How Gay Day pushed Disney out of the closet

Walt Disney might have been horrified. Self-appointed guardians of the "family values" label definitely would have been horrified. But there was no fear -- or even a hint of irony -- on the part of the video crew stationed in the forecourt of Cinderella's Castle at the Magic Kingdom, their camera trained on a well-toned man wearing cut-off shorts, a red T-shirt and, dangling from his neck, rainbow-colored beads. "So, tell us," said the interviewer, reporting for a tourism show to be broadcast on German TV. "What kind of man do you like?"

On that first Saturday of June 1999, the question turned few heads among the passing swarms also garbed in red -- the official uniform of the unofficial Gay Day at Walt Disney World. But the occasion that filled Disney's parks that weekend with an estimated 80,000 gays and lesbians did not go unchallenged: As the crew zoomed in on the man's T-shirt (which said on the front, "If you like what you see" and on the back, "E-mail me" ), a chartered plane floated a banner overhead for a ministry that vowed it could turn gays straight. "Freedom from homosexuality: Jesus Christ," it read.

The camera crew's assigned escort, one of the troops who famously police Disney's public image, barely looked up.

Ten years old this weekend, Gay Day -- a grass-roots gathering initially launched with fliers in local bars and now promoted worldwide on the Internet and in gay-targeted media -- is a phenomenon with undeniable impact on two fronts.

First, it's become a mainstay of Central Florida's tourist economy. Host hotels -- there are three this year -- set aside blocks of rooms in package deals pitched to the tens of thousands who flock to the weekend. Places such as Pleasure Island, House of Blues and Hard Rock Live now program specifically for the event. A private beach party at Disney's Typhoon Lagoon water park is expected to sell out more than 5,000 tickets at $52 each. Several late-night dance parties at multiple sites, including Disney-MGM Studios, will draw similar numbers at similar prices. The Orlando-Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau doesn't track such concentrations of what it considers to be leisure travelers, but if each person who attended a Gay Day activity wore a delegate badge, the numbers would dwarf the 50,000 people who otherwise constitute the bureau's largest convention booking. And it's still growing.

But more than the economic impact, Gay Day influenced the cultural landscape -- and, most dramatically, the culture of The Walt Disney Company itself.

Walt Disney's enduring impact on popular culture justifies portrayals of him as a visionary. But he was not an enlightened visionary. The man whose name has no match as a stamp for wholesome family fare also "remained to the far right on the political spectrum, suspicious of foreigners, and unwilling to hire Jews or blacks in his company," writes Stefan Kanfer in "Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America from Betty Boop to Toy Story." "More than once he announced his preference for animals over people, and called his time 'the century of the Communist cutthroat, the fag and the whore.'"

When Walt died in 1966, Disneyland was just 11 years old; Disney World was still five years in the future. But so indelible was Walt's imprint that the loss of his creative vision caused the company to stagnate. Not until 1984 did new CEO Michael Eisner start to shake Disney back to life. Yet the family-friendly franchise Walt created left the company shackled with restraints. Tampering with tradition and Disney's long-established mainstream, Middle-American appeal might backfire. Could the new team redefine Disney without losing their core audience? Would they?

Eisner gave them no choice. He fortified the foundation, adding Disney's own cable network, a retail chain, new resorts and theme parks, even reviving Walt's signature Sunday-night TV show with himself as host. But he also deliberately shattered the mold: When the former movie executive jump-started Disney's film division, he went after Disney's first "R" ratings. He pushed Disney into television sitcom production, rock-music releases and urban redevelopment, making over a famously seedy stretch of New York City's Times Square with a retail monolith and a restored Broadway theater. He later would acquire ABC, on which "NYPD Blue" debuted the bare butt and Ellen DeGeneres came out. In short, he diversified Disney with subsidiaries whose output was everything the brand was not: gritty, sexy and controversial.

But the Disney name itself was still something to safeguard. Divisions such as Touchstone Television or Miramax Films or Mammoth Records were given or remained affixed with non-Disney labels. It was less a conspiracy to defraud the public than an admission that certain lines were not to be crossed; as America's most calculating purveyor of family values, the new Disney placed image above everything but profit.

