A short history of LGBTQ+ representation in Disney films

The latest Disney animated movie, Strange Worldincludes another big step forward for the studio in terms of LGBTQ+ representation. Here’s everything you need to know:

What LGBTQ+ representation is there in ‘Strange World’?

Strange World, which hits theaters on Nov. 23, features a character who has been described as the first gay lead of a Disney animated movie. 

The film tells the story of three generations, and it’s primarily centered around Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal), a farmer and the son of explorer, Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid). Searcher’s own son is Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White), who is clearly established as gay. A scene early in the film shows Ethan nervous around his crush, a boy named Diazo, whom he flirts with before his father comes in and embarrasses him. “Is this him?” Searcher asks before noting that Ethan “talks about you all the time.”

It’s not just one throwaway moment, though, as Ethan’s feelings for Diazo are referenced multiple times throughout the film. This includes a scene where Ethan’s grandfather asks him if he has any “sweethearts back home” and provides advice on how to “impress this fella.”

The scenes are all presented rather matter-of-factly, with the film treating Ethan’s crush the same way that would be expected of a straight character. Ethan’s father and grandfather never bat an eye at the notion of him being in a same-sex relationship, and there’s no scene where he comes out to them. While Ethan’s crush is something of a running gag, it also doesn’t define his character but is simply a part of who he is.  

This comes just a few months after Pixar’s Lightyear, which was also a groundbreaking moment for Disney when it comes to LBGTQ+ representation. 

What LGBTQ+ representation was there in ‘Lightyear’?

Uzo Aduba voiced Alisha Hawthorne, Buzz Lightyear’s close friend and fellow space ranger, in the Toy Story spinoff released in June. Early in the film, Buzz finds out Alisha is engaged to a woman. Later, in a tear-jerking, Up-style montage, Alisha’s family is shown over the course of many years, and at one point during this, she shares a kiss with her wife.

It’s a brief moment, but it was still a big deal considering this was the first time a Pixar film has ever featured a same-sex kiss. Granted, Alisha isn’t in the rest of the movie after this opening scene, as the remainder of Lightyear focuses on her granddaughter. In contrast, Ethan is one of the leads of Strange World and is present throughout the entire film. 

What other LGBTQ+ representation has there been in Disney films?

Before Strange World and Lightyear, there had been very little significant LGBTQ+ representation in Disney animated films. One of the most overt examples was 2020’s Onward, which featured a female police officer who refers to “my girlfriend” — though said girlfriend is never shown. When the film was released in Russia, the word “girlfriend” was changed to “partner.” 

In 2016, Finding Dory briefly showed an apparent lesbian couple, but the filmmakers declined to confirm this. Similarly, 2019’s Toy Story 4 showed a child being brought to school and picked up by what looked to be his two moms in a few quick shots. Pixar’s 2020 short film Out revolved around a gay man as its main character, a big step for the studio, though it was released on Disney+ and not shown in front of a feature film like other Pixar shorts often are.

In Disney’s non-Pixar animated movie Zootopia from 2016, the main character lives next door to a gay married antelope couple, but this isn’t at all clear in the movie itself. And in 2013’s Frozen, fans have speculated the trading post owner Oaken might be gay, as we see his family appears to consist of a man and several kids. But once again, this is never explicit. 

There have also been examples of fans reading animated characters as LGBTQ+, even though this isn’t stated on-screen, including Elsa from Frozen and Li Shang from Mulan. More recently, some critics read a gay subtext into Pixar’s 2021 film Luca, which centers around the relationship between two young boy sea monsters. 

Outside of animation, Disney’s 2017 live-action Beauty and the Beast suggested Gaston’s sidekick LeFou is gay, giving him a three-second shot where he dances with another man. In 2019, two Disney blockbusters included very minor gay characters: In Avengers: Endgame, a man in group therapy with Captain America refers to going on a date with another man, and in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, a periphery female character kisses a woman during the closing celebration scene. The shot lasts about two seconds.

In 2021, Cruella featured a clothing store owner, Artie, who’s implied — but not confirmed — to be gay. And in 2021’s Jungle Cruise, the brother of Emily Blunt’s character alludes to his homosexuality by referencing turning down marriage to women because “my interests happily lie elsewhere” and saying friends and family turned their backs on him “because of who I loved.”

