Gay Day and 'subliminal' messages at Mickey & Co. bring on the Religious Right's wrath

Subliminal sexual messages. Full frontal male nudity. X-rated dialogue. Gay cross-dressing parties. Needless to say, we’re talking about the Walt Disney Co.

We’re talking about it with David Caton, president of the South Florida chapter of the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group that last month announced a boycott of Disney’s movies, videos, and toys. The reason: the studio’s recent decision to extend health-care benefits to same-sex partners of gay employees. ”But that’s the least of it,” says Caton. ”What we’ve seen is a change in the entire culture of Disney. They’ve shown an outright disrespect and arrogance in their attitude toward the American family.”

Disney? Antifamily? Anti-American? Say it ain’t so, Mickey. But believe it or not, the giant of G-rated entertainment has become the religious right’s Public Enemy No. 1. Over the past four months, conservative Christian groups around the country — but especially in Florida, home of that den of depravity known as Disney World — have been mounting a massive fax and letters crusade, charging Disney with everything from encouraging homosexuality to sneaking pornographic images into its cartoons.

”Think about the original mission of Walt Disney,” says the Rev. Tim Benson, vice president of the Florida Baptist Convention, which issued a resolution last month urging its million members to ”prayerfully reconsider” purchasing Disney products. ”Here was a guy who built an entire entertainment empire on appealing to what is good, noble, and moral. But Disney in the 1990s has gotten completely away from that. They’ve taken another step in the direction of making the traditional family meaningless.”

Disney’s decision in October to extend health benefits to its gay employees’ partners was hardly an unusual move — almost all major Hollywood studios have similar policies — but it triggered an avalanche of angry mail, including a letter signed by 15 Florida state legislators. ”We are surprised at your belittlement of the sanctity of marriage,” the letter stated. ”We strongly disapprove of your inclusion and endorsement of a lifestyle that is unhealthy, unnatural, and unworthy of special treatment.”

But what’s really bugging conservatives in Florida isn’t health care—it’s Disney World. For the last five years, the theme park has been host to Gay and Lesbian Day, a private celebration sponsored by various gay and lesbian groups. ”Disney claims they don’t support it,” says Caton, ”but that’s not true. We sent our people. They took pictures and talked to participants.” Caton’s group even had its spies ”dress in gay garb” and attend gay and lesbian events. ”They found pro-homosexual material being handed out. They found a group discount ticket with a pink Mickey on it. They saw homosexuals in drag, chanting ‘If you’re gay and you know it, clap your hands.”’

Gay Day has made Florida ground zero in the anti-Disney crusade, but controversy has cropped up elsewhere as well. The American Life League, a conservative group in Stafford, Va., has been battling Disney since March, mailing almost a million cards to supporters urging a boycott. The League’s complaint: that Disney is planting subliminal sex messages in its animated films, such as an erection in The Little Mermaid and a cloud of dust in The Lion King that spells out S-E-X. They also claim to have found a hidden verbal message in Aladdin: Just before the hero whisks Princess Jasmine onto his magic carpet, he supposedly murmurs, ”Good teenagers, take off your clothes.” (Most people, though, simply hear the words ”Scat, good tiger, take off and go.”)