Which is why, in the early 1990s, as some of its gay and lesbian workers urged Disney to extend health-care benefits to their same-sex partners, the company again seemed paralyzed. Eisner's push into sophisticated, adult-oriented entertainment had not harmed the Disney brand in the public eye. But being perceived as pro-gay was another thing altogether. When, after a three-year internal debate, it finally put those benefits in place, conservative religious and right-wing lobbies unleashed what would grow into the largest prolonged attack on Disney in the company's history.

But the origins of that attack actually lie in the Gay Day congregation, an event built around the first Saturday of June and over which Disney's heavy-handed corporate management had absolutely no control.

In 1991, subscribers to an Orlando computer bulletin-board service picked that day for a group outing to the Magic Kingdom. They spread the word locally with fliers in bars, advising all who showed up to wear red so they would stand out. That first Gay and Lesbian Day at the Magic Kingdom, as it was then promoted, attracted a few hundred people. By 1995 -- the year Disney announced it would offer domestic-partner benefits starting the next year -- Gay Day was drawing an estimated 32,000 people. Anti-gay opponents had taken note and were demanding the company to put a halt to it. The growing backlash brought national media attention.

Alarmed and fearful when Gay Day began, Disney had tried to keep its head low, saying only that anyone had the right to buy a ticket to its theme parks. But as the event grew, the company had to confront reality. Even before the benefits debate, Gay Day put Disney on the defensive. And the company responded in a way that finally embraced the gay and lesbian communities with which Disney already had a winking alliance.

Gay Day led Disney to stand up to its conservative critics. Gay Day showed Disney that opponents, even when mobilized, couldn't tarnish the brand -- or, more significantly, affect the bottom line. Gay Day thus made it easier for Disney itself to come out of the closet.

Disney's "family values" image is nothing new, according to Rick Foglesong, a political-science professor at Rollins College who tracks Disney's activity in the state.

Walt built Disneyland because he felt amusement parks of the day were unseemly, and he didn't feel comfortable as a parent and grandparent taking kids there, says Foglesong. In fact, when Disneyland opened, Walt gave instructions not to hire anyone who had worked at boardwalk-type theme parks, to keep that seedy element out.

That determination to police disruptive influences was obvious again with the announcement, 10 years after Disneyland's opening, that the company would build Disney World. The new, 27,000-acre site was deliberately vast and distanced from anything nearby to avoid a repeat of the clutter that had swiftly surrounded Disneyland. When plans for the Florida resort were announced in 1966, Walt offered this none-too-prophetic assurance: "When [patrons] come into this world, we will take the blame for what goes on."

Decades later, steely control remained a characteristic of corporate management. But that control was challenged by the company's growth.

No longer simply a caretaker of Walt's cartoon characters and theme-park legacy, Eisner's Disney had diversified long before its 1996 merger with Capital Cities/ABC formed a then-unrivaled giant in entertainment production and distribution. At the time that diversity created contradictions aplenty. The animated features "The Little Mermaid," "Pocahontas" and "Beauty and the Beast" (both the film and Broadway musical) had restored Disney's status as the dominant producer of family-friendly fare. But its book division also had released "Growing Up Gay," a humorous collection of coming-of-age tales by the comedy trio "Funny Gay Males." Meanwhile, its Miramax division released the gay-cleric film "Priest" and the unsettling "Kids," an unrated (to avoid the equivalent of X) docudrama about aimless youth in the age of AIDS. Rapid expansion also meant some things slipped through the cracks: Just before the 1995 release of "Powder" -- a feature film about a boy with pale skin and mysterious powers -- Disney presumably was surprised to learn the film's director had served jail time as a convicted child-sex offender. (Two years later, in 1997, Disney's Hollywood Records label would recall an album by a rap act, "Insane Clown Posse," on the same day of its release after red-faced executives learned too late of its obscenity-laced lyrics.) Starting not long after Eisner's arrival, advocates of traditional morality already had accused the company of abandoning standards set by Walt Disney. By the mid 1990s the opportunities for those voices to focus their attacks were starting to multiply.

Only one exception interrupted the company's progress: In 1994, Disney announced plans for a historical theme park outside of Washington, D.C. The howls caused an unprecedented retreat. But in all other matters of business and creative direction, the complaints were scattered, and Disney could easily ignore them. Besides, the company was charting its own course. As long as quarterly earnings continued to climb, Disney didn't need to answer to anyone.

