Cartoon Network; Nickelodeon; DreamWorks/Netflix
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August 22, 2018 at 02:09 PM EDT

Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar says it’s been “extremely difficult” to get LGBTQ representation on the air. Still, she persisted, and now her Cartoon Network series is one of the most LGBTQ-friendly destinations for kids. On July 4, the show aired a historic same-sex marriage proposal between Ruby and Sapphire, and it raised the bar again with the wedding just days later.

“By including LGBTQIA content and characters in G-rated entertainment for kids, you tell kids when they’re young that they belong in this world. You can’t not tell them that,” Sugar tells EW. “There can’t be only a certain group of kids who are told someone will love you by all the entertainment that they see. It’s just so unfair.”

She also acknowledges that the progress she’s seen is “a multi-show effort” but Gravity Falls’ Alex Hirsch — one of six showrunners who spoke to EW about LGBTQ representation in family-friendly animation — can’t help but “gush about” Steven Universe‘s Sugar, whom he describes as “driving a race car way, way ahead of everyone else” in this capacity. “Every time a creator or a network decides to try to go a little further and do something maybe other networks have been scared to do, suddenly we’ve opened up that space,” he says.

According to GLAAD, there’s been “a significant increase in new family programming which included LGBTQ characters.” Some of them include Disney’s first same-sex kiss on Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Amazon’s Danger and Eggs (run by trans animator Shadi Petosky and voiced by trans actors), and the McBride dads on Nickelodeon’s The Loud House. At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, Voltron: Legendary Defender creators Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery also announced to fans that Shiro, the leader of the Voltron Paladins, is gay.

DreamWorks/Netflix

The initial response after Comic-Con has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Montgomery says. Adds Dos Santos: “Our social has been nonstop with nothing but love and appreciations.” That includes thank you notes from executives, either involved or not involved with the show. In fact, when angry responses came in, it wasn’t from the conservative crowd, but from viewers frustrated over a re-emergence of the “bury your gays” trope in the storyline, for which Dos Santos issued an apology to fans online.

But nuanced portrayals of LGBTQ characters is ultimately what Dos Santos and other creators strive for in their projects — including Gravity Falls‘ Hirsch, whose series revealed that Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland were in love. The relationship was initially thought of as “a play on the traditional trope of a hardened sheriff and an idiot rookie,” says Hirsh, but fans began speculating there was something more going on, which the creator thought was “a very sweet interpretation.”

Hirsch enlisted many voices about how to get it right.

“It was one of those things where I believe in it so much that I grew a little concerned,” he says. So he asked his team: “Do you think that the benefit of allowing these characters to be gay outweighs the potential drawbacks of them not necessarily being the best possible characters for that representation?”

The answer was yes and Disney even got on board, which he says was a vastly different situation than an earlier attempt. 

Disney XD

A 2014 episode titled “The Love God” saw Cupid bouncing about making people fall in love, and one of the storyboard artists drew two of those people as old women.

“We immediately got a note from the network saying two women falling in love is not appropriate for our audience,” Hirsch recalls. “I immediately shot back with a one-word email: ‘Why?’ Which broke their brains because there isn’t a good answer to that.”

Hirsch notes it was already an “atypical” situation because, where previous notes from the standards and practices department came through email, this was done over the phone. Speaking frankly, he says, “The truth is they’re scared of getting emails from bigots and they’re cowards. So they’re letting the bigots control the conversation. My response was basically, ‘Let ‘em complain,’ ‘they’re wrong,’ and ‘they’re just gonna have to live with it.’ Unfortunately, it got so contentious that [the network] essentially told me that if I didn’t cut the scene they would cut the episode and they strong-armed me out of it.”

When asked to comment on the situation, a Disney spokesperson said, “In the course of program development, we have daily conversations with series creators about storytelling and characters. There is a long-established approval routing at each stage of production. The process includes a Standards & Practices department to ensure all programming reflects Disney’s brand, is consistent with policy, appropriate for kids age 2-14, and complies with the channel’s policy and with Disney’s brand promise to be inclusive, with stories that affirm all people.”

One source suggested to EW that these two female characters were cut because they involved a change made on “a previously approved episodic script” and the standards and practices editors did not accept the change because the artist “did not have authority to make such a change.” However, there seems to be more to it beyond a rogue storyboard artist.

According to Hirsch, the script had technically been approved, but the genders of the background characters in the “Love God” scene were “non-specified.” Additionally, he emphasizes that “everything changes at every stage.” It’s only when the animatics for the episode are locked in that it becomes difficult to change anything. “I was the one who approved everything,” Hirsch says, noting how he was always “adding in a million other new things” late in the game. He also recalls that the S&P editors told him specifically over the phone something to the effect of “we are scared of homophobes” and “people being mad at us.”

Another source close to the production confirms Hirsch’s account and adds that while scripts typically undergo multiple changes throughout their evolution, the same-sex couple was pitched several times. The source also says it really doesn’t matter when LGBTQ characters were pitched during development because they would always be “shot down early [at] any step of the process.” When asked about other non-LGBTQ-related moments that were added to an episode later, the production source cited “a little gag” in “The Love God” where a kid offers to pay Cupid in squirrels.

The source adds, “It was pretty obvious from the start” that something more was behind the cut of the same-sex couple.

Hirsch acknowledges how much began to change “in just a few short years,” though he believes Disney only approved the Blubs and Durland reveal because it was during the series finale in 2016 and “they wouldn’t have to deal with me anymore.”

He adds, “I applaud their growth and I applaud every time they make the choice to represent different types of people and tell more stories, and I’m really, really hoping to see in the next few years the feature side of Disney lead that. I would love to see a Disney feature [film], either from Disney or Pixar, that’s inclusive in the way that some of the TV shows have started to be.”

In the past few years, societal acceptance and media visibility of the LGBTQ community has grown, and Disney has contributed to that evolution. Disney Channel’s Andi Mack won a GLAAD Media Award earlier this year for Outstanding Kids & Family Programming, and Disney XD aired the company’s first same-sex kiss on Star vs. the Forces of Evil.

Daron Nefcy, the showrunner behind Star, didn’t want to get into “too many particulars” about the internal process. “I’ll just say that I’ve been at times pleasantly surprised [with what I can do], and at times not so much,” she says. “But I feel like everybody has the same goals.”

“Well, maybe not everybody,” she adds with a laugh.

Nefcy was surprised when media outlets called Star a history-maker for that same-sex smooch, mainly because it occurred in the background of a concert scene and her team is “always trying to showcase diversity.”

“As a show creator, I really feel like it’s my job to push it where I can,” she explains. “My feeling towards it is I’m gonna try and even if I can’t do a particular something that I think is important, if I try really hard and I fight for the stuff that I believe in, then maybe even if I can’t do it, I’ve worn down that wall for the next person.”

Nefcy remembers telling her character designer to “go ahead and make some of the couples same-sex couples” in the background of that particular “Just Friends” scene. “We have an S&P department and at first they were like, ‘Could you change that?’ And I was like, ‘Well, why is that?’ I always want to know why and then they were like, ‘You know, actually, it’s totally fine.’ So that was great.”

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