That same year, one of the main characters of Marvel’s Eternals was a gay superhero, Phastos, who kisses his husband. In May, Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness showed one of its heroes, America Chavez, has two moms. Then, July’s Thor: Love and Thunder confirmed Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) is gay via a line referencing the fact that she lost her “girlfriend in battle” (though fans were disappointed she did not get a girlfriend in the present, as Thompson had previously implied), and November’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever included a brief moment where a woman kisses another woman on the forehead. Eternals, Doctor Strange, and Lightyear were all banned in Saudi Arabia and other countries due to gay content. 

What has been the reaction to this? 

For years, Disney movies went through a cycle where the presence of LGBTQ+ representation was discussed beforehand, only for the studio to receive mockery and criticism when it turned out to be a fairly insignificant part of the film. 

That most notably occurred with LeFou in Beauty and the Beast, especially because the director, Bill Condon, promised ahead of time there would be an “exclusively gay moment.” His comment received significant news coverage, but when said moment was a blink-and-you-miss-it shot, critics argued the studio hadn’t gone far enough, and the phrase “exclusively gay moment” was adopted to sarcastically mock Disney. 

When Onward featured its gay police officer character, Polygon‘s Emily Heller wrote that “fully embracing the LGBTQ community means going beyond small gestures of inclusivity” like this, and the LGBTQ+ representation in Endgame and The Rise of Skywalker was widely panned given both involved minor side characters. The perception was that Disney wanted these moments to be just big enough to appeal to fans calling for greater LGBTQ+ representation, but small enough to avoid offending more conservative viewers or affecting overseas box office. 

But with more significant scenes involving prominent characters, Disney has been taking its LGBTQ+ representation further, drawing praise from critics. Writing for The Los Angeles Times, Tracy Brown said it was a “pleasant surprise” that Strange World‘s LGBTQ+ representation arrives “with minimal fanfare,” while Variety called the movie “courageous” for its inclusion of a young gay character —  though IndieWire‘s Emma Stefansky argued the film’s LGBTQ+ representation still “feels timid,” noting Ethan’s crush has little screen time and could be removed for an overseas release. (Disney has declined to edit the film and opted to not submit it to censorship authorities in numerous countries including China, according to Deadline). 

How does the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ controversy factor into this? 

Of course, there has also been a backlash to Disney’s push for greater LGBTQ+ representation, especially in light of the company’s fight with Florida over the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill

In early 2022, Disney faced backlash from employees after then-CEO Bob Chapek declined to speak out against the Florida bill forbidding teachers from discussing gender identity or sexual orientation with young kids. When Chapek later did speak out against the bill, he faced further backlash from Republicans and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who labeled Disney “woke.”

Amid this controversy, Pixar employees penned a stunning letter in March 2022 accusing Disney of censoring LGBTQ+ content in its movies for years. “Nearly every moment of overtly gay affection is cut at Disney’s behest, regardless of when there is protest from both the creative teams and executive leadership at Pixar,” the letter alleged. A week later, Variety reported a same-sex kiss in Lightyear had been cut from the movie but was restored “following the uproar surrounding” the Pixar statement and Chapek’s “Don’t Say Gay” response.

(Days before the release of Strange WorldChapek was fired from Disney and replaced by former CEO Bob Iger, who condemned the “Don’t Say Gay” bill before Chapek.)

This was an all-important context going into Lightyear‘s release, as conservatives pointed to the same-sex kiss as another example of Disney allegedly having a “woke” agenda. Indeed, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro urged followers not to see Lightyear because “Disney insists on opposing bills that ban sexual indoctrination of kindergarteners.” Lightyear ultimately bombed at the box office, which some claimed was a result of the same-sex kiss. Box office analysts, though, generally felt it had to do with a variety of other factors, including audiences’ lack of interest in the film’s premise.  

Ahead of Strange World‘s release, Shapiro again highlighted the LGBTQ+ representation in the film and slammed Disney’s “not-at-all-secret gay agenda,” telling followers, “Your kids, your choice.” Speaking to Variety about the film’s gay character, meanwhile, star Gabrielle Union said, “Folks keep using the word ‘normalize,’ and you don’t have to normalize normal. It just is.” 

Update Nov. 23: This piece has been updated throughout to include the release of Strange World.