Gay Day became the lightning rod critics needed to challenge that corporate strategy. Never mind that the event was imposed on Disney rather than initiated by it; by refusing to discourage the gathering, argued those critics, Disney condoned it.

The irony is that Gay Day caused Disney to align itself with organizers whose smirking ambition -- if they thought about the company at all -- was to rub Disney the wrong way.

Its beginnings couldn't have been more humble. "I don't think at the time we had any anticipation of [Gay Day] doing anything of this scale, or that it would have any influence on Disney making any decisions to benefit their own employees, or would influence the way they deal with outside groups trying to influence what they do," says Doug Swallow, who is credited as Gay Day's founder. "Back in 1991 when we started it, it was truly [just] ... why not tell everybody else about it at the bars and see who would show up? I'm sure there was a little bit of, you know, ‘It'll be fun to see how Disney reacts to this.' But it wasn't meant to be in-your-face -- 'hey look at us, we're going to make a mess in your park.' It was meant to be, 'We're going to go out and have fun like everybody else.' That was how it began."

Disney's history with gay and lesbian communities is long and complex, writes Sean Griffin in Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company From the Inside Out. Starting with the 1930s use of Mickey Mouse as a code phrase for gay, Griffin says, gay culture has affectionately embraced much of Disney's output, whether in animation, live-action films, TV series, theme parks or merchandise. The appeal, according to both Griffin and cultural analyst Jamie O'Boyle, lies in Disney's storytelling themes of inclusion. (This, says O'Boyle, despite the fact that, "When Walt first started, Mickey Mouse was the little irreverent guy kicking authority figures in the butt. Walt's biggest supporters at the time were the political-theorist leftists.")

"Disney's core message for the past 50 years is that the underdog outsider always has something of value to offer," says O'Boyle, who studies Disney and has worked for the company as a consultant. "People who refuse to recognize this are either fools or evil. When you are gay and have to come to terms with yourself, your family and society in general, this message resonates with you. In fact, it's the core theme of all of our hero stories. Disney is not the only company that tells the story, but it's the only one that tells the story exclusively. ... I'm not sure if I would call Disney 'pro-gay.' It's more like they are pro-values, and those values center around inclusion."

Although in the 1930s Walt is said to have stood by an animator arrested on a charge of homosexuality, compassion vanished when the company's public image was at stake. In 1963, Tommy Kirk -- a child actor in such live-action Disney films as "Old Yeller," "The Shaggy Dog" and "Swiss Family Robinson" -- had his contract suspended "because of growing awareness of his homosexual orientation," says Griffin, whose book relates the story based upon Kirk's published comments. "Supposedly [Kirk] got too frisky with a boyfriend at a public pool in Los Angeles, and the other boy's mother found out about it and went to Disney," he says. "They called Tommy in and fired him."

Not until 1978 did a gay group first attempt a large-scale event inside a Disney theme park. That year a group of West Hollywood bar owners, organized as the innocuous-sounding Los Angeles Bar and Restaurant Association, picked a date and secured a block of discounted tickets to be used during Disneyland's regular operating hours. The sponsors succeeded in keeping Disney in the dark about the nature of the gathering. "Disney didn't realize until a week before, and freaked," says Griffin.

According to his interviews with participants, the company "sort of made preparations for the worst," says Griffin. "Live music was canceled at the last second so that there would be no encouragement for same-sex dancing. They beefed up security. They told people who were working that day, or at least for that night, that courtesy was optional." When as many as 10,000 people showed up, "it really became a major sort of war zone," he says. "Not that it got violent or anything. But the people who attended that night -- and it was mostly gay men who attended -- were very aware of the fact that they were not welcome there." Some had something further to prove; groping, and more, broke out on rides, in bathrooms, behind bushes. "Things really got sort of out of hand in general between people, to the point where a number of gays and lesbians who worked at the park themselves were sort of shocked and appalled at what the visitors were doing."

Fooled once, Disney would not be fooled a second time. "It was not until the '80s, and very specific AIDS charity events, that you had anything going on like that [at Disneyland] again," says Griffin, "and I'm sure there was much more careful surveying of who was asking for various things."

