Disneyland: The Gayest Place On Earth
Photo: Austen Risolvato | Rendering: Dustin Ames
Two young men are walking down Disneyland's Main Street on a chilly September evening, holding hands. The older one is wearing a flamboyant blue kimono with a dragon emblazoned on the back. He shows no signs of nervousness as he tries to comfort his companion, who's dressed simply in a pair of pants and a shirt. Escorted by half a dozen security guards, they make their way toward the park's entrance.
The guards are unhappy, their faces stern. They direct the two men to the office, located next to the entrance gate, just inside the park. It's dark out, and most of the crowd--younger couples out on a Saturday-night date--are still deep inside Disneyland. But the night is over for this pair.
The date is Sept. 13, 1980, and 19-year-old Andrew Exler and 17-year-old Shawn Elliott are about to be thrown out of the park because they wanted to dance.
With each other.
* * *
Disneyland hasn't always been the carefree and inclusive international tourist destination it is today. For nearly three decades, from its opening in 1955 to the mid-1980s, Disneyland was such a supreme arbiter of the nuclear American family that men and women weren't even allowed to dance alone or with members of their same sex.
Gays were allowed in the park, yes, but they weren't allowed to be "out," to express their full identity. That act of civil disobedience by Exler and Elliott resulted in their expulsion from the park. What followed were multiple years-long legal battles ultimately resulting in gays winning the right to dance. Although Disneyland fought strenuously to prevent the likes of Exler and Elliott from exercising that right, the company is now among the most tolerant corporations when it comes to queer customers, with Gay Nights and Gay Days among the largest unofficial events at the park each year.
And it's all because of those two young men who couldn't stand being second-class citizens and being denied their simple desire to dance together.
Exler, who legally changed his name to Crusader in 1995, and Elliott weren't the first couple to be tossed out of Disneyland. In fact, they arrived at the park expecting to be thrown out. They intended to challenge its 1950s-era dance policy, which prohibited same-sex couples for fear that someone might try to cut in or start a fight. Crusader heard about the policy from lesbian friends who were thrown out of the park a year earlier, and when he called Disneyland days before his visit, officials told him that if he showed up and danced with another boy, he would indeed be removed from the park.
Crusader and Elliott arrived early in the evening, discounted Date Night tickets in hand. They were intent on enjoying at least part of their visit before trying to get thrown out. "We wanted to have a good time," Crusader says, "but we also had to make sure it was done properly and legally, or we wouldn't have standing [to challenge the policy]."
Despite press accounts at the time stating otherwise, Crusader and Elliott were never romantically involved; rather, they were good friends who met while volunteering together at an LGBT help line. Nonetheless, once inside the park, they played the part, visiting various rides and attractions just as most couples their age would have. They walked up Main Street hand in hand, pausing at Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln to watch the animatronic president orate on the importance of individual freedoms. They rode on Space Mountain and took a tour of Tomorrowland on the PeopleMover, their arms around each other.
As Crusader remembers it, none of the mostly teenage crowd even noticed. Eventually, the pair arrived at Tomorrowland Terrace, where a disco dance party was being held for the Date Night promotion.
"It felt like there was a lot of security there," Crusader says. "I grew up in Anaheim, and I've been going to Disneyland since I was 6 years old. I had never seen so much security, and they were all wearing jackets and earpieces."
Crusader and Elliott waited and watched the dancers for a few moments before joining the crowd. The dance floor entrance was guarded, but when some security personnel left, the pair walked forward, bypassing a single female guard, ignoring her protests. They made their way to the center of the dance floor and, just as everyone else, began fast-dancing to the disco music.
One minute passed. Then another. By the third minute, half a dozen security guards were making their way to the dance floor. By the fourth, Crusader and Elliott were surrounded. One guard stepped in between the pair, who continued dancing, moving around the bewildered sentry as if they hadn't noticed he was there.
Security told the two to ask girls to dance with them. Crusader said they didn't know any. Eventually, the guards led Crusader and Elliott off the floor and to a side room in Tomorrowland, where they were interrogated about their motives. Afterward, they were marched down Main Street to the main security office. Instead of being kicked out of the park, they were given an ultimatum: They could stay, but only if they agreed to stop dancing together.
