Adventures In Wonderland:
An Education on the Gay Side of Disney
By Henry Miller
All week we had seen little clues, but now as we looked down over the rotating dance floor our eyes widened bigger than ever as we gazed out over a sea of young men and women dancing together, straight and gay, and no one seeming to mind (a bit of a surprise to me who hadn't heard much since the instance in Anaheim where a couple of men were thrown out of the park for dancing together). Our companion for the evening was a young Moroccan man who worked at the Morocco exhibit at EPCOT and who had mentioned as we were waiting in line for the dance club that there were a lot of gays and lesbians who frequented this establishment . . . but I'm getting ahead of myself. It all started seven days earlier as we embarked on a dream-of-a-lifetime trip to Disney World.
I had been reading the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World in preparation for the trip, and thought I had a good overview of what to expect. Nowhere in the guide did it mention anything about things of interest for gays (perhaps we need another guide?). Our friends from the gym who used to live in Florida told us about some of the gay dance clubs in Orlando, but our itinerary did not allow time for expeditions outside of the "world." I thought we would spend the week surrounded by Christian families with hordes of screaming children (and there were plenty of them), so I never dreamed we would find ourselves surrounded by same-sex couples and Disney staff members who surprised me by how "out" they were.
Apparently, Disney has come of age. The staff is out to each other and to anyone they consider to be an ally. If the Baptists got their wish to exclude gays and lesbians from the parks, Disney would lose not only a large percentage of guests, but much of its staff as well. This became more apparent as we began to notice pairs of gays and lesbians walking around the parks. There was the couple of guys sitting behind us on the train ride around the park, and the lesbians holding the hands of their daughter between them walking into Liberty Square. There was the young couple of women holding hands with a few too many tatooes (for my tastes), followed by a gay man. At EPCOT, near Spaceship Earth, we passed two gay male couples and another pair of lesbian women with a child in less than a minute, and another couple of men in their 30's near the exit to the park.
I should mention that we were pretty absorbed by the magic of the place during the first part of the week and were not looking for other gays and lesbians, they just kept popping up in front of us. As the week progressed and our pace slowed down, we began to notice more and more. We even held hands a few times within the various parks with no noticable reaction from anyone around us. Then we tried to find out just how "festive" this place was. Rick put on his rainbow flag pin and got surprising results. For example, while waiting to board the train ride in Mickey's Toontown Fair, the train conductor, a young handsome black man, walked past us and did a doubletake. He walked over to the railing where we were standing and while smiling and pointing to his uplifted hand said "I like your pin. It matches my ring." On another occasion at the Body Wars ride at the Wonders of Life pavillion we found ourselves at the front of the line waiting to board with the next group. The young man who was dividing the groups up and directing them to their boarding areas looked at us with a strange expression on his face. He began chatting with us, asking us things like, were we enjoying our vacation and where were we from, etc. In a few moments he apparently made his decision, because he turned and shouted over to his fellow workers (one of whom exuded gayness) saying while pointing to us "they're members!" We felt like VIP's as they chatted with us using, it would seem, a language that only someone in the club would understand.
knows the old joke that asks "how many straight waiters does it take to
change a light bulb in West Hollywood? Both of them!" This characterization
must also apply equally to food servers from other countries, right? It
would seem so because of our experience at the Restaurant Marrakesh in
Morocco at the World Showcase. In this restaurant the servers were all
women and the bussers men. They had been hired by Disney and brought in
from Morocco. Apparently cuteness was a factor in who was hired, because
we found the young man assisting our waitress to be quite stunning. He
also saw something in us because he could not walk past us without breaking
out with an enormous smile. With each visit to our table to bring us more
water or to clear plates we would ask him more questions about himself
and his country (should I mention that I was drinking an awful lot of
water to give him excuses to stop by?). He seemed a little shy but was
happy to answer all our questions, to the point that I became concerned
that he would be chastized by his supervisor about spending too much time
with us. Then he began coming up with reasons to converse with us, like
when he informed us about the belly dancing show that was to begin shortly.