In the interim Disney took a high-profile stand against open homosexuality in its parks. To be sure, those parks had -- and still have -- unposted policies for conduct and appearance. For example, bare chests are not permitted, and park hosts have replaced shirts on guests whose clothing bore offending words or images. (At Gay Day in 1998, a man whose drag outfit featured a purple gown was politely but firmly steered into a store on Main Street U.S.A. to pick out other apparel, at Disney's expense.) Those policies also forbid overt and inappropriate sexual behavior by any guest, homosexual or not. As one gay supervisor at Disney World put it, "Anything that you wouldn't do in a mall, you shouldn't do here." More than two decades after the opening of Disneyland, however, "inappropriate" for homosexuals still meant dancing together.

"We knew that Disney had a policy against same-sex dancing, and we knew that we were going to challenge it," says Crusader, the mono-named Palm Springs activist who carried out that challenge on Sept. 13, 1980.

At an end-of-summer event called Date Night, Crusader -- then age 19 and known as Andrew Exler -- took to the dance floor of Disneyland's Tomorrowland Terrace with a male friend. Told by a security guard that they would have to find female partners, the two refused. Five guards escorted the pair to security, where they were separated, lectured on the policy and told they could return to the park if they agreed not to dance together; when they refused again, their hands were stamped with an "X." Says Crusader: "We were ejected and branded and tossed out of the park as though we had committed some sort of crime."

Four years later a jury in Orange County, Calif., found Disney guilty of civil-rights discrimination. Disney appealed, but in 1985 quietly dropped both the appeal and the policy and agreed to pay $25,000 for Crusader's legal fees. It was thus a surprise when, a year later, a similar squeeze was put on members of a gay student group from the University of California at Los Angeles who danced with same-sex partners in a Disneyland disco. The men later contacted Crusader, who joined them in a meeting with Disney representatives, along with an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. The resulting lawsuit was settled out of court. "I don't think there's been any problem since then," says Crusader.;;

That same year, 1986, Disney for the first time lent its name, as well as Disneyland, to a glittering "A-list," after-hours fundraiser for AIDS Project Los Angeles. The company even pledged to match the money raised by ticket sales with an equal donation. Subsequently, "AIDS charity" became code-language for a series of annual after-hours "gay nights" at Disneyland that continued without Disney sponsorship. In the mid-'90s, however, a promoter came under attack for not sharing enough of its profit with the intended beneficiary, resulting one year in a boycott campaign. By 1997 such "gay nights" had run their course. The next year, Disney scaled back the number of private parties for which the park would be closed, and "gay night" was no more.

By contrast, Orlando's Gay Day had no activist or fund-raising agenda. Nor, despite its June timing, was it tied to the month's Gay Pride events. "All month long you're bombarded with ‘give me money for this, give me money for that, donate here, donate there, fight for our rights.' It gets to be a bit much," says Doug Swallow. "I was just wanting to see something done for fun."

A computer-software designer, Swallow was a subscriber to Compu-Who?, a local computer bulletin-board service that linked gays and lesbians, some of them Disney workers. Online members also met up with each other through regular group outings. In February 1991, Swallow was chatting about possible events with others online when "the idea just came: Why don't we go to Disney?" he says. The activity was tacked onto the social calendar for early June, when a pre-summer lull then prompted Disney to discount tickets for local residents.

But Swallow knew the potential impact. Working with the Orlando gay and lesbian community center, he had previously promoted an unofficial gay and lesbian day at the Central Florida Fair, with attendees encouraged to dress in red so they'd stand out. The goal there, he recalls, was nothing more subversive than to let straight people see gay people having fun in a shared setting. The day at Disney offered the same thing on a bigger stage. A week before the event, Swallow tipped Sentinel columnist Bob Morris: The result was a 200-word item, beginning, "Should be a colorful crowd at Disney World this weekend. Central Florida homosexuals are being urged to turn out in force at the theme park and wear bright red to take part in The First Annual Official Unofficial Gay & Lesbian Day at the Magic Kingdom." Local radio picked it up, sparking debate and generating the free publicity that organizers would come to rely upon. Between 500 and 1,000 people showed up.

That first gathering caught Disney off guard, but was otherwise uneventful. To mark the second gathering, organizers printed their first red T-shirts and sold all 200. It was again a mostly word-of-mouth event, says Swallow, although word now reached well beyond Orlando's gay community.

