Steve Valkenburg looks every bit the Disneyland booster. He has shortcropped mahogany hair, pink cheeks, no facial hair and one of those giddy Mickey Mouse ties. Sipping coffee in an Anaheim restaurant, the cast member of 17 years talks about a park that is not only the happiest place on Earth but the hippest place to work.
But he’s probably not the kind of advocate that Uncle Walt had in mind when he opened the theme park 30 years ago in a much different era.
As co-chairman of Disneyland’s Lesbian and Gay United Employees--or LEAGUE Anaheim as it’s known--Valkenburg and other gay and lesbian cast members meet monthly at the Disneyland Hotel to hear guest speakers, socialize and plan community projects. And although he and his fellow LEAGUE members have pushed for progressive changes at the park, Valkenburg emphasizes that they are working in tandem with the company for the good of the kingdom.
“We’re not ACT UP,” he says, referring to the radical gay rights group that has marched, demonstrated and outed homosexuals in the name of AIDS awareness. “We’re not trying to overthrow the company. We’re working with the company for positive change.”
It wasn’t long ago when founder Walt Disney cast a conservative shadow over all park policies, procedures and appearances. It was an era when the Magic Kingdom reigned as America’s chief symbol of ‘50s-style family values and showed little tolerance for anything outside the norm.
But times have changed and so has Disneyland.
Perhaps the clearest illustration of the changing Disney is the new domestic partnership policy announced quietly this week in the employee benefits brochure. Viewed by many as the ultimate corporate nod to the realities of gay and lesbian lifestyles, the policy would allow gay couples the same dental, health and bereavement benefits as married heterosexual couples.
Disney, among the last holdouts in the entertainment industry to grant domestic partnership benefits, has been lobbied hard for years by its gay and lesbian employees and was given the collective push by both the Burbank studio LEAGUE and LEAGUE Anaheim.
LEAGUE Anaheim members say Disney, however magical, is like any other workplace: a certain percentage of its population is gay, just like society in general.
“Some people don’t think of Disneyland as having gay people because they think of squeaking clean and the ‘50s,” says Jon Patton, a ride operator and LEAGUE member. “But there are gays and lesbians everywhere, even in Orange County, even in Disney.”
Still fresh in many memories are the images of a gay couple getting booted out of the park after fast dancing together on the Tomorrowland Terrace. The incident occurred in 1980, triggering a four-year court battle resulting in a Superior Court ruling that the guards who ousted the couple had violated the men’s civil rights. Disneyland later lifted the ban on fast dancing. But in 1988, three more gay men sued the park, claiming their civil rights were violated in 1987 when a security guard broke up their slow dancing. The trio dropped their lawsuit in exchange for a pledge by the park not to discriminate based on sexual orientation.
“Disneyland has changed over the years,” says Tom Brocato, the park’s chief spokesman. “Some of the rules have been relaxed a bit. You can see how things have progressed over the years.”
LEAGUE member Richard Hitt joined Disneyland back in 1957. He remembers the Walt Disney years, when nobody thought about who was gay and who was not. He also remembers the political tugs throughout society in the decades that followed. He says workplace representation in the 1990s is a natural evolution following the identity struggles of the 1980s.
“These issues have gone from the political to the economic,” he said. “Before gay issues and recognition were not a part of the workplace. Now they are.”
Brocato says Disneyland’s approval of its gay and lesbian club sends a positive signal to all employees.
“It enhances the workplace, and it’s positive in every way,” he says. “The company is saying, you develop the clubs, here are the guidelines and we’ll help you succeed. This is good backstage support of the cast members. We have a very loyal group here, all 9,000 cast members. Maybe this is one of the reasons why.”
It was the Burbank studio’s LEAGUE that first pressed Disneyland officials in 1993 to invite gay and lesbian cast members to come to a meeting organized to gauge interest in a gay and lesbian club at the park. LEAGUE Burbank had developed a strong following since it began in 1992 and its leaders believed a LEAGUE Anaheim would strike a similar chord. They were right.
The first meeting drew about 60 cast members, from every area of the park and job category, according to Valkenburg, who was there.
“Considering the different schedules and jobs involved, that really said a lot.”
Since then, LEAGUE Anaheim has developed a 150-name mailing list for its monthly newsletter and has held a slew of social events, such as its recent White Trash Debutant Ball. The group has contributed to several community projects and gay rights causes and marched in several gay pride parades, including last spring’s Long Beach Lesbian and Gay Pride parade, in which the group snagged the Pride Award. Both LEAGUE Burbank and LEAGUE Anaheim together claim a total of 200 members.
As LEAGUE Anaheim adds more community projects to its growing list of activities, its reputation and outreach continues to ripple through the Southern California gay and lesbian community.
“It’s a good time to have this movement,” says Patton. “People everywhere are in the closet, but when they see this club and the support it gets, they see the company as a safe place. The gay community is glad to see that.”
Hicks of LEAGUE Burbank agrees.
“For all these people to come together, it’s one of the most important psychological endorsements you can have,” he says. “When they find out there is this gay and lesbian group, hopefully it sends a message that they don’t have the walls up as much as it used to.”
Although many LEAGUE members say they have never felt discriminated against at work, today’s new atmosphere of approval in the park has enhanced their appreciation of their jobs.
“Although it was already pretty high, it’s put more value in the company for us,” says Patton. “It makes a difference to other gays in the park that we can be out and open. It says it’s OK.”
As an officially recognized employee club at Disneyland, LEAGUE follows the same Disney guidelines governing the other five clubs at the park: Clubs cannot imply that the company endorses, financially sponsors or is connected with the club or its activities, although use of company space for meetings and production of its newsletter is handled by cast activities, a division of the park’s human resources department.
“Basically Disney asks of us what it asks of all clubs and cast members,” says Scott Elmore, a pageant and parade helper at the park. “Look clean-cut and don’t detract from the show.”
Another rule for clubs states they cannot use company characters, trademarks or other identifying company symbols to identify themselves. But that doesn’t stop LEAGUE members from marching in mouse-ear shaped floats at gay pride parades or carrying banners that read “part of the family at the Walt Disney Co.”
Doug Kruger, supervisor of cast activities, says the company has had no complaints about LEAGUE. Likewise, LEAGUE has had no complaints from members about the park’s support of the club.
“Cast activities has never backed down in its support of us,” says Valkenburg. “We’re not a radical group. Disney is our home, and we’re not here to destroy it.”
Valkenburg says LEAGUE Anaheim credits LEAGUE Burbank with blazing the early trails for both the Disneyland club and successfully lobbying for domestic partnership benefits. Although the studio and the park are very different workplaces, gay and lesbian employees at both sites share many objectives, and his club owes a lot to Burbank, he says.
“Years ago the company wasn’t aware of how many gay and lesbian employees there were at Disney or how it would affect morale,” Valkenburg says. “But we’ve worked positively with the company and want to continue to work within the company for positive change. I think if you work against something, you come away with negative feelings on both sides and accomplish nothing. I want Disney to be the best place to work, not just the happiest place to visit.”