New Disney World President Is Gay; When Will We See LGBT Disney Characters?

George Kalogridis started as a busboy at Walt Disney World and will now become the theme park’s fifth president, South Florida Gay News reports. Oh, and he’s openly gay. What will this mean for the park and for the prospect of greater representation of LGBT families within the Disney empire?

The Orlando Sentinel also has a long profile of Kalogridis, showcasing his many accomplishments within the company, and noting that “He and his partner of 12 years, Andy Hardy, just paid a deposit to build a home in Golden Oak, the luxury subdivision that Disney World is developing on the northeastern corner of its vast property.” His official biography on the Disneyland Web site does not mention his partner, but notes that he is on the board of directors of Out & Equal (the organization dedicated to LGBT workplace equality).

Disney has given off a gay vibe for quite some time, as I observed when my family and I took a trip there a few years ago. And the Disney Channel recently ran a video featuring a teen with two moms as part of a social outreach campaign. All this was much on my mind when my family and I returned from another trip there just a few weeks ago. Below is what I wrote about it for my newspaper column, including a call for greater LGBT representation in Disney media.

Do I think Kalogridis’ appointment is going to help? Perhaps. He could build on the existing unofficial “Gay Days” at the park and do a full-on outreach campaign to LGBT families. He could convey to Disney’s film producers just how many LGBT families (and our allies; see below) visit the parks each year, and how much it would mean for inclusion and acceptance to have an LGBT character or family in a Disney film.

Time will tell. But the appointment of an openly gay man to head the theme park epitomizing family entertainment in this country (if not the world) is significant in and of itself. Congratulations to him, and to every visible LGBT person and ally who made that possible.

Tales from Disney

(Originally published in my Mombian newspaper column.)

My family and I just returned from a week at Disney World. Disney, at its worst, has represented crass commercialism, gender and racial stereotypes, and saccharine melodies. At its best, however, it has represented a world of imagination and wonder, engaging storytelling, catchy music, a stimulus to children’s creativity, and an immersive and attentive customer experience.

We prefer to emphasize the positive and explain the negative to our son when needed. The fact is, we had a great vacation—and Disney reinforced some LGBT-related lessons for me during the week:

The importance of allies

Standing in line for one of the rides at the Magic Kingdom, my spouse and I struck up a conversation with another mom and her kids. It was the usual talk of strangers passing the time—gripes about how long the line was, whether we’d been to Disney before, and so forth. She had a twang that turned out to be from Indiana. After a few minutes, she asked, gesturing to our son, “He’s both of yours?”

I was delighted. It was a perfectly appropriate question, given that we’d already been chatting for a few minutes (and would likely continue for many more, given the length of the line). I appreciated that even though she wasn’t sure, she was aware and comfortable enough with the idea of same-sex parents to ask. Her question was well phrased—not the offensive “Whose is he?” or “Which of you is his mom?” but a polite inquiry so she understood our relationship. She in turn told us a bit about her family.

I’ve often noticed a hesitation among non-LGBT parents when it comes to referring to our family. It’s not that they’re all biased; some may just not have the language or be afraid of saying the wrong thing and offending us. I was grateful to our Disney acquaintance for taking the chance. The incident also confirmed to me that attitudes are changing, even in states not known for their LGBT friendliness.

The importance of community

We are everywhere. There were the two men who sat next to us on the train around the Magic Kingdom, one with his hand on the other’s thigh. The two women pushing a stroller who sent my gaydar to 11. Several people wearing rainbow-striped souvenir pins in the shape of Mickey Mouse heads. And (if a friend who used to work there can be believed) many of the Disney cast members performing in shows around the parks.

The right wing has tried to warn people away from the unofficial “Gay Days” held at the parks every year, but based on our experience, they’ll have to warn them off permanently if they want to avoid The Gays. Somehow, I don’t think that will go over too well.

The importance of role models

I was delighted to find a collectible souvenir pin of Princess Merida, the star of Disney/Pixar’s latest animated feature, Brave. I’ve never been a fan of the Disney princesses in general, disliking pastels and frills and not believing that “princess” is an occupation to which any young child should aspire these days. Merida is different, though, being a crack archer and swordswoman with unruly red hair who deliberately avoids marrying a prince—or anyone, for that matter—despite her parents’ best efforts. As a sometime fencer with curly red hair, I felt an immediate draw to the character. She made me realize, once again, how important it is to have role models with whom we can identify.

Of course, Disney has yet to feature any clearly LGBT characters in its films or television programming—but it recently took a very tentative step in that direction. The Disney Channel’s “Make Your Mark” campaign, which inspires kids to make a difference in the world, currently includes a video by and about 14-year-old Ben, who happens to have two moms.

Ben created an anti-bullying film after being bullied himself. He mentions his two moms in passing, and they are shown for only a moment, with their arms around each other—but it is nevertheless a big milestone for the Disney Channel. I hope it is the first step towards greater inclusion in more Disney programming.

Disney, more than any other single entity, I believe, could lead the way to visibility and inclusion of LGBT characters in children’s media. That doesn’t mean sex—and I shouldn’t even have to say that—just LGBT parents and/or children living their lives and having the kinds of adventures that other Disney characters have.

The company itself is as LGBT-friendly as they come, scoring a perfect 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, and featuring openly lesbian and gay celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Elton John, and chef Cat Cora in their films and parks. Disney-owned ABC airs Modern Family, the Emmy-winning sitcom featuring gay dads.

Disney animator Andreas Deja, a 30-year veteran of the company, told Australia’s News.com.au in July 2011 that he could foresee same-sex parents in a future Disney film. “I think once they (Disney chiefs) find the right kind of story with that kind of concept, they will do it,” he said.

Given that I’m hard-pressed to think of a classic Disney film that doesn’t have a main character who is an orphan, has only one parent, or has a step-parent, there’s no reason they shouldn’t add some additional “non-traditional” families to the mix. It’s a small world, after all. Let’s be inclusive of everyone in it.