With the memory of the 1978 episode at Disneyland not forgotten, Disney steeled itself for a repeat. Conversation overheard inside the park about a mass gathering -- some of it in clandestine tones -- fed suspicions that a protest was in the works. "I remember hearing people say, 'We need to make sure there's security around the Castle at 3 o'clock because something big's going to happen,'" recalls one gay Disney manager. "Well, the big thing that happened was that people got together at 3 to watch the parade. The company couldn't believe it. It was almost like the two groups had such little awareness of each other that it created this huge space of fear."

Among the estimated 5,000 who attended that year were a minority who saw it as a defiant political act. As at Disneyland 14 years earlier, the chip-on-the-shoulder attitude didn't sit well with all who went or worked there. In response, about a dozen gay cast members took it upon themselves the third year to embark on some image control of their own. Groups that showed up wearing red were welcomed outside the park and given the rules: Keep your shirts on. Avoid overt sexual comments and conduct. "To walk hand-in-hand is great; to French kiss in the middle of the street is inappropriate -- not for Disney, but for us as a community," advised one greeter. Inside the park those greeters later acted as "queer police," stepping ahead of security to ensure that parade lines were not blocked and playfully obscene chants were redirected. "It was done tongue-in-cheek, but there was no question that this team of people was there to facilitate this event," recalls one gay Disney supervisor, who was among the volunteers. "And the crowd accepted it. It really was one of those epiphanies for me. People behaved." The greeters were never identified as Disney employees, and their hours were unpaid. Magic Kingdom management never endorsed their presence. "But I communicated with [management] regularly," says the supervisor, "and they never told me to stop."

Evidence of Disney's unease was everywhere. The company lined up shuttles to other theme parks for guests who complained, or gave them passes to return another day; in some instances, angry straight guests caught unawares in red shirts were given white ones to wear. Most glaring were the sandwich-board signs placed that year at the Magic Kingdom's entrance, alerting guests that there was a large gathering of gays and lesbians inside. Homosexuals weren't the only ones offended; many heterosexuals also objected to what was, in effect, a warning. But participants from Orlando who were accustomed to the Disney culture saw history in the making: It was the first time Disney featured the words "gay" and "lesbian" so prominently. Anti-gay activists, meanwhile, interpreted the signs as proof of the company's collusion.

Disney struggled to keep its distance. But it grew more difficult as the focus on Gay Day widened -- and as Swallow garnered advance headlines by mailing more than 125 news releases to gay and mainstream media. That third event, in 1993, drew coverage that included a day of mentions on CNN. When advance publicity reached a small group of parents at an eastern Florida middle school, the parents protested a field trip that coincided with Gay Day. But the kids wouldn't buy it. At a hastily arranged meeting at the school, student after student took the podium and told their parents to "grow up, there's room at Disney for everybody."

And yet the bigger surprise followed: When the parents demanded a refund on their tickets, the company -- whose policy of swiftly soothing its guests' concerns is legend -- said no.

Disney, says Swallow, had started to develop a backbone.

Two years earlier, Sass Nielsen -- then a technical writer at the Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif. -- asked to place a free notice in "Newsreel," the company newsletter, advertising a meeting to gauge interest in a new employees group. The newsletter already carried notices for groups formed around hobbies and social activities. Disney even had an unofficial policy of kicking in $200 to help such groups get started. Nielsen wanted to launch a group for gays and lesbians. "She had a couple problems with them sort of coming up with various excuses not to run the ad," says Griffin, who pieced together his account from interviews with other participants. "And so eventually she just wrote a letter to Michael Eisner directly, saying, 'What's the deal here?'" Eisner intervened, and the notice ran. By the end of its first gathering, in August 1992, the new group had a name: Lesbian and Gay United Employees (LEAGUE).

At the time, Disney already had a year-old, company-wide written policy that protected employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation. This policy had emerged from negotiations with a local of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union that represented 1,200 food-service workers at Disneyland. LEAGUE began pushing to extend health and medical benefits to same-sex partners. Or at least Nielsen pushed. "Sass was very much trying to make [LEAGUE] more of an activist, in-the-front-lines type of thing, which turned off both the bigwigs at the studio and a number of the people who were possible members of the group," says Griffin.

