Walt Disney’s Magic LGBT Kingdom
The Disney Company didn’t begin as a gay-friendly company. The legendary founder and company’s namesake, Walt Disney himself, wasn’t known to be any great friend of Dorothy. In fact, he had a reputation that was the opposite. He was suspicious of foreigners, hostile to gay men and, according to some biographers, privately anti-Semitic.
In recent years, however, the amusement park and entertainment behemoth has become a beacon of gay rights. The Burbank, California-based company protects sexual and gender identity in the workplace throughout its many facilities and offices across the United States, as well as a full array of add-on medical benefits, such as insured transition therapy and surgery, and paid lead after same. The company also provides health-care coverage and even survival annuity for spouses -- less radical now that marriage legal in California and New York, but still Disney was there long before either state legislature or governor’s pen.
While Gay Days at Walt Disney World has always been an "unofficial" event, The Disney Company keeps upping its commitment to diversity. Walt Disney World employees ("cast members" in Disney-speak) participate in the company’s Diversity Resource Groups. PRIDE, Disney’s LGBT employee group, provides resources and a supportive network for gay, lesbian transgendered and allied cast members.
The PRIDE group’s executive director, Michael Jungen, serves as "director of experience development," which means that he utilizes emerging technologies to enhance Disney guests’ experiences. In December 2011, the PRIDE group contributed a video to the "It Gets Better" campaign. The video opens with the Disneyland Resort President George Kalogridis addressing "anyone who has ever been bullied, teased, or harassed for being different."
When he was appointed president of Walt Disney World, Kalogridis became one of the most visible out-gay corporate executives in the United States, in charge of 66,000 employees. It also made Kalogridis the most powerful out-gay executive in Central Florida and a powerful voice for LGBT causes in the Sunshine State. Among many other causes, Disney employees are in the forefront of AIDS Walk Orlando.
Each October, an annual "Come Out With Pride" event highlights the PRIDE group’s activities that include a "Come Out With Pride" parade. That’s only one of PRIDE’s full calendar of events, such as guest speakers; networking events; volunteer activities with groups like the Orlando Youth Alliance and Zebra Coalition and Disney’s own KidZone; and recreational outings. PRIDE has over 500 members in Central Florida.
Those Good Old Gay Days
Now as for Gay Days: The event has long been controversial with Right Wing groups. Just this year, One Million Moms petitioned Disney to stop Gay Days, even though, as that group and many more for several years have continually been told, Gay Days has no more to do with Walt Disney Co. than a regularly group of gay friends eating in a restaurant that "condones" the event.
In recent years, Disney has become much more embracing of Gay Days. While not actually "sanctioning" the event, many parties take place in Disney properties, rented for the occasion.
Last year, the PRIDE group event participated in a "flash mob" at the Riptide party at Typhoon Lagoon. This year, PRIDE members teamed with the Orlando Youth Alliance to provide information about the organization to Gay Day participants.
The evolution of Disney and Gay Days in some ways parallels the company’s own progress about LGBT issues.
Showing True Commitment
After Walt Disney died, the company went through something of an identity crisis. It had long been the brand identified with wholesome, family entertainment. But the time had come when it needed to venture forth into the world of more edgy fare if it was going to compete as an entertainment conglomerate on the world stage.
Disney started a movie division that included some "R"-rated films. The company pushed into rock music, urban redevelopment (most notably New York’s Times Square, which it has helped remake from a seedy No Man’s Land into a popular tourist destination), and even a planned city in Florida. The company bought ABC, which included shows such as "NYPD Blue," which, for its time, was pretty "blue," and the very public outing of Ellen DeGeneres on her show.
In the early ’90s, employees urged Disney to extend health-care benefits to same-sex partners. The company was initially hesitant. It didn’t even allow same-sex dancing in its parks. But at the same time, it was making some giant steps toward recognition of gay causes.
In 1986, Disney loaned Disneyland to AIDS Project Los Angeles and matched all revenue from ticket sales. It’s difficult now, in a time when large corporations readily associate themselves with AIDS causes, to recall that in 1986, AIDS was still considered a "gay disease," and corporations ran from anything associated with AIDS.
Disney’s courage in stepping up to the plate was not only a remarkable statement at the time but also a forerunner of the upfront gay-friendly company that it was slowly becoming.
In 1991, a lesbian employee posted a notice in the company’s newsletter to gauge interest in an LGBT employee group. By the next year, the Lesbian and Gay United Employees was demanding -- and got -- health benefits to committed partners of gay employees.
The Disney Company has made such giant strides in its public face that it now openly and proudly offers "Fairy Tale Weddings" at its parks to same-sex couples. This year, the kid-oriented Disney Channel’s "Luck Charlie" will feature a family with two moms. The head of Disney’s highly successful New York-based Theatrical Group is an out-gay man, Thomas Schumacher.
To really drive a point home that this was not Uncle Walt’s company, Disney signed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. "Our organizations are engaged in national and international competition," the brief stated. "Competition demands teamwork, and teamwork thrives when the organization minimizes distracting differences and focuses on a common mission."
Disney has evolved mightily from a company that looked with suspicion on gay employees. It now stands out as one of the most upfront, gay-friendly companies on the planet.
This article is part of our "Equality Begins at Home" series. Want to read more?
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