The Walt Disney Co.'s arms-length embrace of gays and lesbians reflects an ongoing schizophrenia. On one hand, Disney offers progressive employee policies and eventually came to stand with organizers of Orlando's annual Gay Days in defiance of religious and conservative critics. On the other, whether out of fear of upsetting the workplace balance or of otherwise tarnishing its family franchise, Disney remains terrified of putting its gay employees front and center.
In other words, the company seems to say, it's OK to be gay. But not too gay.
That point was made clear again last Friday, Aug. 18, at a behind-the-scenes talent show at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club convention center organized for Disney workers and their invited guests. The intent was to celebrate diversity, with a 90-minute program stocked with African American, Hispanic, and gay and lesbian performers.
Members of OUTLOUD!, an eight-man ensemble of the Orlando Gay Chorus, were on the bill to perform two songs. The second -- titled, "For Everyone Who Falls," an empowering anthem about trumping adversity -- was a special request made by Disney management, after OUTLOUD! sang it in June as part of Disney's second-ever employee observance of Gay Pride Month.
At the technical rehearsal the night before the show, OUTLOUD! sang that song as well as its opening number, "The Boy Friend," from the 1954 stage musical of the same name that starred a young Julie Andrews. With lyrics like "I'd save for him/ I'd slave for him/ I'd even misbehave for him," the song was a sendup of a teen-age pajama party. "What makes it gay is the fact that it was us singing it, and not a group of 15-year-old girls," says Mark Klingaman, the director of OUTLOUD!
Apparently, it was too much.
The chain of events is muddled, but someone complained, and an hour before Friday's show OUTLOUD! was told to kill "The Boy Friend." Disney managers asked for another number. The livid singers considered it, but wanted to preface their act by telling the audience what had happened. "When Disney management learned that was what we were going to do," says Klingaman, "suddenly we had a room full of them."
Those managers, both gay and straight, emphasized the small steps forward that such a concert represented for the company, "which certainly sounds reasonable," says Klingaman. "But most of us felt very differently." For them, it was an emotional and political issue, "and those two just don't mix." Three other scheduled gay acts later performed in the show, but OUTLOUD! walked out.
Following questions from Orlando Weekly, Disney issued a statement declaring the Dimensions of Diversity Talent Showcase "a successful event" and concluded: "We have a long, well-publicized history of supporting the values of diversity and respecting, appreciating and valuing everyone."
Klingaman understands Disney's position and is grateful for the company's financial backing of the chorus. (Disney cast members belong to both OUTLOUD! and the gay chorus, though their members are mostly non-Disney workers.) Still, he says, "There are people who viewed what Disney was asking us to do as taking a step back into the closet. ... I find it hard to believe that if somebody had complained to you that a number was ‘too black,' that they would have taken it out of the show. They would have laughed at somebody for that."