Disney's skittishness was obvious. A memo in the wake of LEAGUE's launch specifically forbid employee groups from advancing a "political agenda," says Griffin. To the company, a social club was the only acceptable purpose for LEAGUE, and that's how LEAGUE primarily defined itself. Image-conscious corporate suits also objected when, just months after LEAGUE's founding, its members created a banner for pride events that displayed a pink triangle and the words, "Part of the Family at the Walt Disney Company." As LEAGUE members readied for the April 25, 1993, national gay-rights march in Washing-ton, D.C., Griffin says, "the company told them they couldn't use the Disney name on their banner." The group quickly doctored the wording so it read, "Part of the Family at THAT Company." But the marchers' Mickey Mouse ears and balloons erased any doubts. (Disney relaxed its opposition the next year, and the group has marched with the original banner in every Los Angeles gay-pride parade since 1994.)

LEAGUE established Disney as the first film and television studio with a gay employees group. But that pioneering effort did not force change any faster than the company was willing to embrace it. Among major Hollywood studios, Disney was one of the last holdouts when, in October 1995, its decision to offer health benefits to partners of gays and lesbians was announced -- quietly -- in an employee newsletter. Before making that decision, top management had spent three years mulling its impact; debate focused less on the bottom line than on public perception.

Meanwhile, as airlines, beer companies and national gay magazines began to sign on as sponsors of the event and its spillover activities, Gay Day's momentum grew. The media -- always eager to poke at Disney's virginal veneer -- kept the controversy alive. In Florida each June, spokesmen for the Christian Coalition and the American Family Association encountered a press eager to disseminate their views. Calls from religious conservatives for Disney to halt Gay Day mounted. Escalating complaints aimed at the company were sometimes as goofy as the one by the American Life League, an obscure group whose members claimed to see S-E-X spelled out in a cloud of dust in "The Lion King" and who insisted that a line of dialogue in Aladdin whispered, "Good teen-agers, take off your clothes." (In January 1999 the company did recall 3.4 million videos of "The Rescuers" after finding that animators inserted a split-second frame of a naked woman.)

But the prolonged pull through the mud only served to toughen the target of the attacks. For both sides, the last straw was the launch of domestic-partner benefits.

A subsequent letter mailed to Eisner by 15 Florida state lawmakers condemned the policy as "anti-family" and added, "We strongly disapprove of your inclusion and endorsement of a life-style that is unhealthy, unnatural and unworthy of special treatment." The Florida Baptist Convention -- citing Gay Day, partner benefits and the company's ties to cruise ships that offer alcohol and gambling -- urged members to stop patronizing Disney. The Assemblies of God urged its 2.5 million members to boycott "until Disney returns to its former stance of producing products of high family and moral values." When Ellen DeGeneres came out, both in real life and as a fictional TV character, leaders of the 15 million-member Southern Baptist Convention -- America's largest Protestant denomination -- followed the lead of their Florida delegates and imposed their own boycott, citing Disney's "Christian-bashing, family-bashing, pro-homosexual agenda."

Wall Street scoffed; five months after the Southern Baptist vote, Disney's stock was up roughly 10 percent. So did Disney, at last rising out of its bunker. The statement that followed would have been considered tame, coming from any other source, but in Disney's corporate culture it was jaw-dropping. "We find it curious that a group that claims to espouse family values would vote to boycott the world's largest producer of wholesome family entertainment," it said. In other words: Go ahead. Abandon Disney. Where else can you turn?

Manning the front lines, Eisner himself sat down for an interview with "60 Minutes." Of Gay Day in particular, he said: "The homosexual organizations arrange that day themselves. We do not put up signs that say, 'No Blacks Allowed,' 'No Jews Allowed,' 'No Homosexuals Allowed.' As long as they are discreet and handle themselves properly, are dressed properly, they're welcome in our doors, and I think it would be a travesty in this country to exclude anybody."

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Of critics, he added: "We're large, and when somebody attacks us, it gets their agenda in the news." As for the peaking attacks on Disney's content, he added: "[W]hen somebody says "Pocahontas" is anti-Christian, or anti-Jewish, or anti-black, or anti-Native American, I say, inside, deep down -- they're nuts, they really are."

