Gay vs God: the battle for the soul of Disney

For the Baptist leaders, Disney is the guardian of the nation's family values
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The Independent Online
It is the special burden of the Walt Disney Company that, decades after Bambi took its first faltering steps in animation, it remains the very symbol of American wholesomeness. But the Mouse-that-Walt-Built is also a modern communications giant; in fact one of the world's largest. It is inevitable, of course, that on occasion its benign fairy-dust heritage and its corporate aspirations are going to collide.

Thus there came this week the vote by delegates at the annual convention of the Southern Baptist Church in Dallas - representing the more than 15 million members of the largest protestant denomination in the US - calling for a blanket boycott of everything Disney. The church's core complaint: that Disney has increasingly followed a policy of condoning and even promoting the homosexual lifestyle.

Never mind that the Disney Company is far from alone in Hollywood in showing sympathy for gays, whether they are employees or patrons. If anything, it has been a laggard on the issue. Even last week, it was rapped by gay organisations over its latest action-adventure blockbuster, Con Air, which features a flagrantly stereotypical gay hairdresser who minces about in the mayhem in a high-hemmed dress.

For the leaders of the Baptist Church, as well as those of several other radical Christian groups and smaller denominations, Disney will always have a higher calling as the guardian of the nation's family values. For them, tuning the antennae for any departure by the company from that perceived responsibility has in recent years become a full-time activity.

Sometimes, it has looked like a crusade descending into hysteria. The American Family Association, which took the fore in persuading the Baptists to adopt the boycott on Wednesday, alleged four years ago, for instance, that the feature cartoon, The Little Mermaid, actually carried phallic symbols in its drawings. The same group has quoted Disney's Chairman, Michael Eisner, as suggesting that no fewer than 40 per cent of his workforce are homosexuals. Determining such a figure is, of course, almost impossible.

Even so, identifying more concrete examples of gay-tolerant policies at Disney is not difficult. The company does, for example, extend health benefits to the live-in partners of its homosexual employees. Earlier this month, moreover, saw the latest "Gay Days" event at its Florida Disneyworld. Organised not by Disney itself but by a New Jersey-based gay advocacy group, it attracted some 60,000 homosexuals who descended on the theme park for a weekend of fun and gay pride.

Then there is the content of its product. The anti-Disney movement first began to ignite with the release by its Miramax subsidiary two years ago of the British-made Priest, which depicted a Catholic priest in Liverpool struggling with his own homosexuality. It was swiftly followed by Kids, which, though it had no gay theme, followed the sex- and drugs-soaked lives of a group of young teens in Manhattan.

For the Baptists, however, the final straw was the airing in April of the now-famous episode of the ABC comedy sitcom Ellen, in which the central character revealed herself as a lesbian. The broadcast coincided with the highly-publicised coming out of the show's star herself, Ellen DeGeneris.

"Disney continues to spiral downward in the eyes of many Americans because of the company's support for the homosexual agenda," argued Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association. "Much of what they do goes against the family. Certainly homosexuals are Americans, too, but we shouldn't hold up as natural and good something that's not."

Arguably, this is trouble that Disney has been asking for. The company trades on its apple-pie credentials: at present, it is basking in praise for lifting New York's Times Square from decades of gutter-sleaze by the huge investments it has made in a superstore on the square and its refurbishment of the Amsterdam Theatre next door. With the staging a week ago of an electric parade through Manhattan to promote its newest animation feature, Hercules, the company ironically took brickbats from some New Yorkers for turning the city into a sanitised, middle-America themeland.

At the same time, the exploitation for easy bucks of the offending episode of Ellen by ABC, which was bought by Disney 18 months ago, was flagrant. Every corporate stop was pulled out to foist the coming out of Ms DeGeneris on to the American public. The inevitable result was a huge spike in ratings for the sitcom. It also attracted the goodwill of the not insignificant and mostly prosperous gay community nationwide.

How much of a gamble is Disney taking? On the face of it, the Baptists' boycott sounds highly potent. The resolution urges "every Southern Baptist to take the stewardship of their time, money and resources so seriously that they refrain from patronizing The Disney Co and any of its related entities". The resolution is not a binding one and thus relies on all 15 million church members -which, by the way, includes President Clinton himself -hearing the message and acting on their consciences. Backers of the boycott believe that it will give church members a cause through which they will be able to express their concern not only about Disney but the erosion of public morality in general. "If Disney is under the misapprehension that this is only going to be a fly in their ointment, they are making a big mistake," said Ted Baehr, who is chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission.

So far, however, Disney is looking about as worried as Mickey Mouse on a spring picnic with Minnie. On Wednesday, its stock value slipped by barely a notch, in line with the rest of the market. And apparently the company has been dismissive of the Baptists. On his own dealings with the company, Richard Land, president of the church's morals and ethics panel, confessed: "On a good day they ignored us. On bad days they contemptuously gave us the back of their hand."

If this seems like overconfidence, survey for a moment the sheer breadth of the Disney empire. Aside from the cartoon features like Hercules, there is the output of its other studios, which include Touchstone and Miramax. Also in its portfolio are the theme parks, the 530 different Disney Stores, its cable TV assets (which includes the ESPN sports channel), its various sports franchises, a variety of publications, and of course there is ABC.

In Middle America, God may still be ubiquitous; but so is the Mouse. Can any family, however Christian its outlook, manage not to succumb to its children's pleas to visit Disneyland, to take home the Disney- character toys from McDonald's or to watch the cartoon hour on Saturday mornings on ABC? Is Mr Clinton going to stop watching Peter Jennings on the 6.30 news or catching Tiger Woods on ESPN? I would wager not; and the Disney management, clearly, is making the same bet.