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LBGTQ audiences and artists helped save Disney

Even as Disney enraged Florida Republicans, it also forgot the importance of LGBTQ Americans to its success

Disney cast member Nicholas Maldonado protests his company's stance on LGBTQ issues during an employee walkout on March 22 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)
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Recently, Disney CEO Bob Chapek hesitated to take a firm stance against the Florida bill, now law, that restricts LGBTQ discussions in schools. This put Chapek in conflict with his predecessor, Bob Iger, who openly criticized the Parental Rights in Education bill on Twitter. Facing public backlash, Chapek insisted upon the company’s “unwavering commitment to the LGBTQ community.” But he refrained from officially denouncing the legislation.

In response, many of the company’s employees staged a walkout and encouraged a Disney boycott on behalf of LGBTQ visibility and rights. In so doing, they underscored the important roles queer communities have played in the company’s successes, including its enduring influence on popular culture and continued vitality as a corporation.

It was only after the bill, which critics have dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill, passed March 8 that Chapek apologized: “You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down.” It was this action that precipitated Florida’s legislature stripping Walt Disney World of its special tax district this week.

The company’s reticence ignores a long history of LGBTQ employees and audiences supporting, even saving, the company from veritable demise.

For nearly two decades after the death of founder Walt Disney in 1966, the company struggled creatively. The quality of feature animation declined, and as teens replaced the family audience, live-action films failed to compete with the movie spectacles of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

Things were so dire that in 1984, financier and stakeholder Saul Steinberg attempted a hostile takeover of the company. The Disneyland theme park division had been keeping the company afloat, and its real estate assets and substantial film library made it a desirable acquisition for Steinberg. Disney successfully resisted the buyout frenzy but at a big cost.

To rebuild, a new management team came aboard, led by Paramount’s Michael Eisner and Warner Bros.’s Frank Wells.

The earliest signs of Disney’s recovery after the 1984 arrival of Eisner and Wells came from its adult-directed film label, Touchstone Pictures. And no star was a bigger gold mine for Touchstone during the 1980s than Bette Midler.

Appearing in the original 1964 Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Midler blossomed in the 1970s as a performer in gay bathhouses, especially Manhattan’s Continental Baths, before moving into film. Most notably, in 1979, she starred in the Janis Joplin-inspired drama “The Rose,” a role that earned her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. Throughout the 1980s, Touchstone Pictures ably exploited Midler’s brash, dynamic personality — and loyal LGBT fan base — across often campy live-action comedies, such as “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “Ruthless People” and “Outrageous Fortune.” The Disney-owned company also tapped Midler for dramas, such as “Beaches” and “Stella,” that did well at the box office thanks to the ongoing support of her LGBT fans.

In his efforts to revitalize Disney, Eisner, who had risen through the ranks as a television executive at ABC in the 1960s, also recommitted the company to network television. Walt Disney had pioneered the medium with his anthology series “Disneyland,” in which he presented Disney animations alongside behind-the-scenes previews of the theme park he was building in Anaheim. The show had gone off the air in the early 1980s as the company focused on building its newest Florida theme park, Epcot, with estimated costs nearing $1 billion.

But Eisner, the former television executive, was keenly aware that a hit sitcom could fuel the company’s coffers for years to come.

Disney’s first television triumph via its Touchstone Television division came in 1985 with “The Golden Girls.” The show, starring Betty White, Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty and Rue McClanahan, was a major hit. Indeed, “The Golden Girls” was the only new hit sitcom of the fall 1985 TV season, and it eventually defeated “Cheers” and “The Cosby Show” for the 1986 Emmy Award for outstanding comedy series.

LGBT viewership was key to the success of “The Golden Girls,” and gay fans proved especially loyal to the show over time. According to White, gay bars regularly turned off the music and turned on the television when a new episode began. Plus, significantly, over its seven-year run, “The Golden Girls” tackled several issues of importance to LGBTQ communities, including homophobia, same-sex marriage and the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Disney also relied on LGBTQ communities to revamp its animated films. Few creators were more central to Disney’s renewed vibrancy than Howard Ashman, an openly gay lyricist and director who the company recruited away from Broadway in 1986. Working with composer Alan Menken, Ashman provided the new musical template for Disney animation, crafting “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” all of which went on to become Broadway musicals. With “I want” songs that expressed the princess protagonists’ desires, and with all-out showstoppers, Ashman brought theatrical know-how — and a good dose of camp — to Disney’s animated films.

In “The Little Mermaid,” Ashman and the animators honored gay culture by taking inspiration from a range of gay icons, including Divine, Bea Arthur and Joan Collins, to bring to life the brassy and voluptuous sea witch, Ursula. Even today, Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” solo — an Ashman and Menken original — is a staple for drag performers around the world.

In 1990, soon after winning the Oscar for best original song for the iconic tune “Under the Sea” from “The Little Mermaid,” Ashman revealed to Disney that he was HIV positive. Jeffrey Katzenberg, then head of film and television at Disney, unequivocally supported Ashman, and the company paid to set up a production unit near Ashman’s home in Upstate New York, allowing him to work while receiving treatments in New York City, rather than requiring him to fly back and forth to Burbank. Ashman died in March 1991, eight months before his final film, “Beauty and the Beast,” was released. Disney dedicated the film to his memory: “To our friend, Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.”

But that was not the only posthumous honor Ashman received. His partner, Bill Lauch, accepted Ashman’s Oscar for best original song for “Beauty and the Beast” at the 1991 Academy Awards. On the stage, Lauch offered a powerful observation: “This is the first Academy Award given to someone we’ve lost to AIDS.” But he went on to note that, in working on the film, “Howard faced incredible personal challenges, but always gave his best, and what made that possible was an atmosphere of understanding, love and support.” In a period when people with HIV and AIDS were viciously judged and marginalized, Disney stepped up and supported their talent.

Ashman’s work continues to resonate today across Disney’s animated films, stage productions and theme parks. More recent Disney hits such as “Frozen,” “Moana” and “Encanto” demonstrate the enduring influence of the Ashman-Menken musical theater style of storytelling.

At Disney, Ashman wasn’t alone in his work to represent queer perspectives. Albert Tavares, a casting director who had collaborated off-Broadway with Ashman in “Little Shop of Horrors,” also went on to thrive at Disney. He oversaw casting on “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” before he died of AIDS-related complications in 1992. Animator Andreas Deja supervised animation for the characters of Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast,” Jafar in “Aladdin” and Scar in “The Lion King.” Scholars and fans alike have often noted the camp value in these characters. As Sean Griffin observes in his landmark study of Disney and the gay community, “Fantasy often walks hand in hand with camp, one of the cornerstones of gay culture.”

Indeed, queerness can be found throughout the Disney canon. While Disney promoted LeFou as its first “openly gay” character in the 2017 live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast,” audiences have read a range of Disney characters as queer for decades either in their resistance to heterosexual romance, their gender nonconforming performances or their campiness.

Backstage, on-screen and in the audience, members of the LGBTQ community have been essential to the Walt Disney Co.’s ongoing success. Indeed, the company as we know it today would be radically different without them.

Still, this year, Disney’s CEO avoided taking a firm stand in support of LGBTQ rights in an attempt to protect its business in Florida and its working relationship with the state government. In doing so, Disney turned its back on its LGBTQ employees and fans — and its own history. As Chapek plans Disney’s future, he would be wise to return to its past to understand the invaluable contributions LGBTQ communities have made to the company he leads.