Florida’s controversial anti-LGBTQ “Don’t Say Gay” bill has passed the state senate, heading to the desk of governor Ron DeSantis, all but guaranteeing its entry into state law—and one of the state’s biggest businesses, the Walt Disney Company, has largely chosen to stay silent.
Instead of turning its attention toward supporting LGBTQ youth and their families, Disney focused its efforts on a different situation making headlines in Florida: its latest luxury vacation venture aboard the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser. Yesterday, however, Disney CEO Bob Chapek finally addressed the issue. Sort of.
In Chapek’s refusal to outright denounce the Florida bill as part of an email sent to Disney staff, a particular part of his statement (you can read the full memo at the Hollywood Reporter) has made waves: his belief that Disney is doing what it can to promote tolerance and equality through its content. “Encanto, Black Panther, Pose, Reservation Dogs, Coco, Soul, Modern Family, Shang-Chi, Summer of Soul, Love, Victor,” the statement listed as influential, diverse works from the company. “These and all of our diverse stories are our corporate statements—and they are more powerful than any tweet or lobbying effort.” But for all its dancing around the power of content rather than Disney’s actual vast capital power, power that it has used to financially support backers of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, probably the most insulting thing about Chapek’s stance is his failure to consider the impact one legendary gay figure in particular has had on Disney: Howard Ashman, who, like the legions of queer employees at Disney since his time, is left ignored by Chapek’s cowardice.
Disney as it’s now known would not exist without the man whom Roy E. Disney described in 2009 documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty as “Another Walt.” Two-time Academy Award winner Ashman played a major role in ushering in the Disney animation renaissance of the ‘90s. He was the lyricist and story collaborator on box office and critical successes like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin along with composer Alan Menken. Chapek might remember him as the creative mind he tried to mine posthumously through Disney’s bids to build off of the successes of the Disney renaissance, efforts that just couldn’t match the success of the originals that saved the company.
“Howard Ashman looms large, not only for his incredible storytelling gifts and his lyrical gifts, but because I really believe he’s responsible more than anyone else for the second golden age of Disney animation,” Lin-Manuel Miranda recently said to IndieWire, when discussing how Ashman directly inspired his whole career and most recently his work on Disney’s Oscar-nominated Encanto.
Jodi Benson, the voice of The Little Mermaid’s Ariel, agrees. “The animation studio was basically shutting down,” she told NPR while recalling going in to record for the 1989 musical. “When we did our film, we didn’t even have an animation division over at the lot… it was just unbelievable to think that Walt’s vision was dying.”
As many young, marginalized Disney fans can attest, it truly was music from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast that helped minority communities begin to find a way into a new culture being built within a company like Disney, especially considering it built its back off films that enabled traditional, heteronormative conformity. Ashman’s lyrics actively rallied against some of the fairytale tropes that came before, giving us independent heroines over passive princesses, characters that knew and proudly stated what they wanted from their lives, and pushing Disney at large to evolve as times changed. Ashman’s push back against conformity can be found throughout his lyrical work—take Beauty and the Beast’s still timely “Mob Song,” for example: “We don’t like what we don’t understand / in fact it scares us / and this monster is mysterious at least / Bring your guns / bring your knives / save your children and your wives / we’ll save our village and our lives.”
The lyrics could be interpreted as a response to the ostracization of people affected by the AIDS epidemic, a disease that tragically took Ashman away from us too soon when he passed away in 1991. It remains relevant with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and anti-trans directives across America, especially in states like Florida that receive a great deal of money from Disney—their money siding with the mob taking arms, in the purported name of “saving your children and your wives,” from marginalized people who just want to live their lives as their truest selves.
In Don Hahn’s 2018 documentary Howard, which is streaming on Disney+, Bill Lauch, Ashman’s partner (and the first openly gay man to accept an Academy Award on behalf of his partner) described “Mob Song” as “a perfect manifestation of people seeking a scapegoat for their troubles and identifying a villain and wanting to exterminate it.” In another poignant Howard moment Lauch reflected on his partner’s legacy. “Disney is the biggest producer of family entertainment in the world, and here is a gay man writing songs and producing songs for kids,” Lauch says at one point. “It wasn’t assumed that everyone would be OK with that. He was afraid. We were both afraid.”
