Opinion

Damian Barr: I’m outing Disney. Where are all the positive gay characters?

"All we want is a bisexual candlestick, a lesbian teapot, a trans teacup. Come on Disney, be our guest"

Mirror, mirror on the wall who is the queerest of them all? The lisping Scar in The Lion King, the magenta-clad Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas or the divine Ursula in The Little Mermaid?

Disney has been churning out LGBTQI characters since a little boy skunk came nose to nose with Bambi, fluttered his eyelids and declared: “He can call me Flower if he wants to.” But we are almost always the villains and, while flamingly obvious, never actually out. It’s up to us to get the nod and the wink and feel that rush of recognition or, more likely, flush of shame. After all, better to be a baddie than to be invisible, to have some magic powers, even if you do use them to stop a mermaid singing

Until now. Well, sort of.

Russia is threatening to ban Disney’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson, because it features what director Bill Condon calls “an exclusively gay moment”. No spoilers but there’s no big gay wedding, not even a kiss.

It’s simply the crush that chubby LeFou has on suave villain Gaston. Nevertheless, Russian culture minister Vladimir Medinsky is assessing whether this violates their law prohibiting material “advocating for a denial of traditional family values”. Apparently, the official presidential calendar – featuring a divorced Putin topless and flexing his pecs while brandishing his big fishing rod – doesn’t count as gay propaganda.

Luke Evans (Gaston) and Josh Gad (Le Fou) in Disney's Beauty and the Beast adaptation,

Predictably, cinemas in the US have joined the censorial orgy including the Henagar Drive-In in Alabama whose owner said: “If I can’t sit through a movie with God or Jesus sitting by me then we have no business showing it.”

In almost a century Disney has portrayed nothing so extraordinary, so fantastical as a real fairy

And all because Disney has remade a villainous buffoon originally coded as gay into an obviously gay but still villainous buffoon who talks to a teapot. Nobody seems bothered by Belle falling in love with a monstrous talking buffalo. I want to support Beauty and the Beast simply on the basis that anything that’s bad for Russia is probably good for me. I want to applaud Disney for finally acknowledging that many of the little boys and girls sitting in the dark with magic flickering across their faces might have different dreams. Some progress is indeed better than none – Gaston is played by Luke Evans, a rare out leading man. But why, in the moment of Moonlight, should we be grateful for such cultural crumbs?

Disney is fine with flying elephants, magical mice, talking candlesticks, soothsaying mirrors, ticking crocodiles, chim-chim-inees, chatty dalmations, flying beds and a puppet who longs to be a real boy. But in almost a century of making films and shaping our very idea of childhood they’ve portrayed nothing so extraordinary, so fantastical as a real fairy. Gary Marsh, president and chief creative officer for Disney Channels Worldwide, has said it [sexuality] is “for the audience to interpret”.

Scar, the lion who would be king, is skinnier and weaker than his older brother Mufasa. His voice soars into soprano away from his brother’s honeyed bass. He rolls his eyes, checks his claws more often than a drag queen and purrs “oh I shall practise my curtsey” before slinking off. “There’s one in every family – two in mine, actually – and they always manage to ruin special occasions,” chirps Zazu the bird. How else to interpret this? Femme is bad and bad is femme. Ursula the Seawitch is, ironically, modelled on Divine, the plus-size dog-shit eating drag muse of John Waters. She’s a gravelly voiced predator, a butch lesbian with wandering tentacles. Butch is also bad but only if you’re supposed to be femme.

Is all this really important? Yes, when two in five young LGBT people have attempted or considered suicide because of bullying and the same number self-harm. It’s as vital as compulsory secular sex education in schools. The silver screen is a mirror upon which we all long to see ourselves. And not as jokes at best or baddies at worst.

“There is no doubt that kids seeing positively portrayed gay characters could have a significant effect that would contribute to such children’s learning about the world and who is in it,” says Edward Schiappa, a professor of compar-ative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sarah Kate Ellis, from GLAAD, said of Beauty and the Beast: “It’s a wonderful step forward. More and more, as studios want to appeal to youth audiences, they’re going to have to include LGBTQ storylines and characters.”

Imagine if Disney listened to the massive Twitter campaign #GiveElsaAGirlfriend for the Frozen sequel. You’re thinking Disney can’t get any gayer than Let It Go: “Conceal don’t feel, don’t let them know/ Well now they know!” But they can and they must.

Elsa’s message of self-actualisation speaks loudly to the LGBT community. Every June, since 1991, LGBT people have taken over Disney Orlando. Around 150,000 LGBT people, families, friends and supporters attend the six-day gathering. Attendees, all in red T-shirts, reclaim their childhoods and just generally love rollercoasters. Disney takes their dollars but won’t make it an official event. This summer, Magical Pride will happen at DisneyLand Paris as part of their 25th birthday – sanctioning this would be smart and significant.

A joyful lesbian princess would be totally on-brand for Disney whose central message has always been: be yourself, be brave, make your own happy ending.

If Belle can get her buffalo surely Elsa can get her girl. All we want is a bisexual candlestick, a lesbian teapot, a trans teacup. Come on Disney, be our guest.

Damian Barr is an author and Big Issue columnist.

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