It's strange to be anxious during a kids' movie, but the butterflies fluttered during a recent screening of Onward — the first Disney/Pixar movie to introduce an unambiguous LGBTQ character. Considering the years of baggage I carry when it comes to hearing movie audiences hoot, holler, gag, and explode in peels of mocking laughter when "gay stuff" comes up, maybe the tension was not so odd.
The nerves did turn out to be misplaced. When Lena Waithe's cyclops cop character discusses the trials of helping raise her girlfriend's children, the moment passed with no sound or emotion from the audience. Waithe's "coming out" was a quick but clear moment, one that didn't faze the well-to-do L.A. parents and their rapt children attending the screening. My son didn't even take notice, but as the child of two dads, women talking about "girlfriends" and men discussing "their boyfriend" or "husband" passes without notice.
Waithe's character never reappears and serves little purpose in the grand scheme of Onward, which like many Disney movies, centers on a child longing for a departed parent. I was slightly disappointed that the lesbian (or bi?) cop was such a throwaway character — and that Waithe didn't have more to do — but I was still generally pleased. Onward's inclusion is proof that Hollywood is starting to accept LGBTQ people are part of the world — and they no longer needed to be hidden from view of children.
Like the candidacies of Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobucher, Pete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren, Onward's queer character represents the transitory moment we're living in. Misogyny and homophobia are so ingrained in our societies that a female or LGBTQ president is getting closer, but still very far from reality, while depictions of queer people in entertainment are still so anomalous that a tiny inclusion in a children's movie inspires several think pieces (guilty).
So, what will it look like when we have a kids' movie that centers an LGBTQ character or theme? Instead of a quick reference to a same-sex partner or spouse, imagine if a Disney protagonist wears gender-nonconforming clothes or falls in love with their same-sex best friend. If, instead of daddy issues or the mystery of the afterlife, a hero's journey was slowly grasping the world's bias against people like them and working to undo it? That's truly thrilling to imagine.
You can already hear the rustling of the One Million Moms' phone tree, right? Of course, a kids' movie that centers LGBTQ characters or stories does not have to be sexual or racy to tell an honest story — but the connection between LGBTQ people and depravity remains embedded in our culture, so much so that Pixar still has to tip-toe around the issue in 2020.
The discomfort is also so ingrained in us as queer people that we often make the association ourselves — and pant with anxiety when our lives are served up for public consumption. I'm convinced this is the growing pains of an evolving society, but it still pains, nonetheless.