Even if Disney at large doesn’t, Alan Menken, a long-time collaborator of Ashman, continues to actively honor his friend. During his concerts, the composer performs “Sheridan Square” alongside their shared Disney classics, a heartfelt number Ashman wrote about the AIDS crisis. In a conversation with D23: Inside Disney, Menken talked about how he had begun to introduce the piece in concerts and the audience reaction encouraged him to even bring it to the stage at Disney’s D23 Expo. “It’s very emotional and very positive despite all the grief… he really was grappling with understanding what this was and what his relationship was to this,” Menken recalled, adding that he would wrack his brain trying to help his friend find solutions when Ashman was too tired to work. In those conversations, Ashman told him, “I don’t want to act as if this is something I brought on myself or that I will get rid of by some other method like it my fault or my responsibility.” And so Menken plays it to say what needs to be said, what Ashman wanted to say.
Ashman laid the foundation of the musical landscape for the modern Disney sound. It’s such an insult to his legacy, and to the myriad queer creatives and other employees that work to make Disney one of the biggest companies on the planet today, to tacitly support legislators who make LGBTQ+ people feel like their safety and lives are at stake. Writing 25 years after after his passing in 2016, Sarah Gillespie, Ashman’s sister, commented in a personal blog why the realities of the AIDS epidemic that took her brother’s life should never be ignored. “It was ugly, it was brutal, it stole from the world some of the best and the brightest not only in the arts but in the sciences and the humanities and mostly, in the hearts of all those who loved its victims. It was cruel and unnecessary and a terrible curse made all the worse because of the painful slowness of the richest country in the world to acknowledge the disease and attempt to find a cure.”
Disney has spoken up before in the past on political issues, especially during Bob Iger’s tenure. Iger publicly stated it would be “very difficult” to continue production in Georgia if the state passed a bill heavily restricting abortion rights, adding that “I think many people who work for us will not want to work [in Georgia], and we will have to heed their wishes in that regard.” Under Chapek, seemingly the opposite has been the case. Disney recently came under fire for moving the majority of its Disney Parks Imagineering teams to Florida, where Disney World is based, away from Disneyland’s home California—now endangering the livelihoods of any of those employees who are part of the LGBTQ community, or have loved ones who are, with the passing of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. This is a moment where, as it did in Georgia, Disney really needs to do the right thing—especially in the state that houses one of the “Most Magical Places on Earth” in Disney World.
Once upon a time, before Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Ashman wrote a song titled “Disneyland” about the experiences of the park. “I know you’re gonna say the trees arе paper mache/It’s done with mirrors/The magic there,” the lyrics say. “Each little birds full of springs/You press a button it sings/Recorded music in the air.”
Ashman’s music is what makes the magic of Disney’s real. Walking through Disney’s parks, his presence is felt, the tune of songs like “Part of Your World” or “Belle” playing in the background noise of the lands. His music prominently functions as the through-line on rides based on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. There would be no night-time firework spectaculars and parades without the pulse of songs like “Friend like Me,” “Be Our Guest,” and “Under the Sea.”
Ashman knew that. Shortly before his passing, Ashman visited Walt Disney World while on The Little Mermaid press tour, getting to see his work come to life at the park. “I think it dawned on him that the work he’d been doing there was going to live on,” Lauch recalls at one point in Howard. “It was going to become part of this canon of pieces that Walt Disney has in their collection. And it would reach many people.”
Ashman’s legacy does indeed still live on in Disney’s work, whether it’s in the parks or in the content Chapek believes to be so “inspiring” that it should speak for itself. In spite of the overpowering greed in rising ticket prices or upcharges that alienate the everyday middle-class family more and more each year, there still is something magical and fantastical about these parks, and Ashman’s music plays a part in that. It’s why, in part, it’s so overwhelming not only to Disney fans but cast members at the parks and employees at Disney’s studios to be constantly let down by choices the company makes, from ignoring the covid-19 pandemic to re-open its parks, to its newfound silence over Florida endangering LGBTQ+ youth. Where is that company-mandated key of inclusion that somehow appears to be lost right now? It can’t just be used during Pride month, as the company makes bank off Mickey Mouse-shaped rainbow merch, or from crowds drawn in by Disney “Gay Days.” It can’t just be used when Disney collaborates with prominent figures in the gay community, like Drag Race’s Nina West, who hosts Disney themed Pride meet ups and recently was featured as the host of Disney+’s “This is Me” Pride Spectacular .
The company is losing the goodwill of those who love its work every day—goodwill earned by the creative genius of Ashman, but also people like Bob Gurr, Disney’s first openly gay Imagineer, who helped built the lands thousands of family flock to from around the world. It loses it from creatives like Benjamin Siemon and Dana Terrace, whose work at Disney Animation is lauded for its handling of LGBTQ+ themes and characters in shows like Ducktales or The Owl House.
Without any of these voices, Disney would have become a relic of a bygone era long ago. Instead of lining the pockets of politicians seeking to do great harm to the lives of marginalized people, Disney leadership needs to raise its voice for those it owes so much to—and for those who can make it so much better in the future.
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