We made it clear that we were not all that interested in seeing the young
woman dance, but then immediately eagerly asked if he would be
dancing. He said no, he had to work, and then turned red thinking about
the idea. He said we should go dance instead. I responded "you first,
then we'll go." He declined but seemed pleased about the thought for his
smile got bigger still. By the end of our meal we felt like we had made
a new friend, and since he had said he would be traveling around the U.S.
after completing his time with Disney, we gave him our address and phone
number with an invitation to visit us in Oregon. Without our asking and
with eagerness and a shaking hand, he quickly wrote out his address and
phone number, giving it to us so we could keep in touch. Like tourists,
we had to document the occasion, and so asked our waitress if she would
take our picture with Mostafa, the busser. It was like saying goodbye
to a long lost friend as we got up to leave and he asked plaintively "you're
leaving?!" We didn't ask each other about our sexual orientation. Men
from his country didn't worry about the machoism that plagues straight
men in our country. In Morocco men walk with their arms around each other
in friendship. But even if he were not gay, we were willing to give him
the honorary title of a gay man because of his open hands and heart. (If
only all men could be likewise!)
Upon leaving the restaurant we were ready to board a plane for Morocco, just to see more people like him and stopped by the gift shop to ask when the person running the information counter about Morocco would be returning. The woman we asked didn't know, so she directed us to a young man in the shop who turned out to be as interesting as Mostafa. We ended up talking with Abdu for almost two hours that evening and another hour on the following evening. We never did see the woman behind the information counter that night, although we ran into her the following evening when she announced that Abdu had told her about us, proclaiming that we were the most wonderful guests he had ever had. He even gave us a gift of a book on Morocco which he had brought from his country. Are all men from Morocco that endearing?
The following day we called Mostafa and made arrangements to meet him during his time off from work at one of the water parks where we floated along the "river" getting better acquainted. Although his command of the English language needed improvement, we learned about his family, way of life and country that afternoon. We exchanged hugs and goodbyes as we dropped him off at the "cast member" entrance behind EPCOT, with a promise to keep in touch.
The fun was not over yet though. Later that evening we met Abdu in front of Pleasure Island for an evening "out." Conversations over dinner and as we walked from club to club included information about his country and his experience working for Disney. We told him we were gay, inquiring how gays are treated in Morocco. He said they have to keep it to themselves, although he personally had no issues. He has a gay friend from Morocco who also works at his exhibit in EPCOT, and they get along just fine in spite of their differing sexual orientations. He even danced with us at Mannequin's Dance Palace. It was midnight and the fireworks were going off when we finally had to say goodbye. He promised to visit us if he could, following his time working at EPCOT.
I wondered if all Disney employees were as nonjudgemental as the two men we met in Morocco. It was becoming clearer that Disney was truly trying to represent (whether intentional or not) the kind of "family values" that we could all believe in, both in the way they run their parks and in the kinds of movies they create, especially their highly sucessful animation features. (More on this later.)
We had two days left of our vacation when we decided to try out a "character breakfast." A worker on the boat shuttle between the Magic Kingdom and the Wilderness Lodge told us about the breakfast with the characters from Pocahontas at the Artist's Point Restaurant. The chance to meet Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and Meeko (the raccoon) was too exciting to pass up so we went there for brunch. As soon as our waiter walked up we knew he was gay. In fact I blurted out how nice it was to finally have a male "family" member be our waiter, after a week of waitresses. He turned out to be a wealth of information, having worked with Disney for over eight years. He confirmed that of the entire Disney staff, approximatley 30% to 40% are gay/lesbian. In fact, the Disney Gay Alliance met in the corporate offices, and last year the company extended all benefits to same-sex partners of employees. He said the new Disney is very gay friendly and supportive and encouraged us to be unafraid to walk hand in hand in the Magic Kingdom. Unlike our waiter, when Captain John Smith and Pocahontas visited us, they stayed in character avoiding questions that their characters would not be able or unwilling to answer, like when we asked John if the hair resembling a giant blonde wave crashing down over his shoulders was really his — our waiter told us it wasn't. We were relieved.
As Meeko worked his way towards us, we noticed the comical way he interacted with the children, giving them hugs and kissing them on top of the head. Naturally we wanted the same thing, so when he approached our table Rick gave him a big hug. I wanted a kiss as well, so with Rick's encouragement Meeko gave me a big kiss. Then, similar to the Train Conductor's double-take, he stepped back from our table looking back and forth at us while scratching his ear inquisitively, as if to ask "what's going on here?" Then he excitedly pointed at Rick's rainbow pin and raised both hands up in an "ah-ha!" pose, followed by a big kiss on top of Rick's head. After he left our table I told our waiter that I was glad to see the Raccoon was "family," and that I could see right through his costume. He responded "he can too," apparently because of the way he interacted with us. He said that not only was he gay, but that he had once appeared on the Rolonda talk show on TV in a segment titled "Things Your Best Friend Doesn't Know About You" in full drag. If only the parents of the children Meeko hugged knew!
