A short history of LGBTQ+ representation in Disney films
Is the kiss in 'Lightyear' worthy of celebration — or another instance of Disney's tepidness?
The latest Pixar movie, Lightyear, includes the most prominent example of LGBTQ+ representation in a Disney animated film to date. Here's everything you need to know:
What LGBTQ+ representation is there in Lightyear?
In Pixar's Lightyear, Uzo Aduba voices Alisha Hawthorne, Buzz Lightyear's close friend and fellow space ranger. Early on 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, and Aduba's character isn't in the entire movie. But Alisha and her family are still crucial to the plot, and it's the first time a Pixar film has featured a same-sex kiss.
What other LGBTQ+ representation has there been in Disney films?
Before 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 was 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, and recently, Marvel's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness showed one of its heroes, America Chavez, has two moms.
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 turns 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" has since been 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 like the same-sex kiss in Eternals and now Lightyear, Disney has slowly been taking its LGBTQ+ representation further — and over the past year, Eternals, Doctor Strange, and Lightyear have all been banned in Saudi Arabia and other countries due to gay content.
How does the 'Don't Say Gay' controversy factor into this?
In 2022, Disney faced backlash from employees after CEO Bob Chapek declined to speak out against the so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill in Florida, which forbids 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).
Amid this controversy, Pixar employees penned a stunning letter 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.
At Lightyear's premiere, star Chris Evans told Vanity Fair, "It's great that [the kiss is] back in the film. I think it's a shame that it's such a story. It should be more normalized, but I'm glad we are making those steps."