When they refused, they were escorted to an exit gate. Their hands were marked with Xs that glowed under ultraviolet light to make sure they couldn't get back in.
"You can come back any time, but you can't come back tonight," Crusader remembers being told.
Once outside the park, the pair was ecstatic.
An editorial cartoon that appeared in the Sept. 28, 1980, Daily Pilot
Courtesy Daily Pilot
"We were literally high-fiving [each other]," Crusader says. They headed directly to an LGBT support center in Garden Grove where both served as volunteers. But when they arrived, they were met with only lukewarm optimism. Several of the volunteers disagreed with their means: Why go after Disneyland, one of the most powerful businesses in Orange County? Others feared that backlash from the suit would push Orange County even further to the right. Everyone seemed to realize how difficult the case would become.
Ten days after Crusader and Elliott were disinvited from Disneyland, they filed suit in Orange County Superior Court, alleging they had been discriminated against due to their sexual orientation, illegal under California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, a 1959 law written by Jesse M. Unruh that barred businesses from discriminating based on sex, race, religion or sexual orientation, as well as another half-dozen protected classes.
Crusader and Elliott had enlisted the help of Ronald Talmo, then-director of the Orange County branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to serve as their lawyer.
Only 29 years old, Talmo agreed to represent the two without a second thought. "[I took the case] because I was young," an exuberant Talmo, now in his 60s, says."It's funny: A number of the older lawyers that I looked up to and talked to said, 'Yeah, I read about your case, Ron. You know you're going to lose, right? No judge is going to let you win that case.'"
Although the ACLU declined to take the case, Talmo agreed to be the young men's lawyer through his private practice. Word of the lawsuit spread quickly, and when Talmo called a press conference to announce the case in late September 1980, a standing-room-only crowd of reporters filled a room in the county's Hall of Administration.
"[The press conference] was fun," Talmo says. "It's not like anyone was murdered, like anyone was cut in half. It was just these two young guys who weren't allowed to dance." Crusader had notified as many publications as he could of his plan to dance at Disneyland that night. He says most reporters didn't believe he would be thrown out, except for the Los Angeles Times' Patt Morrison, who told the two to call her at her home if they were removed and later covered the story extensively.
"Here is this kid, this teenager to take on Disneyland," Morrison recalls 30 years later. "Gay issues were pretty much off the radar at that point, except for the people for whom they were an active concern."
The media reaction, while bemused, didn't reflect much optimism that the case would succeed in changing Disneyland's policy. Since its inception in 1955, the park had attracted numerous lawsuits, mostly involving personal injury claims, but had yet to lose a single jury trial. "They wished me good luck," Talmo remembers, laughing. "One of the questions I got asked was would I be appealing. I hadn't even gone to trial yet."
The trial didn't start well for Talmo. First, a judge refused his motion for a preliminary injunction that would have barred Disneyland from stopping gay guests from dancing. Talmo appealed the decision, losing a year later in San Bernardino Appellate Court.
Talmo also filed a motion for summary judgment against Disneyland, asking for a judge to decide the facts of the case and make a judgment before trial. That was also denied. In 1984, four years after Talmo filed the lawsuit on behalf of Crusader and Elliott, the case finally went before a jury.
By that time, Crusader and Elliott had dropped their demands for damages in a strategic move to not require a jury. Disneyland moved to have the case tried before one anyway, and the trial would ultimately proceed under a compromise: A jury would hear the case, but its decision would be non-binding. A judge would ultimately decide whether Disneyland had infringed on Crusader's and Elliott's rights.
In court, Talmo and Crusader looked vastly outgunned. They sat at the counsel table, scribbling notes back and forth. (Elliott shunned the spotlight and declined to appear in court during trial.) In contrast, Disneyland's defense relied on shock and awe. The park hired LA-based attorney William "Bill" Bitting, a charismatic UCLA graduate who had spent time on the football field. He was tall and wide, with a chiseled chin and all-American demeanor. He brought with him two additional lawyers from his firm, a young woman and a young man, both roughly Talmo's age. During the trial, Disney even offered to bus the jury to the park, so they could see the dance floor. The judge put a stop to that.
