Disney fans accuse director of 'queer-baiting': 'Retroactively calling a character gay doesn’t count'

Katie Mather
·4 min read

Disney’s “High School Musical” was a record-breaking smash hit throughout the mid-2000s that spawned memes, slumber party karaoke tracks and Zac Efron’s career. It was a perfect trifecta that every Disney musical now has to live up to.

If you are even remotely familiar with the franchise, you’ll recognize the name Kenny Ortega, who, amongst having an ambitious film history that includes discovering Christian Bale and creating “Hocus Pocus,” was the director and choreographer of the three “High School Musical” movies. Recently, Ortega interviewed with Variety about his experience making the movies after he was listed on the publication’s Power of Pride list, and he answered a question that has plagued the “High School Musical” fan base since 2006.

“The character of Ryan [played by Lucas Grabeel] in ‘High School Musical,’ Sharpay’s twin brother, we decided he’d probably going to come out in college,” Ortega said. “It was less about coming out and just more about letting his true colors come forward.”

While it was never brought up in the series, a lot of fans have speculated over the years that Ryan Evans was not heterosexual, even though he did end up going to prom with Kelsi, another character that viewers did not accept as being straight either.

Several people on Twitter called out Ortega for “JK Rowling” the character in the interview. The term refers to how JK Rowling was accused of “LGBTQIA+ character revisionism” by saying Dumbledore was gay 12 years after the last “Harry Potter” book and without actually writing it into the storyline.

“Smells a lot like queer-baiting to me,” another person commented. “Retroactively calling a character gay 10 years after the film doesn’t count as LGBTQ inclusion.”

But Ortega also addresses this in the Variety interview, saying that the decision was somewhat out of his control.

“I have to be honest with you,” he said. “I was concerned because it was family and kids, that Disney might not be ready to cross that line and move into that territory yet. So, I just took it upon myself to make choices that I felt that those who were watching would grab.”

Ortega also mentioned that he considered Disney to be “the most progressive group of people I’ve ever worked with,” but 2006 was a different time.

While Ryan never formally came out in the movies, even Grabeel said that Ryan’s sexuality and character were a lot more nuanced than people are making him out to be.

“People have always asked me if Ryan was gay,” Grabeel told TV Line in 2019. “I had a lot of talks with [director Kenny Ortega] about his own experience in high school. He was not out, and he wasn’t running around being that way, but he had that energy inside of him. It’s such an important time in your life, and you’re figuring so many things out.”

“I wanted people to think, ‘That character’s more complex than I thought,’ instead of saying, ‘Oh, he comes out in pink and you know he’s gay.’ That’s not what we had in mind,” Grabeel continued.

For more celebrity interviews, check out this round-up of In The Know’s talks with Kim Petras, Shangela, Bobby Berk and more LGBTQIA+ stars.

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