Last summer, I was asked to take part in the Open Mic at Blue Hill’s first ever Pridefest. My remarks touched on a Disney Channel program. Below are those remarks from June, followed by an update:
A revolution happened last night, captured in the three words “Cyrus looked back,” but you probably didn’t notice.
But the story, at least for me, starts decades ago.
Born in 1963, I grew up with no positive gay images. Looking back, I realize that there were gay and lesbian people all around me in my childhood, teachers, neighbors. I mean, those two housemates across the street were not just housemates.
The only use of the word gay I ever heard was on the sitcom “Soap,” where Billy Crystal’s character was strenuously not gay because the man he loved was transgender, though pre-operative.
By the time I got out of the Army in the mid-1980’s, I had the language I needed, and a pretty clear understanding of what would happen if people knew you were gay, as I watched more than a dozen members of my unit face prosecution and discharge. Nonetheless, I came out shortly after I returned to college.
In those days, LGBTQ characters were almost always depicted as traitors or sociopaths, Guy Burgess, the Soviet spy, or Buffalo Bill from “The Silence of the Lambs.” Even in cases where there was a sympathetic portrayal of an LGBTQ character, in film or fiction, there would have to be a tragedy, a deus ex machina where the character or the beloved would die tragically, because after all, the universe demands that the disordered be destroyed. We were affirmed and crushed, conditioned to accept suffering and to believe the universe was against us, with fiction and film as a sort of sadistic Pavlov’s bell.
Things began to change near the turn of this century. LGBTQ characters were allowed to live and to have happy outcomes, as long as they basically stayed in their own worlds, in gay neighborhoods, in gay professions. Then came the sitcom Modern Family. Younger folks have no idea exactly how revolutionary Cam and Mitchell actually are.
Another piece of my childhood was a deep Christian conservatism. I was a youth counselor when the Billy Graham crusade came to town. There was a local television station, independent and Christian, with fun programming like the Lutherans’ “Davey and Goliath.” They had their own kids’ show, run by a young Christian couple. Sometimes they’d even have kids on stage, something I did once. Yep, I was on the Jim and Tammy show, with the Bakkers, on a local television station owned by Pat Robertson. That may well explain everything. Robertson, of course, is a much darker figure, part charlatan, part American Taliban.
Robertson would eventually sell his cable channel to ABC Disney, the same company that gave us Modern Family. They changed the name, twice, ABC Family then Freeform, and gave us programming that was a bit more racy, even while continuing to broadcast Robertson’s 700 Club. There is a delicious irony in the fact that this network, spawned from the hate-filled mind of a man who sells hate, set the LGBTQ community afire a few years ago, when they allowed a romance, and even a kiss, between middle school boys on the show “The Fosters.” But alas, the universe still had it in for little gay boys, and tragedy was required. Though it is a soap opera, so pretty much everybody gets whacked in that show.
Which brings me to an important public service announcement. Allies, do you suffer from “how can they know at such a young age” -itis? There is a cure. Engaging your brain will remind you that you did not need to “know” that you were straight or gender-conforming. Asking “How could he know?” is like asking “When did you decide to breath oxygen?” It is a double standard that implies LGBTQ identity is disordered. It is a question that carries the freight of a million arguments that minority affectional orientations and gender identities are disordered.
Every time you ask an LGBTQ friend how someone could know at such a young age, you put us at risk of serious injury as our eyes roll dramatically. Mother always asked if you want your eyes to get stuck that way.
Which brings us to last night. This spring, ABC Disney premiered a new show, not hidden away, but on the Disney Channel in Friday night prime time. “Andi Mack,” that’s Andi with an “i,” was ground breaking from the get-go. In the first episode, Andi, a middle-schooler with an Anglo father and an Asian mother, learns that her parents are not her parents, that her big sister is.
Disney has wrestled with tricky social issues before, but only in single and somber episodes, never as the frame for an entire series.
True to the kid’s show formula, Andi has two best friends, Buffy and Cyrus, and longs for her dream boy, Jonah Beck. But wait, it sure does look like Cyrus likes Jonah Beck too. But that can’t happen. Disney has been courageous, even giving us an explicitly gay character in the live action remake of “Beauty and the Beast.” They have stood up to calls by Christian extremists to boycott their products. But this is Disney Channel, content for kids. Surely Cyrus isn’t gay. Besides, they had him go on a double date with a girl named Iris.
Spoiler alert. If you were here last night watching the two Pridefest movies and DVR’ed Andi Mack, you will want to leave the room for a moment.
A week ago, Andi got tired of chasing Jonah, a sweet and happy kid who is nonetheless a little absorbed with his sport and controlled by his older girlfriend. She declared her independence, a Jonah-free life.
In a pivotal scene in last night’s finale, that older girlfriend was on the street with Jonah as Andi and Cyrus walk away. The girlfriend told Jonah that if Andi looked back, it meant she “liked” him “liked” him. Jonah couldn’t help himself, and turned to look back at Andi. Despairing, he walked away, and as he did, Andi also turned and looked back, then kept on going. Then, as time stilled and the camera held, Cyrus looked back.
Here’s to positive portrayals. Here’s to Disney. Here’s to revolution.
[Update: This October, Disney continued the revolution, with Cyrus admitting to his friend Buffy that he “liked” Jonah.]