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Disney has always had a complicated history with the LGTBQ+ community. It’s hit a boiling point

<i>Dan Steinberg/AP</i><br/>A crowd at a
Dan Steinberg/AP
A crowd at a "Don't Say Gay" bill rally at the Walt Disney Company in Burbank

By Frank Pallotta, CNN Business

Disney’s controversial response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill underscores the company’s complicated history with the LGBTQ+ community — a complex relationship in which Disney has played both champion and punching bag.

Earlier this month, Disney CEO Bob Chapek spoke out about — but did not condemn — Florida’s controversial Parental Rights in Education bill, which critics dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.” Although he expressed some opposition to the bill, Chapek said a corporate statement on the matter would be ineffective. Instead, Chapek said Disney’s “diverse stories” served as more appropriate antidotes to the legislation, which prohibits teachers from instructing children in third grade and below about LGBTQ+ issues.

Furious employees staged walkouts, and Chapek apologized. Disney subsequently halted donations for politicians who supported the bill.

It’s far from the first time Disney has run afoul of the LGBTQ+ community.

Nodding representation

Going back to the days of Walt Disney, the company has portrayed few prominent queer characters. Instead, LGBTQ+ audiences have adopted various evil queens and villains as their own, said Sean Griffin, author of “Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out.”

With the arrival of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1984, the studio adjusted its strategy to make gestures towards the LGBTQ+ consumer — but not in a way that might “aggravate the core straight family conservative value audience they also wanted to hang onto,” Griffin argued.

The result is “a strategy of trying to appeal to both sides and not alienate or insult either side,” Griffin said.

Critics say Disney hasn’t done enough in its representation. Disney has received a “failing” or “poor” grade from GLAAD each year since 2014 in the media monitoring organization’s report on LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Griffin, who is also a professor of film and media arts at Southern Methodist University, added that Disney has recently received a lot of publicity about various Disney films with openly gay characters. However, those moments tend to be of the “blink and you’ll miss it” variety.

The two most prominent examples are the character LeFou dancing with another man in the 2017 live action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” and two female Resistance fighters quickly embracing with a kiss at the end of 2019’s “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker.”

Both moments were criticized for not being true acts of representation. Even Josh Gad, who played LeFou, said last month that the moment “didn’t go far enough to warrant accolades.”

“It often tries to give nodding representation — representation that could likely be appreciated by somebody looking for it, but could be missed by people who might be bothered or traumatized by seeing what they feel as inappropriate content,” Griffin said.

Disney did not immediately respond to request for comment on this story.

Complex history

Still, one could hardly say Disney is not inclusive at all.

Even though Disney’s core product of family-friendly entertainment hasn’t been blatant in its representation of gay characters, ABC — which is owned by Disney — has done so with TV shows like “Modern Family” and “Ellen.” In fact, “Ellen” had the first gay lead character on TV in 1997.

Disney has historically had many gay employees, too.

So the issue for Disney and Chapek right now, according to Griffin, is that the CEO “seems to still be trying to play by the Eighties playbook, trying to walk that tightrope of not offending either side.”

“You can’t say ‘I don’t want to take sides’ because people go, ‘By you refusing to choose sides, you’ve chosen a side,'” he said. “Chapek thought he was working an old strategy, and it seems like it didn’t work.”

Following the events of the last few weeks, it appears House of Mouse still has work to do in mending fences both inside and outside the company.

On Tuesday, some employees have planned a full-day walkout to protest the company’s response to the Florida’s controversial bill. It’s unknown how many employees are taking part.

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