As if 2022 couldn’t double down on the crazy any further, clips of people enraged over what they perceive as media giant Disney or our under-siege educators “grooming” their precious Becky and/or Ken to become members of the LGBTQ+ community have the nation transfixed. I offer this counterpoint-slash-reality check to ill-informed agitators in front of Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and beyond.
I’m a 54-year-old gay male, American-born, and of Mexican descent. I am the second child born of immigrants in California and the country they chose to make their home, leaving their own families behind. Coming to America was their choice, and my siblings and I could not have flourished better under their watch and care as their American-born children.
There. I said it. I’m gay. No one made me “this way.” No one groomed me. I led myself to the LGBTQ+ community through an inherent need to feel safe and visible. First, I reconciled my fears as to what society would think, and, especially, my parents. Devoutly Catholic and structured in terms of their principles, their difficulty in accepting my truth remains a painful episode. However, it is a period that mercifully was made easier by the support of my siblings, turning my parents around in terms of what losing would mean to them all.
I remember my first real conversation with my mom one afternoon after I came out. I took her to lunch and a movie. She was a wee bit subdued at first, but slowly, she’d pepper our conversation with direct questions about my sexual identity. I explained that choice had nothing to do with my sexuality. No one molested me. No one influenced me. It just felt like the most natural thing in the world.
I distinctly remember realizing when I had no attraction to the female gender. It was in 1976 while watching a first-run episode of “The Bionic Woman.” (It was the multi-part “Kill Oscar” storyline that was a cross-over with “The Six Million Dollar Man.”) I want to think something about the image of Steve Austin fighting off the evil Fembots in hurricane-tossed Hawaii wearing nothing besides his mustache and a pair of swim trunks was what made me take notice. His hairy chest was swoon-worthy. Of course, I kept that to myself and spent the next 15 years lying to myself about my sexual identity.
Perhaps that TV memory was or wasn’t the moment. Perhaps I knew I was gay after listening to my Dad’s original cast albums of My Fair Lady and Camelot, both featuring Julie Andrews. (He saw BOTH original productions on Broadway, which still elicits feelings of jealousy today.)
Maybe it was when I discovered Linda Ronstadt’s first and glorious recording of American Songbook classics, “What’s New” in 1983. Maybe it was Maria Callas singing opera or the Burt Bacharach/Hal Davis catalog, genres my father also introduced to me. Or maybe it was my first time watching Rosalind Russell rip through “Rose’s Turn” in the filmed version of Gypsy? All of this happened during my formative years as a kid.
The first film I remember seeing in a movie theater was Disney’s The Aristocats in 1970. Did a subliminal message exist within the song “Ev’ry Body Wants to Be a Cat?” Was it hiding code to turn me gay? Please, I wanted to be a cool cat. However, it did inspire me to have a career in the filmed arts, which began in earnest at the age of 19 and continues to engage and inspire me today.
Oh, and how I can forget the first song I learned by heart as a child! Yes, that honor goes to Petula Clark’s 1964 monster hit, “Downtown.”
Better yet, my identity as a child of Mexican nationals provided a broader selection of art and artists to further inspire and give my life an incredible context. Hearing my mom’s favorite music of her youth meant Lola Beltran, Jorge Negrete, and Pedro Infante would also teach me about the language and spirit of a people that experienced the power of oppression and conquest, too. Assimilation may have won the first battle for my soul, a time when I referred to myself as “George.” Life experiences, maturity, and pride brought me back to Jorge, also the name of my father.
I gravitated to these artists because they inspired me to want to know more about a world that extended beyond my Chicano suburban existence in Pico Rivera, CA. I felt connected to the art and artists that remain my greatest mentors and heroes. Not just because the gay community favors them; instead, they endure because they were pioneers to appreciate. That I’ve met many aficionados who happen to be gay men is the icing on the reality cake, validating that Los Gays possess incredible cultural taste.
The point is that we are ALL influenced by a broad variety of external social, political, and cultural forces in a lifetime. I firmly believe our sexual and gender identities, however, are truly biological, not bids to merely find ourselves “more interesting.” Exceptions exist, sure. But to generalize and marginalize an entire community to fit an agenda? No. When politicians dare to prey on the fears of the weak and uneducated, the results can be irrevocable. The devastating truth about Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill and other such discriminatory legislation is this idea of forcing conformity on young people. Such blind homogenization is both dangerous and damaging in that it stigmatizes what is entirely natural and pure.
Again, during my elementary school life, I knew I was different, but I lacked the awareness and words to understand why. The awareness would arrive much later and it ultimately made perfect sense once I stepped away from the fear. A voracious reader as a kid, my teachers could not keep up with my pace of finishing all the material on their curriculum. These outstanding and dedicated educators resorted to giving me things NOT on the curriculum that would nurture and encourage my ability to process and understand different narratives. It affected how I related to the other kids, most of whom had no idea what I was talking about most days. Hell, my vocabulary alone was enhanced by my reading my parents’ issues of Newsweek, the LA Times, and the LA Herald-Examiner. I had to know what they knew, too, about the world.
As a result, my cultural references were not things that mattered in my classroom or playground. It felt worrisome to me, so I suppressed certain parts of my personality to “fit in” or conform with the larger group. It remains my biggest regret to this day, this desire of being ignored or left behind. Censoring myself to stop the bullying and social isolation meant killing the part of me that brought me such joy and pride. I saw the bigger picture, and I knew it would lead me away from the suburbs to find the place that would understand and encourage me to be the best version of myself, not just my sexual identity.
