How Unofficial “Gay Days” at Disney Helped the Company Grow

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This post was originally published at the Pacific Center for Human Growth’s now-closed blog on September 27, 2017.

Every year on the first Saturday of June, Disney’s Magic Kingdom is a sea of red. According to the official GayDayS® website, the Gay Days celebration began in 1991 with a group visit to park. The first time around 50,000 people showed up in red shirts to signify their unity. Since then, the event has expanded into a week-long experience throughout Orlando, full of parties, expos at hotels, and visits to other theme parks. This year there were more than 193,000 attendees, most of which are estimated to be returning participants. A current GayDayS® official interviewed for Mic claimed that the first Saturday of June was picked because it was one of the park’s slowest days of the year, and this is clearly no longer the case.

In 2000, Jeff Truesdell published a remarkable analysis of the event’s impact on Disney as a corporation, complete with a thorough timeline of nine years of Gay Days, as well as a history of Disney’s relationship with the LGBT community, with help from Sean Griffin’s book, “Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out”. According to Truesdell and Griffin, the first large-scale gay event in a Disney park occurred in 1978. Disneyland found out in advance that many gay guests were planning to arrive on the same date and arranged extra security, canceled live music to avoid same-sex dancing and “told people who were working […] that courtesy was optional.” 10,000 people showed up, and some began to protest the unwelcoming environment by engaging in public sexual behavior.

In the early 80s, Disney was sued twice for stopping men from dancing together and settled out-of-court. But by the mid-80s, Disney began hosting fundraisers to fight AIDS; these events “became code-language for a series of annual after-hours ‘gay nights’ at Disneyland that continued with Disney sponsorship.” Truesdell details how Disney shifted majorly when Michael Eisner took over in 1984, developing a TV network, retail chain, new resorts, etc. These other branches of the company using other names allowed Disney to diversify without tarnishing Disney’s “family values” image.

In 2000, Truesdell interviewed Doug Swallow, who is credited with founding Gay Day. Swallow said that there were no grand ideas about the future of the event or its impact on the company. The original attendees were interested to see how Disney would react, but didn’t really plan to call attention to themselves; primarily, they thought, “We’re going to go out and have fun like everybody else.” He said that Gay Day was conceived as something separate from activism, fundraising, Pride, and fighting for rights: “I was just wanting to see something done for fun.”

As numbers rose in the second year, Disney remembered the situation in Disneyland in 1978 and grew nervous. Only a small handful of Gay Day attendees acted out, treating the event as a “defiant political act,” and the following year a dozen gay cast members, not paid for their work or identifiable as employees at the time, showed up to perform their own damage control, keeping the attendees in line. Disney neither endorsed their work nor told them to stop.

Disney “lined up shuttles to other theme parks for guests who complained, or gave them passes to return another day,” provided straight guests who turned up in red shirts with white ones to wear instead, and put up signs warning guests that “a large gathering of gays and lesbians [was] inside.” While many were offended by the signs, and conservatives viewed the signs as approval, some Gay Days guests were excited that Disney had openly, prominently used the words “gay” and “lesbian” for the first time.

By the mid-90s, Disney refused to refund upset guests, established a “gay employee group,” and offered same-sex partner health benefits, as Disney’s media productions grew more diverse. While conservatives’ protests grew louder, Disney’s stock grew. Disney asked in a statement: why would people who espouse family values boycott “the world’s largest producer of wholesome family entertainment”? Eisner himself stated that Gay Day wasn’t arranged by Disney, but Disney wouldn’t exclude specific groups: “As long as they are discreet and handle themselves properly, are dressed properly, they’re welcome in our doors, and I think it would be a travesty in this country to exclude anybody.” Disney had learned that it was essentially untouchable no matter the choices it made.

In the following years, the warning signs at the park entrance became a “recognition of [the celebration of] Gay and Lesbian Pride Month,” and then disappeared altogether. They Disney began to welcome “Gay Entertainment Television” film crews, an event hosted by local gay newspaper Watermark, a post-Gay Day dance party, and more. According to Truesdell, Disney grew throughout the 90s as a result of Gay Day, and displayed a distinct learning curve.

Ten years later, John Cloud wrote for Time about how “the [original Gay Day] sparked something in the gay imagination […] a way to reclaim an unfinished adolescence.” He also compares it to “a flash mob before the term existed” with an element of “political theater.” In the early days it was an alternate window into the community, very different in tone from the pride parades that were most outsiders’ only access. More than this, though, the event provides an age-accessible venue, as not many experiences even still are suitable for families or LGBT community members under 18.

Cloud also details the boundaries pushed at the 2010 Gay Days, including shirts adorned with reclaimed slurs and water bottles full of contraband alcohol. A lesbian activist interviewed by Cloud said that pushing the boundaries at Disney “hurts the cause to gain equal rights.” In 2000, Truesdell pointed out that Disney had conduct policies that prohibit bare chests and inoffensive shirts, as well as “overt and inappropriate sexual behavior by any guest, homosexual or not.” A gay Disney supervisor said, “Anything you shouldn’t do in a mall, you shouldn’t do here.”

Cloud ends his piece by declaring that the family he interviewed about Gay Day is “the future” because they are “kids with their parents who want the great American vacation, no politics required.” This is a bizarre angle to take because even if all the guests function entirely within Disney’s rules, which has at time involved forcing guests wearing drag to change their clothes, Gay Days inherently can’t be depoliticized.

Unsurprisingly, in 1998 televangelist Pat Robertson warned that Disney World would be struck by hurricanes for hosting the event. But in 2013, the Florida Family Association paid $16,400 to fly three banners around Central Florida warning the public that Gay Days would be happening at Disney on June 1st. The purpose was to spare families from “[exposing] their children to Gay Day’s revelry” and purchasing tickets they wouldn’t end up using, according to their press release. Religious right activist Janet Porter suggested families stop going to Disney because it allowed “cross-dressing men” and “public displays of perversion.” One Million Moms claimed that the event was “different than what would be expected at Disney” and a violation of Disney’s duty to “maintain a family-friendly atmosphere and require proper conduct and dress code,” as quoted by Wong in The Huffington Post.

Cloud points out that it it’s unclear what any protesting conservatives expect park officials to do — “ban anyone in a red shirt on the first Saturday in June?” This is a strange question to ask, given the history of the event and Disney’s past responses to LGBT guests. Still, those policies aren’t in place anymore, and Gay Days guests should face consequences for doing drugs or wearing too little clothing in the park — those are regular rules, not homophobic ones. Gay Days was never planned as an attack on Disney itself, but as a way for the LGBT community to come together somewhere they would have fun, and as a result they helped sculpt Disney into a place more welcoming of them. Conservatives who are shocked by Disney’s continued allowance of Gay Days don’t actually have a very good understanding of Disney’s values.

That being said — Disney has stagnated. All of the branches of Disney that exist other under names feature LGBT content, the parks sell rainbow merchandise, and there are occasional characters with same-sex relationships on Disney Channel shows now, plus the first recurring gay character on the channel. However, Disney Channel also cut a same-sex kiss from an original movie, and is facing criticism for erasing the queerness of characters in both Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, movies that otherwise really deviate from the Marvel Cinematic Universe formula. If Disney was of the opinion all the way back in 2000 that it’s basically untouchable and won’t face consequences as a result of protests, why do they still hold a fluctuating, mostly neutral stance on the LGBT community in 2017? What’s holding Disney back?

I just really like talking about tv and gay stuff