Dozens of older, conservative, white Orange County citizens--the exact kind of people Talmo wanted to avoid--went through the selection process. Potential jurors came and went, and 10 of them were rejected because the judge decided they could not be unbiased. One potential juror flat-out asked Talmo if he were gay, fearing the trial was an effort of some out-of-town advocacy group.
"I'm looking at this young boy here," the juror told Talmo. "He doesn't have money to hire a lawyer, so I figure you're behind this whole thing."
After jury selection finished, the rest of the trial proceeded swiftly. Talmo called only one witness: Crusader. Disney called five-- Disneyland's then-president Dick Nunis (who attempted to convey to the jury what Walt Disney would have felt before being censured by the judge) and head of security Ike Isaacson, plus three character witnesses to talk about how wholesome and fun the park was. In all, the trial lasted less than a week.
On the day of the verdict, spectators filled the aisles as camera shutters fluttered. Staff from throughout Talmo's firm, as well as Crusader's mother and her co-workers, were in the room. Other judges left their chambers to come watch the verdict be read. In this particular case, the jury only provided an advisory role. Specifically, the judge gave the jury a list of questions to answer--such as "Is Disney's policy discriminatory?" and "Was Exler expelled because he danced with another man?"
The judge would weigh those answers before making his ruling.
"The jury comes in, and they start reading," Talmo recalls. "They . . . sided with us on every directive we asked." According to Talmo, the judge didn't even bother thanking the jurors for their time before he made his ruling: "I agree; that's my verdict."
The courtroom was in complete shock. Because he'd already lost every motion leading up to the trial, Talmo had resigned himself to losing the case. He leapt to his feet, wrapping his arms quickly around Crusader before leaving the plaintiff's table to embrace his wife and celebrate with his business partners and employees while Crusader hugged his mother.
When Talmo returned to the plaintiff's desk, he broke down sobbing into his hands. The court's clerk got up and walked to the witness stand, where the court kept a tissue box. She retrieved it and placed it in front of Talmo. His business partner declared the rest of the day a holiday and invited everyone in the building to a victory party.
As the jury filtered out, the forewoman, a young Buena Park high-school teacher, stopped to pat Talmo triumphantly on the back. "How do you feel about your Orange County juries now?" she asked.
Despite the victory, the case had been an ordeal not only for Talmo, but for Crusader and Elliott as well. They'd expected to receive monetary or moral support from the LGBT community, and none had been forthcoming.
"The players in the gay community didn't even support us," Crusader says. "They were against us."
Some activists told the three they should drop the suit, that they were setting back the gay-rights movement 10 to 20 years. During jury selection, a potential juror--a single man in his 50s who had never been married and lived in Laguna Beach when it was Orange County's gay center--told the lawyers he thought Crusader and Elliott were being too public at the park. A lesbian ACLU staff lawyer contacted Talmo to tell him he was making a mistake.
"I was the goddamned volunteer lawyer running the ACLU in Orange County--12 hours a week, doing it for years," Talmo says. "Then a staff lawyer calls me and tells me I'm going to set back the cause. . . . It's not something a lawyer takes lightly."
The lack of support caused problems during the early phases of the case. With no backing from the ACLU, Crusader and Elliott attempted to raise money to cover his costs, hosting a modestly successful wine-and-cheese reception and fund-raisers at restaurants. After losing the appeal for an immediate injunction that would have forced Disneyland to allow same-sex couples to dance together, Crusader nearly had to drop the case because of a lack of funds. Fortunately, Talmo agreed to continue the case pro bono.
Talmo says he received a death threat against his family--his wife and then-2-year-old daughter--that was connected to his involvement in the case and lost out on a chance to become a full-time professor at Western State University College of Law in 1983 because of how public it was.
However, after the trial finished, Talmo successfully sued for $25,000 in lawyer's fees for his hundreds of hours of work. In 1985--after he had won--he was invited to join the Western State faculty.