Our young people desperately need advocates and champions, not a group of red hat-wearing pod people from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” telling them they’re invisible. We need a greater understanding of sexual and gender identity, not criminalizing what remains a real struggle for so many innocent people. Choosing not to care or recognize the importance of gender and sexual identity is reckless and can be dangerous, even deadly, for those who have no emotional support. We have to find a middle ground, not promote a mantra of “grooming,” which is frustrating and sickening.
I can’t understand how people like DeSantis think forcing people to subscribe to ONE point of view cannot be considered an act of “grooming.” How is indoctrinating generations to espouse every “ism” found in the fear-mongering GOP playbook a civil and just act? This demented cry of “Beware Woke Culture” features once-benign terms appropriated and weaponized, again, by the right to conjure up yet another Boogeyman of panic, this time in the shape of Disney.
Fighting Disney is nothing more than a malignant weapon of mass distraction launched by a party that only deals in regression, not progress. It wasn’t so long ago that people chastised Disney for being extraordinarily slow in creating works that genuinely reflected the diverse faces and cultures of the world. Today, kids – and adults — can see and hear themselves in many of their favorite films and TV series, something denied to countless generations.
How dare Gov. Ron DeSantis and his rabid-mouthed ilk think they can legally force so many of our youth BACK into a closet with acts of stigmatization and fear. How does that serve the greater good of our evolving society? What scares his acolytes more about the presence of people who do not conform to sexual or gender norms? They label us all pedophiles and purveyors of dangerous liberalism when leaders like DeSantis wrap themselves in a divisibility cloak of evangelicalism, shielding their abject ignorance and cruelty.
DeSantis knows what scares people who do not care or want to possess a broader worldview. His brand of anger is nothing new, but he’s learned to refine such a message thanks to the internet and a media complex incapable of stopping coverage of the clown cars driven by people like Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Lauren Boebert (R-CO), Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), and Matt Gaetz (R-FL). Oh, let us not forget the Grifter Dynasty of Donald Trump, a debacle that led to an insurrection and the proliferation of several “Big Lies” extending beyond the 2016 and 2020 elections.
Full disclosure, I am proud of my time as an employee at Disneyland, learning much about people and storytelling thanks to the countless amount of guests that felt comfortable sharing a little piece of their lives with me as they waited in line to board a ride. That comfort level drives my career as a producer/interviewer of studio-produced content today.
I worked for Disneyland while attending California State University at Long Beach from 1989 to 1991. I spent those two years working primarily in Adventureland and Frontierland as a Jungle Cruise skipper, Tiki Room host, and on the Big Thunder Mountain and Mark Twain crews. Perhaps I took a photo of your parents as kids enjoying the day. Maybe they took a picture with me, smiled and laughed at my jokes, or even teased me for working at the park. Either way, not one guest knew much about me or any cast members on site that day. Fate brought us together to exist in the same space. All we had in common was being at a place designed to make good memories.
I still see the looks of relief and comfort when I would speak to a guest in Spanish, establishing a connection to the park in a way they could understand and interact with on a personal level. I will never forget creating the wheelchair section for the disabled guests, many of whom had never been to the park before, like many children and adults visiting that day. During the Main Street Electrical Parade, that combination of light, music, and their favorite characters elicited so many good and positive emotions two times nightly. Again, my crewmates and I did all we could to ensure our guests had a good time and did not feel judged for their disabilities. We would often receive a handshake, a “Thank You,” or a squeeze on the shoulder for jobs well done.
That is the power of the Disney experience. You don’t have to share in it, but don’t ruin it for people, either. The key design feature of the Disney universe is to be a home for everyone, regardless of their views or backgrounds. Is it perfect? Nothing in the world can make that claim. But it matters to millions of people around the world, nonetheless. We must look like savages to them, which saddens and angers me. The message of being the “Happiest Place on Earth” is taken seriously by its many employees, past and present. Because that’s what matters first – the ability to make sure you are happy and safe in that space for however long you visit.
Projecting all this perverse hate and bile onto that sentiment to serve someone else’s ego is a slap to the many of us who gladly made sure YOU were a satisfied guest. Why should any of you care what we do in private? I can guarantee you that is the last thing on our mind when facing a guest. Nor is anyone looking for converts, a grotesque and ridiculous notion. It is the same in any business; you focus on the company and clients to make sure they return.
I want to think education can help stem the tide, but not in this climate of turning back the civil rights clock and the banning/burning of books that could illuminate the path to tolerance and respect. No, the river of America churns and roils with anger, fear, and desperation thanks to people who feel it’s their duty and God-given right to stop a world they feel no longer belongs to their kind. Revolutions start with exhausted masses no longer willing to be force-fed a steady diet of lies, contradictions, and hatred for those who want to make the world a better place. If they only knew people like DeSantis don’t care how they get their votes to win. They only care about keeping their positions in power to fulfill their agenda of authoritarianism.
I can only offer this poem from Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a respected Protestant clergy who dared to speak publicly against Adolf Hitler in public. His dissension led to his spending seven years in concentration camps. This poem, written in 1946, continues to reverberate with even greater power today.
FIRST THEY CAME
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
What makes any of us think Generation Blame, Whine, and Hate will not turn against the rest of society, refusing to conform or subscribe to their violently ignorant agenda? You’re deluding yourself if you think keeping them in power will improve your life. On the contrary, as history has proven, it is just the beginning of something so much worse.
As Pastor Niemöller concludes in his poem: