By Ollie Gratzinger | Features Editor
When you think of Disney Channel, what comes to mind?
Is it jamming to the Jonas Brothers in Camp Rock, or firing up ye olde desktop in your father’s office to play videogames on the station’s website?
Regardless, there’s a good chance that gay rights aren’t one of the topics evoked by the mention of the network. But maybe that’s about to change.
Disney made national news this past Friday with its first-ever “coming out” arc, featured in the Season 2 premiere of Andi Mack.
To sum up the plot, the show follows the life of tweens Andi, Cyrus, Buffy and Jonah, a quad of friends navigating the often-rocky path to self-discovery as they come of age together. Andi Mack has a reputation for bringing up issues that kids face on the daily, from the comparably trivial sports team drama and homework angst to the much more somber topics of broken homes and multiculturalism. It came as no surprise, then, when the headlines broke several days ago with the announcement that Cyrus had been crushing on Jonah almost from the start.
It is a heartwarming coming out scene over lunch with Buffy in which Cyrus reveals his secret, along with the insecurity that comes along with it. He tells her that he feels weird and different, to which she fondly replies, “You’ve always been weird. But you’re no different.”
With those words, Disney Channel told a generation of kids that it’s okay to be gay. It normalized something that, when I was growing up, was treated like this complicated and taboo subject not to be brought up or mentioned under any circumstance, ever. The word “gay” might as well have been a curse for middle-school-aged kids in the early 2000s, but the same demographic was met on Friday with a warm message on acceptance, respect and the blind, innocent nature of love.
That’s the kicker: innocence. If I had a dollar for every dark, dismal LGBT plotline that centered around ignominy, self-loathing, suicide pacts or hate crimes, I’d be able to pay Duquesne’s tuition with enough left over for Freshëns and Starbucks. Don’t get me wrong — as a kid, I loved Kurt from Glee, but I also thought that the bullying he endured and the isolation he felt as a result of his sexuality were just inevitable parts of being queer.
As I got older, every show with an LGBT protagonist — Queer as Folk, Shameless and the like — depicted what felt like overly-sexualized caricatures of gay men, battling things like perpetual loneliness, drug addiction, unloving households, abusive partners or STDs. I think it goes without saying that those things are hardly representative of life in the gay community, and yet, it felt like that was the only kind of exposure LGBT folks were getting in mainstream media. There was no accepting, close friend to confide in over lunch, and there were no heartwarming coming out scenes to make national news. Instead, there were raucous affairs, depressive episodes and the ever-present question, “Is this all I have to look forward to?”
Disney Channel is doing an incredible service to young LGBT kids in allowing them their innocence while at the same time giving them the representation they’ve lacked for decades. Cyrus’ storyline normalizes same-sex middle-school crushes, the epitome of puppy love, but the meaning behind Cyrus’ sexuality goes deeper. It shows friends accepting each other without any hesitations or questions asked in an era of virulent and divisive rhetoric that often perpetuates a victim in the LGBT community.
In a society that so often feels morally starved and blatantly unwelcoming, Andi Mack offers a word of optimistic hope to LGBT kids and adults alike that we haven’t yet lost sight of a brighter future. The gay community is not exclusively depraved and blindly decadent, as Queer as Folk might suggest, but rather innocent, natural and entirely normal.
With any luck, media such as Andi Mack might help to cultivate a more open-armed generation, eradicating the ignorance that tends to rest at the heart of bigotry. And, with a bit of wishful thinking, other shows might follow suit, and we might just find ourselves living in a future freed at last from the clutch of homophobic ideology.