Disney is known for its committment to quality and family entertainment. It would seem to me that it is also becoming a great asset to the gay community with its release of recent animated feature films, most recently with The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As I sat watching the stage production at the Disney MGM Studios, I realised that the Hunchback character and I had a lot in common. As we left the theater I couldn't talk; in fact, I could barely walk. The more I thought about it, the more I began to suspect that it is no coincidence that Disney is working into their stories themes that will open minds and hearts to the possibility that people who are different should be accepted and loved for who they are. If not the adults watching these films today, then the children who will become adults tomorrow. This trend might be explained by the fact that a large percentage of the Disney staff is gay and lesbian. What better way for these individuals to practice their art than to do it with the goal of making money for their stock holders while also sharing a "love thy neighbor" message, a goal that will help them and the entire gay community?
The story of the Hunchback contrasts the attitudes of the self-righteous religious community with the simple prayers of the outcasts. I cannot remember a more moving portrayal of this than in a song that could become an anthem for all oppressed people. Esmeralda, a gypsy outcast, has sought sanctuary in the cathedral. While there she gazes up at a giant stained glass window and offers a prayer in behalf of her people. Here are the words from the version of this song sung by Bette Midler (I recommend you listen to the movie soundtrack if possible):
God Help The Outcasts
I believe the entire message from the LDS church leadership today can be summed up with one word: obey. Conformity is simply a way of life for members of the church today. The prophet himself confirmed this and with a smile on his face announced that the church is now a part of the mainstream in his address at the October conference 1996. We have now become accepted and integrated with our society. I wonder how Jesus would react to this statement. In His example we see a man who routinely went out of his way to disassociate himself with the "religious" people of his day, connecting instead with the outcasts. Persecution was a normal part of his life. In Him we see a very different example of what it means to be a Christian than the one presented by our leaders today. They place more importance in the worth of the church and its image than they do in the value of the individual. They gladly sacrifice anyone who may make the church look "bad" (in their eyes), rather than deal with issues that can't be explained by their unChrist-like and false beliefs. (Many examples can be given.)
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
I don't know if You can hear me or if You're even there.
I don't know if You will listen to a humble prayer.
They tell me I am just an outcast, I shouldn't speak to You.
Still I see Your face and wonder, were You once an outcast too?
God help the outcasts, hungry from birth.
Show them the mercy they don't find on earth.
The lost and forgotten, they look to You still.
God help the outcasts or nobody will.
I ask for nothing, I can get by.
But I know so many less lucky than I.
God help the outcasts, the poor and downtrod
I thought we all were the children of God.
I don't know if there's a reason why some are blessed, some not.
Why the few You seem to favor
They fear us, flee us, try not to see us.
God help the outcasts, the tattered, the torn
Seeking an answer to why they were born.
Winds of misfortune have blown them about.
You made the outcasts, don't cast them out.
The poor and unlucky, the weak and the odd,
I thought we all were the children of God.
In the story of the Hunchback we can see ourselves as gays and lesbians, hiding in the church, told never to reveal
ourselves, seeing others live their lives completely, but knowing we never can, wishing we could spend just one day among them — as we are. We can even see ourselves at the "feast of fools" where all the ugly and bizarre appearing people celebrate openly once a year (in a similar way we gather for the yearly Pride Festivals). Quasimodo finds himself crowned the King of Fools when he is accidently discovered at the festivities, but it is clear in the movie that the real fool is Judge Frollo, a deeply "religious" man who does not take any responsibility for his own actions whenever they are questionable (sounds familiar?).
Our leaders tell us to believe in them, as they teach us that we are to be feared and worthy of condemnation. Our state is one to cause even God to turn away in revulsion. In trusting in them and turning away from our natural God-given abilities, we will find safety, or so they would have us believe. The Hunchback is faced with this type of brainwashing from his "protector," a man who sees corruption everywhere except within. In a song between Judge Frollo and the Hunchback we see this clearly:
Then, as Frollo leaves, Quasimodo looks out of his bell tower and continues . . .
Vocals: Tony Jay (Frollo) and Tom Hulce (Quasimodo)
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Frollo: The world is cruel, the world is wicked. It's I alone who you can trust in
this whole city. I am your only friend. I who keep you, teach you, feed
you, dress you. I who look upon you without fear. How can I protect you, boy, unless you always stay in here, away in here?