Even the reaction from the gay community and the ACLU changed completely. "I won the 1986-1987 ACLU civil-rights award," Talmo says, laughing, "specifically for the Exler case."
* * *
John Gilhooley/OC Weekly
The Disneyland Resort's 1950s-era charm remains evident today, especially on Main Street, but the park is much more open: the young, the old, the gay, the tattooed--everyone is welcome at the park. The regulations for entry now are more along the lines of "don't confuse people by dressing as a Disney character" than "don't dance with someone you love." Attitudes toward gay attendees in the parks began to warm in the late 1980s. Though Crusader and Talmo had won their case in 1984, Disneyland stressed that the victory only applied to Crusader and Elliott and that any same-sex pair who danced together in the park would still be bounced.
Disney prepared to appeal the ruling but stopped after Talmo won another case in front of the California Supreme Court. In that case, Koire v. Metro Car Wash, the court ruled that discriminatory policies were illegal, regardless of whether they made business sense. In 1985, Disneyland quietly changed its dance policy to allow same-sex couples after 28 years of barring them. At the time, the company said the change was because of requests from teenage patrons drawn by Videopolis, a Top 40 dance club.
"We try to be responsive to feedback we get from our guests," Disneyland spokesman Al Flores told the LA Times. "Videopolis brings in a lot of teenage kids, and we see a lot of situations where two girls come together and want to dance and ask to. We have always said no, but we changed our minds."
For a time, it seemed as if the story on gay dancing in Disneyland had ended. Then, in late 1988, three gay men were bounced from the park for slow-dancing with one another. They had fast-danced for an hour before slow music came on, but when it was time to slow dance, they were told to leave. Lambda Legal, a civil-rights organization that litigates cases relating to LGBT causes, quickly picked up the case.
The three men dropped the suit--which was modeled nearly exactly on Crusader and Elliott's--when Disneyland offered to pledge it would no longer discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
In 1989, nine years after Crusader had been expelled, he returned to Disneyland with a group of eight male couples to dance. No one bothered them the entire night.
As American society gradually warmed to gays in the 1990s, Disney did as well, moving from passively allowing gays in its parks to actively supporting them.
While in 1978, Disneyland executives canceled all live music and capped attendance after they realized the Los Angeles Bar and Restaurant Association (also known as the Tavern Guild), who had rented the park for a private event, was actually made up of gay restaurants and bars, in December 1993, the Walt Disney Co. sponsored an AIDS charity event--a performance of Aladdin--produced by Matt Sterling, a major gay-porn producer.
Courtesy Gay Days Anaheim
By 1991, Gay and Lesbian Days had already been hosted at Disney World in Florida, as LGBT friends decided to attend the parks together, all wearing red shirts, on the first Saturday in June. The organizers there spread the word through gay clubs and community centers, attracting between 1,000 and 1,500 attendees its first year. Today, Gay Days Orlando attracts more than 150,000 attendees.
Disneyland's Gay Days, held the first weekend of October, grew out of Disney World's tradition. Eddie Shapiro and Jeffrey Epstein, Gay Days Anaheim's co-founders and -producers attended Gay Days Orlando. They enjoyed it, but despite the good time, Shapiro and Epstein found the experience a little disjointed. Orlando's event had grown from multiple independent productions. Anyone can plan a Gay Days event in Orlando that weekend, and there's no organization behind them.
"We noticed that all of the Gay Days functions were separate from the park," Shapiro says. "There were plenty of people who would go down there just to be part of the party, but who would never step foot in the park. Most of the scheduled events were off-property. We decided, 'Wouldn't it be fun to bring this down here to Disneyland, but make it more about Disney?'"
The first Gay Days Anaheim took place in 1998, but it wasn't the first gay-centric event to take place at the park. For years beforehand, a now-defunct event-production company called Odyssey Tours rented the park after-hours once a year to host a gay night. Though the event was never billed as a gay-specific event, portions of the proceeds were earmarked to go to an AIDS charity, and LGBT fans flocked to the parks. But not everyone was happy with the events.