Says Doug Swallow: "It was amazing to finally see [expressed in words] what I think everybody at Disney thought."

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A month after the third Gay Day -- at which gay Disney employees acted on their own to police the crowd's behavior -- one of those volunteers was asked to return a phone call to an angry guest.

The visitor was gay, and livid about the signs he'd seen posted at the entrance. When the employee said he, too, was gay, the guest called him an Uncle Tom; the sympathetic worker could only reply that progress was incremental, and told the guest to come back the next year to see how the signs evolved. "As an activist, I knew where he was coming from," says the employee, a 17-year Disney World worker. "But I also knew he had no concept of what it takes to move a corporation this size."

He continues: "Gay Day put [company executives'] feet to the flame. It was a time when the company had to put up or shut up on the issue. They didn't do well initially. But because it's recurring, they keep learning from their mistakes, to the point where they now recognize what a positive financial impact Gay Day has. There's always people who want to use it as a hook for their own negative, bigoted experience. But the company has prepared themselves to deal with that piece of it."

And the posted signs did evolve. With their second appearance, in 1994, the alarmist tone was softened, replaced with language that said "members of the gay community have chosen to visit the Magic Kingdom today in their recognition of Gay and Lesbian Pride Month" and that Disney "does not discriminate against anyone's right to visit the Magic Kingdom." After a brief display in 1995, the signs disappeared for good. (Perhaps not coincidentally, park management was shuffled that same year, forcing two longtime, pre-Eisner-era Disney World executives into retirement.)

The next year, 1996, Disney welcomed a film crew from "Gay Entertainment Television," which produced a 30-minute documentary-style video on Gay Day for its syndicated programming. Then, in 1997, Disney played host to two gay-targeted events as bookends to the traditional first-Saturday-in-June gathering. Watermark, Orlando's twice-monthly gay newspaper, rented Typhoon Lagoon for a Friday-night event and sold 2,500 tickets, and the celebrated Los Angeles-based party promoter Jeffrey Sanker secured the Disney-MGM Studios theme park for a post-Gay Day dance that drew similar numbers. Currently annual fixtures, both have since doubled in size even as additional, equally ambitious parties have sprouted around them.

And yet Disney still has ground to make up; its message to gays and lesbians remains a mixed one.

In 1998, for example, Disney staffed an employee recruitment booth at Orlando's gay-pride parade, marking the company's first official participation in the event. The appearance was made more significant because it coincided with civic hand-wringing over a Watermark-sponsored rainbow-flag display that made national news when Pat Robertson warned of divine wrath in the form of "earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor." But while Disney World management that year also designated Gay Pride Month for the first time on its in-house employee calendar, there was a noticeable absence of events to mark it. Executives who championed diversity among employees -- with a response that otherwise included such events as panel discussions and special guest performers to coincide with designated observances -- still seemed fearful of antagonizing potential opponents, even within their own ranks. Thus, it was ground-breaking last year when employee diversity teams that advise individual units of the Disney World resort sponsored a "family picnic" for pride month and arranged for the Orlando Gay Chorus to be hired for a separate, behind-the-scenes concert for Disney workers. "When they see that the theater doesn't burn down," one activist -- who is also a chorus member and Disney employee -- said at the time, "maybe next year they'll let the chorus perform in front of [theme-park] guests."

Such small steps measure progress in the opinions of gay workers and outside advocates, who've watched Gay Day evolve for the company from a potentially paralyzing event to one that brings both patrons and profits, and give them reason to cheer. Openly gay and lesbian workers at Disney World further portray a work environment where they are free to be themselves, where gays and lesbians in management positions are proof that no one is discriminated against because of sexual orientation. "In the areas where I've been working, there's an atmosphere not just of tolerance but of acceptance," says one gay manager. "The heterosexuals who work with us are part of our family, just as we are part of theirs."

Ten years into its existence, that simple truth still filters through Gay Day as well, says organizer Doug Swallow. There's even an equivalent these days on the West Coast; the annual Gay Day at Disneyland, modeled after the one here, debuted in 1998.

"The effect it's had on the corporate culture of Disney has been a positive one, because it lets people stop wasting energy on hiding and start spending their energy on company business," says Swallow. "And anything that can do that is certainly good for the company."