspiracy to riot at an LGBTQ pride event in Idaho. A week later, at Texas Republicans’ party convention, delegates affirmed the sentiment that “Homosexuality is an abnormal lifestyle choice” and endorsed legal and professional protections for therapists who try to rid their clients of “unwanted same-sex attraction.”
Then there’s the rise of the slur “groomer,” which has been deployed by far-right activists eager to tar LGBTQ people as child sexual abusers (and to wink at the QAnon conspiracy theory). It’s a nasty retread both of Anita Bryant’s 1970s Save Our Children campaign against a Miami anti-discrimination ordinance, and of the charge that gay people “recruit” converts, which persisted — and was rightly parodied — through the late 1990s.
The hysteria about drag queens — who may be neither gay nor transgender, and whose performances often tend toward parody rather than titillation — has been particularly intense. A Vermont parent was recently arrested after allegedly threatening to “show up and kill somebody” at his child’s school in the unlikely event that the kid met a drag performer or transgender person there. Members of the far-right Proud Boys broke up an event where a drag queen was reading stories to children at a California library.
What’s striking about these instances is how public and organized the disgust for LGBTQ people and drag performers has become. To the extent that homophobia had acquired a social stigma, that taboo seems to have fractured in recent years, if not shattered entirely. (Transphobia never really went underground.)
In the meantime, “Lightyear” is a paradox. Its representation of lesbians suggests that not much has changed since 1997, when Ellen DeGeneres and the character she played on TV both came out, yet it’s taken 25 years for even something that mild to make it into a kids’ movie. By the time such a first happens, it inevitably feels milquetoast to people who have waited decades to see their families represented — but still controversial to those who wish gay people would remain invisible, if they must exist at all.
It once seemed possible that the LGBTQ movement was powerful enough to reach infinity, and beyond. The response to “Lightyear,” and the ugly uprising it’s a part of, are a sobering reminder of how much work remains to be done on the ground.