Remember what I've taught you. . .
You are deformed.
Quasimodo: I am deformed.
Frollo: And you are ugly.
Quasimodo:And I am ugly.
Frollo: And these are crimes for which the world shows little pity. You do not comprehend.
Quasimodo: You are my one defender.
Frollo: Out there they'll revile you as a monster.
Quasimodo:I am a monster...
Frollo: Out there they will hate and scorn and jeer.
Quasimodo:Only a monster...
Frollo: Why invite their calumny and consternation? Stay in here, be faithful to me.
Quasimodo: I'm faithful.
Frollo: Grateful to me.
Quasimodo: I'm grateful.
Frollo: Do as I say. Obey and STAY IN HERE.
Quasimodo: I'll stay in here.
Quasimodo: Safe behind these windows and these parapets of stone, gazing at the people down below me, all my life I watch them as I hide up here alone, hungry for the histories they show me. All my life I memorize their faces, knowing them as they will never know me. All my life I wonder how it feels to pass a day not above them, but part of them. And out there living in the sun, give me one day out there. All I ask is one to hold forever. Out there where they all live unaware, what I'd give, what I'd dare, just to live one day out there!
"Out there?” Is this a reference to coming out? I wonder if all homosexuals were also born with physical deformities like the Hunchback how our church leaders would react. Coming out would not be necessary. At the very least we would have their understanding and sympathy or pity. But instead we find ourselves without deformity, posessing only a natural variation of human sexuality while having to endure unequalled persecution by those who should be setting an example of Christ-like living. How is the world made to be more Chirst-like and better prepared for the Second Coming by holding intolerance as one of its most cherished virtues? How does hatred of any of God's creations make one a better Christian? I believe it is because of sin that all this takes place. But it is not the sin of homosexuality, as some would have us believe, but rather the sin of intolerance brought about by self-imposed blindness.
Out there among the millers and the weavers and their wives, through the roofs and gables I can see them. Ev'ry day they shout and scold and go about their lives, heedless of the gift it is to be them. If I was in their skin I'd treasure ev'ry instant.
Out there strolling by the Seine, taste the morning out there like ordinary men who freely walk about there just one day and then I swear I'll be content with my share. Won't resent, won't despair, old and bent I won't care, I'll have spent one day out there!"
As more and more people come out, we find the world slowly growing more tolerant of the differences between us. God did not create his children with only one cookie cutter. With the completion of each new spirit creation he broke the mold. The rainbow of colors that he paints with always produces a more beautiful painting than the single color approach of our conforming religious leaders. Oscar Wilde once told his friend and biographer that "one day men will be ashamed of their barbarious treatment of me, as they are now ashamed of the torturings of the Middle Ages." Will our religious leaders who continue to spread fear and hatred toward the homosexual one day look back and feel ashamed? I believe they will be held responsible for the harm they are causing and will deeply regret their actions once they have opened their eyes.
With the help (whether intentional or not) from companies like Disney, our cause will continue to be addressed and supported. Even if this message is given only indirectly we can still benefit from their work. Perhaps someday Disney will, with our support, be more forceful and direct. Would a letter help? Perhaps. Here's the address if you feel so inclined:
Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida
PO BOX 10200
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830
Animation story by Tab Murphy|
Produced by Don Hahn
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
We can also hope that people will continue reading books like the Bible in their entirety, not just selected passages given to us by our religious leaders, to discover the complete message from God about not just accepting, but loving and nurturing the outcasts. We can continue praying for God's help. We can continue "coming out," unashamed of who we are, and living our lives fully as a tribute to God for giving us this special gift. We can become politically involved, helping to eradicate laws that promote unChrist-like values. Dr. John Money, professor of medical psychology at Johns Hopkins University once said that "the folkways of our culture are filled with images of the homosexuals as sick, evil, less than human . . . At the same time, the law itself epitomizes this attitude. The very fact that our laws make homosexuality a crime puts the stamp of approval on the idea that 'queers' are animals." And finally, as long as our church leaders continue to worship before the approving world, instead of stepping forward with unpopular progressive ideas like the ones that Christ himself proposed (as recorded in scripture), our church will continue in its own Dark Ages. Perhaps another prayer for our leaders and a letter or face-to-face visit with your plea (like Esmerelda did with her prayer) would help them to begin to see that there's more to this than what they have unquestioningly accepted from Judaeo-Christian traditions.
Affirmation Orlando Visits the Magic Kingdom