"Not all of the rides were open," Shapiro remembers. "The stores were closed; the restaurants were closed. There were no characters, no parades, no fireworks. It wasn't the Disney experience.
"It sort of felt also that 'Sure, after-hours, normal guests go home; you people can go in and do your thing.' It felt like a late-night secret," he adds.
Gay Nights, though popular in the first half of the 1990s, faltered as patrons discovered Odyssey was only making piece-meal donations to charity. By 1998, Gay Nights ended and Gay Days began.
The first Gay Days in Anaheim were modeled after those in Orlando: a smaller event advertised mainly by word-of-mouth, through gay businesses and on gay message boards on the nascent Internet. Disney's corporate arm didn't even know they were coming. "The first year," Shapiro says, "all we did was hang out, wear red shirts and have fun walking through the park looking for the red. About 2,500 showed up."
After its initial success, Gay Days began to add other small events, such as cocktail gatherings and parties. By the second year, individual cast members who were friends with the organizers knew they were coming. By the fourth, organizers were working directly with the park.
Cooperation between the organizers and the company steadily grew, as did the number of attendees. Today, everyone from employee groups to Disney's record label, TV station and wedding-planning company is involved in some way.
"Pride is an employee group in Disney and is a cash sponsor of the event, and they host a cocktail party," Shapiro says. "D23 [Disney's fan club] has had a table in our welcome center for several years. Fairytale Weddings is taking a table this year; a few years ago, gay people couldn't even have a Fairytale Wedding."
While initial reaction to the event was mixed--in its first few years, other attendees would complain to Disneyland's City Hall and write angry letters to the organization--as society has advanced, so has public perception of Gay Days.
"We got initially a lot of angry mail," Shapiro says. "But we also got mail from people, straight families, who were pleasantly surprised at what happened at Gay Days. They went in with a preconceived notion of what it was going to be like, thinking they were walking into Sodom and Gomorrah. And then they found out that people [attending that weekend] are and were incredibly well-behaved and friendly."
And though the Disneyland Resort is flooded with red during Gay Days weekend (Shapiro expects more than 30,000 attendees, and Disneyland normally sees approximately 50,000 guests per day during the season), everyone is welcome. The event has matured.
Attendance has stayed steady at about 30,000, but the time spent at the resort gets longer and longer each year, and the types of events that Gay Days holds evolve more and more. This year, in addition to the dance parties and cocktail receptions, Gay Days is hosting multiple family events. Bob Gurr, a legendary Imagineer who designed many of the park's original attractions, is doing a Q&A on what it was like to be a gay employee at the park's inception.
"I frequently get asked about why we don't do an exclusive event where it's just gay people," Shapiro says. "I'm not interested in that; segregation doesn't interest me because that's not the point.
"We've very much wanted to have a mixing event, where we're all there being our brand of family along with everyone else's family," he continues. "I believe we have the power to change hearts and minds; we have the power to show people that our families are just like theirs."
Crusading for you
Today, Crusader spends his time in Palm Springs, proofreading court transcripts. For a time, he was a self-styled civil-rights activist, challenging gender- and age-based discrimination in Southern California. It's because of him that men can go to Chippendale's strip shows. Elliott continues to eschew the spotlight, rarely making a comment when the case was active and disappearing from public life altogether after it ended.
Talmo no longer takes civil-rights cases and retired from his law professorship at Western State in 2006. An enlarged copy of a $25,000 check for fees from Disney, complete with a smiling Mickey Mouse, still hangs in his workshop.
John Gilhooley/OC Weekly
This weekend, more than 30,000 gay men and women will visit the parks as oart of the 19th annual Gay Days Anaheim.
The Disneyland Crusader, Elliott and Talmo left behind is better for their efforts. The Tomorrowland Terrace is now used for the park's Jedi Academy show, but a new dance floor has opened in Disney's California Adventure. During peak attendance nights, the park holds its Mad T Party, an Alice in Wonderland-themed festival of lights, music and spectacle. Fans wait for hours for the show to begin and can dance with anyone they please: boys with boys, boys with girls, girls with girls, families together, strangers, friends, alone.
And it's all perfectly faaa-bulous.
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