If I’d grown up with a queer Disney princess, I wonder if I’d have come out sooner. When I was young, it wouldn’t have been safe for me to come out—if I had, I probably wouldn’t be here today. But as a child, a queer Disney icon would have helped me to feel less alone. With such a role model, perhaps I’d have come out about my sexual identity in my twenties—and what a different life I’d have lived.
This week, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Disney took a step that my partner and I believed it never would. Before now, we’d been heartened by the short-lived appearance of a queer character in “Onward“, who refers, conversationally, to her wife. And we’ve always been fans of Squishy from “Monsters University” who is fey, sweet, and well-meaning. Also, what’s not to love about Disney’s delightfully inclusive “Zootopia“? But neither of us was prepared for one of Disney’s central characters to actually say, “I’m queer. Yes, me.” Because owning it is the riskiest part, right?
“Out” is a coming-out story. The main character is gay.
In a way, “Out” is Disney’s coming out story too. After all, for a company of Disney’s size and stature, clearly and openly creating gay characters “outs” Disney politically, and chooses to honor sexual identity. This little short of just under ten minutes, with all its magic and heart, is, in my opinion, a major step forwards for Disney.
And when did this happen? During the COVID-19 pandemic.
I grew up in the UK, and, as a child, was told over and over that crises can bring us closer. It was a social discourse—not within my home, but in UK society, where my teachers and the parents of my friends would say, “During the Second World War, we all came together. In some ways, we looked after each other better.” But as we know, the Second World War also killed and injured countless people, tore communities apart, orphaned kids, saw widespread homelessness, and was, of course, terrifying.
My grandparents sheltered in their cellar during the London Blitz. According to my grandfather, who penned a diary by candlelight, it sounded like the bombs outside were exploding in the living room upstairs. Perhaps you can only come out of such a war saying, “War brings us closer” if you had a certain amount of privilege in the first place. Which my grandfather had.
Today, in the wake of George Floyd’s devastating murder, I’m reminded how even COVID-19 takes a white supremacist lens, ensuring that communities of color—not least, when they’re queer—are often the last to receive the help that brings the lucky folks closer. Many LGBTQ+ communities are also more highly at risk during COVID-19. (For instance, HRC/PSB research has found that 38% of LGBTQ people of color have had their work hours reduced during this pandemic, compared to 29% of white LGBTQ people, and 24% of the general population.) In some ways, the politics of this pandemic are proof that while some of us grow closer, others still remain oppressed, sidelined, ignored.
Spike Lee, who was speaking on the BBC World News yesterday, said, “Racism is all over the world. This was a global pandemic before corona.” He also said of this COVID-19 era, “It’s the black and brown people who had to go to work, front-liners of all aspects, they kept this [country] going.”
As for me, I’m a white, non-binary, pansexual person, who has the privilege of living a mostly out, free life in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, less privileged LGBTQ+ folks—for example, transgender women of color—are threatened with violence and murder on the daily.
Being out and free is quite a privilege. If it were easy, we’d have seen a Disney coming-out story way before this!
In “Out,” Greg’s boyfriend puts some pressure on him to come out—and I think that’s a shame, because we have to stop with that pressure. Truth is, until we live in a world as blissful as Disney’s fantasy, we mustn’t tell anyone to out themselves. And we must never shame the closet—that has to stop. Not everyone has the privilege of being supported for coming out.
All the same, if you’d told me a year ago that in 2020, during a pandemic that left me, an asthmatic, afraid of the supermarket, a tiny Disney short about a gay man who is coming out would appear on my screen, I think I’d have laughed and said, “I love Disney, but no, I don’t believe it. No way.”
So, I’m going to celebrate the heck out of this sweet, heart-filled coming out story, in which a dog is magical, a gay character of color is welcomed by the family, and mom and dad joyfully embrace their queer son.
Because Disney just brought my queer princess closer than ever.
And I now know that when I said ‘never,’ I was wrong.