The Disney Channel Champions Outsiders (Just Not Gay Ones)

Gary Marsh, president of Disney Channel

Last month, published the article “When it Comes to Gay Characters, When Will the Teen Channels Grow Up?” that examined how inclusive The Disney Channel and TeenNick are when it comes to gay characters.

At the time, AfterElton tried to speak with someone at the Disney Channel, but the network declined to provide any of the network’s executives for an interview, instead issuing a statement saying in part, Disney aims to “… fulfill our brand
promise to encourage kids to ‘express yourself,’ ‘believe in yourself,’ and
‘celebrate your family.’  

This wasn’t the first time AfterElton tried to address the issue with Disney. Back in 2008, we spoke with Gary Marsh, president of Disney Channel
Worldwide asking why the network had yet to include any gay characters.

At the time, Marsh told us “There have been characters on
Disney Channel who I think people have thought were gay. That’s for the
audience to interpret.” Pressed as to why viewers had to interpret a character as gay, Marsh added “Well, just to speak sort of
in the 30,000-foot level first, we don’t deal with sexuality on the Disney
Channel in general. That’s just sort of not where our audience’s head’s at.
They’re really a pre-sexual audience, for the most part, and so sexuality is
not how we look to tell any kind of stories.”

Obviously, Disney deals with the sexuality of its teen characters all the time as they have crushes, flirt and go on dates. Anyone who ever seen High School Musical knows much of the premise of that movie was young love.

This week Marsh presented a panel at the Television Critics Association Winter Tour for the upcoming Disney Channel movie Lemonade Mouth. Marsh introduced the panel by saying, “Now, these are not the cool kids. These are the outsiders. These are the kids who strike a blow for every other kid who feels displaced or ignored or insubordinated to the cools and the populars at school.”

Indeed, a clip the network showed critics featured a multiethnic and gender diverse cast singing about being proud of who they are and standing up for themselves and others.

The cast of Lemonade Mouth

After the panel, AfterElton again spoke to Marsh about the issue of gay characters appearing on a Disney Channel show or in a movie. You and I first spoke three years ago about whether the Disney Channel might ever include a gay character on one of your shows. I’m wondering if things might have changed since then. You currently have a show called Shake It Up! and a fourteen-year-old fan of the show brought it to our attention saying that he interpreted the character of Gunther as gay, even though he didn’t think the show would ever say the character was gay. So I’m wondering, given Disney’s history of being racially diverse and so influential in the lives of young kids, is Disney ever going to be including gay characters in age appropriate ways?
GM: What I said before really remains true. We leave it up to our audience to interpret who these characters are and how they relate to them. It’s great that this child has interpreted Gunther this way and that it speaks to him in a way that makes sense for his life. And that’s what we’re trying to do — create a diverse cross section of characters on television that kids can have different access points and entry points to connect with.

AE: But why is a gay character something a gay teen should have to interpret? Why can’t there be an age appropriate way to specifically include a gay character? On Shake It Up! two of the straight characters go out on a date. Why does the gay kid have to settle for interpreting [Gunther is gay]? You wouldn’t say that to a black kid.

GM: In fact, there’s all sorts of range. That’s a great example. We are colorblind. We don’t articulate different parts for different ethnicities. In fact that happens all the time.

AE: Yes, but it is clear when a character is black.

GM: Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.

AE: Okay then, multiethnic. Clearly when you watch the show, the shows are multiethnic. But it’s not clear that the show includes gay characters because kids are having to “interpret” them that way. I don’t understand why the gay kids are being told they are second class citizens and have to settle with “interpreting” that some characters are gay like them.

GM: I don’t know that that has a thing to do with being second class.

AE: Are you saying at some point we might see a gay kid going on a date?

GM: I’m saying I don’t know where the series or the Disney Channel or the world might evolve to in that regard. But I don’t see it has some sort of second class…

AE: So the fact that Disney has never included an out gay character isn’t somehow treating gay people as second class?
GM: As you said, according to you, this child is interpreting this person has a gay character. And that seems to work fine for him.

AE: No, he’s settling for it.
GM: I don’t know what that means.

AE: It means he has to say, “Well, this is the best I can hope for. This character seems gay and I can interpret him that way, and that’s what I have to settle for.
GM: I think that seems to be working for him.

AE: [long pause]: Okay, I guess we’ll just have to disagree. I just don’t understand how you can say to a young gay viewer “Your orientation is something we’re so … leery of that we’re not going to make it clear.” That really seems fair and healthy? You know, we’ve got all these gay kids out there and this year we’ve some of them are clearly struggling and being bullied and that led to the “It Gets Better” campaign to say to gay kids, “We know you get get treated unfairly in school, we know you get picked on in school, we know people don’t understand. And yet here is the biggest entertainment company in the world [for kids] basically saying “Well, we’re not going to do anything to make you feel better about your place in the world and help educate people.” And I’m just really surprised.

Publicist: I don’t think we’ve said that.

GM: No, I don’t think we have, but that’s okay.