We’ve come a long way from pretending Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune were cousins. Although there is still a way to ago, the LGBTQ+ community is becoming much more openly acknowledged within animation, a phenomenon the Gay Breakfast team calls the Gay Animation Renaissance. At Connecticon XVII, married couple Judith Fisch and Natalie Reichel decided to host a panel of the same name to take a look at what has made this possible.
They introduced themselves by giving their names (of course!) and where they fall on the spectrum: Fisch is a nonbinary butch lesbian and Reichel identifies as a demi bi girl. They both use she/her pronouns and are okay with they/them. This is an important part of their introductions as they prefer to open all of their panels with the fact that their perspectives are limited and they are not “queer monolithic voices.” They do their research and make sure they speak with QPOC friends, but do own the fact that there could still be “perspective gaps” in their presentations.
They also said that media plays an important role in acknowledgment and acceptance, showing “possibilities” to viewers who may not even be aware of the community. It potentially allows normalization of the community.
The hosts then jumped into a quick overview of gay history, since it isn’t required by law to teach in anywhere in the United States but New Jersey. Things kicked off with the 1927 silent film Wings, the winner of the very first “best picture” Academy Award. According to Gay Breakfast, the war film is “very homosexual,” but does fall on set tropes, such as “tragic gay death” and stereotypes for both gay men and gay women.
And then in 1930 came the Hayes code, which was whipped up by social purity groups (our hosts had an aside, noting that these groups were not only around long before the modern-day, they were around long before films as well). Although it was meant for films, its values bled into animation and, later, television. The Hayes code cut out drugs, insisted bad guy gets punished, rejected criticism of the church, and rejected “sexual perversion.” That is, anything gay.
We then jumped to 1969, to the Stonewall riots, which “brought public attention to the unfair treatment of LGBTQ+ Americans.” At the time, gay bars were not issued liquor licenses, so they were being raided under the pretense of the lack of license. People were essentially being arrested for “being gay and alive at the same time.” The riots began when a woman named Stormié DeLarverie punched a cop at the Stonewall Inn and asked why the crowd wouldn’t do anything–a brick was thrown, and, well, the crowd did something.
Around this time, the Hayes code was also overturned. Although its influence still existed in media, representation began to appear in television shows of the seventies. There were some problematic elements still, but things were more positive than not. The hosts recommended Tales of the City, a book series by Armistead Maupin, which has also been adapted for television and, most recently, Netflix.
Then the AIDs epidemic happened and there was a media regression and members of the LGBTQ+ community were considered a risk, and dangerous again. But the media was forced to continue talking about the queer community, and events like die-ins strengthened the community from the inside. A side effect of this was that LGBTQ+ topics weren’t considered kid-friendly, and because animation in the US is usually considered for kids, things weren’t really progressing in great strides for a while.
However, there was a coded visibility: Sometimes characters would be coded as gay, or there would be enough ambiguity that creators could say, basically, “You said it, not me.” Sometimes this relied on stereotypes, especially when the character in question was a villain like Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989) or Captain Hook from Peter Pan (1953). It’s progress, but with progress with apostrophes.
Beauty and the Beast (1991) stands as a moving precursor to the early stages of the Gay Animation Renaissance, where allegories could be found. Howard Ashman, the lyricist, and executive producer kept the project from being shelved, although he would ultimately die of AIDs complications before the film’s release. The story stands as an allegory: a man believes he is incapable of love, is seen as a threat to society, and ostracized, and rotting away, which is “how a lot of queer men with AIDs felt… unlovable… treated as a monster… losing themselves.” Belle reads as someone who could pass as teetering between being out and remaining closeted. Many could (and can) relate.
Lots of nineties cartoons had some characters who were coded as gay, such as Mr. Simmons from Hey Arnold! as a positive, while there were many negative male examples, a holdover from a “fear of queer men.” Then there is, of course, the case of Dumbledoring, named for JK Rowling announcing that Dumbledore was gay during a talk on the books. Our hosts said that while this was exciting at first, it was a bit cowardly since it is not touched upon even slightly within the Harry Potter books themselves.
In the 2010s, there was “a rise in subtext.” This is preferable to Dumbledoring because it’s actually there, in the piece of media. Adventure Time, The Legend of Korra, and Steven Universe were the champions of this most recent period. Although there was push back from the animation studios that hosted the shows, YouTube channels (Channel Frederator took down an Adventure Time-themed video which speculated about Princess Bubblegum and Marceline’s relationship rather unexpectedly) and censorship boards, the series persevered.
Korra featured the first openly bisexual characters in animation. Although Steven Universe played with ambiguity, 2015 marked the release of the episode “Jail Break,” which featured Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship. Rebecca Sugar continues to push boundaries, dealing with some very unusual rules. Our hosts pointed out that while Ruby and Sapphire can neck, they are not allowed to say “I love you.” Eventually, in 2018, the characters would marry in the episode “Reunited.” This episode was first pitched four years earlier.
This all was happening in correlation with marriage equality laws passing fully in the US (2015). As it was put during the presentation: “Rising LGBTQ+ trends in animation correspond with LGBTQ+ achievements.” This also inspired characters and storylines in other animated shows, such as Gravity Falls, Loud House, OK KO, and Star Vs. The Forces of Evil–just to name a few!
Voltron (2016) also received a special mention for having “good intentions and mismanaged gays.” The goal was to be inclusive and it “partially succeeded.” It did hype the audience up, promising more than what actually was in the show, but the main character was still a positive (canonically) gay role model that did get a happy ending. It avoided emphasizing certain characters for fear that it would “turn” boys gay and did play on a “predatory queer male stereotype” at times. However, it was a “launching point for a conversation. It can be done better next time.”
She-Ra (2018) also got a special mention, as the characters are visibly queer and showrunners Noelle Stevenson and Rebecca Sugar are out. It also touts an “open and subversive approach to gender,” in that gender does not determine power or roles in the shows. Kid gloves can sometimes keep the show from saying certain things, but things can still be shown. The show is also notable for a lack of toxic masculinity and inclusion of body diversity.
As the panel wrapped up, Fisch and Reichel noted that progression and fighting for rights and equality isn’t done just because there is more positive visibility now. Homophobia and transphobia still clearly exists, and those social purity groups they mentioned in regards to the Hayes code are still around, louder than ever. Because of that, they reminded attendees that a big help is supporting the people who create the stories, especially queer creators telling their stories.
They also reminded their audience that they shouldn’t “accidentally judge queer creators more harshly than you would judge straight creators,” noting that everyone has individual experiences with their sexuality and identities. Although something problematic isn’t ideal, it’s better than being invisible. They signed off with a direction to “Continue to demand better from everyone.”
Gay Breakfast hosted several other panels at Connecticon XVII, though this was the only one I was able to attend. They are presenting this panel at FlameCon in New York City next month as well–I definitely recommend attending this one to get the full scope of the panel.
Connecticon XVII ran from July 12 to July 14 in Hartford, Connecticut. For more coverage on the con, please continue checking N3rdabl3 over the course of the next week!