A Tale as Old as Me

I grew up with my buddy Walt. So much so that I can’t remember a time in my childhood when Aladdin, Simba, and the Beast didn’t play critical roles in both what I watched and in my imagination. From the puzzles that I put together to my kindergarten Halloween costume, from the songs I sang in the car to our Florida family vacations—Mr. Disney was always along for the ride.

Returning to the Disney Classics this season has been a return to my childhood, but with an intriguing new lens.

This time, I know I’m gay.

When I was growing up, I bought into the heteronormative relationships that Disney espoused—the prince finding his princess and living happily ever after. I never questioned that narrative—nor was I shown different ones. I simply sang along as loud as I could. Until we started rehearsing for this show, I had no idea that the lyricist behind those songs I was belting out was gay.

I can’t help but wonder, what if I had known?

When I came out as gay, despite having an incredibly loving and open family, it took me a long time to accept it and even longer to share it. This was in part because the stories I watched and the narratives they perpetuated only had a space for me if I was going to play a handsome princess-chasing hero. For years, I grew up thinking I needed to want to be that. I had to be Aladdin luring women onto my carpet or Prince Eric kissing mermaids in gondolas if I was going to fit in. When I started having romantic feelings for men, I tried to push it away because that would force my story to be different. That would eliminate, “Prince Charming” from my list of possible futures.

Little did I know that Howard Ashman, the voice behind some of my favorite songs, represented a different possible future. What if someone had taken 6 year old Mitch and said, “By the way, one of the guys who wrote those songs you love so much is gay, isn’t that neat?”

It’s impossible to know the impact that question would have had now. Maybe I would have brushed it off as trivial, maybe I would have actively denied that it mattered, or maybe I would have responded with unbounded curiosity. Regardless, I like to believe that it could have planted a seed in me that recognized the presence, brilliance, and contributions of LGBT individuals. If it happened often enough, it could have made standing in and accepting my own identity decades later, just a little bit easier.

I’m incredibly proud of this production for many reasons. One of which is because it’s not simply a “Disney Show.” Instead, this show’s theme recognizes the importance of lifting up members of the LGBTQ community. Howard Ashman isn’t a footnote—he’s in the title.

With all this in mind, I’m continuing to ask myself, how can we make sure that today’s youth have access to stories of LGBTQ individuals—even when they are behind the scenes? How can we empower and promote empathy through building awareness of the vast contributions of the LGBTQ community? How can we help these ideas reach the next generation of Mitch’s, growing up in the Midwest? How can we make sure that becoming Hetero-Prince Charming is only one option on a list of many?

I’m sure there are several ways. Our upcoming concert is one of them. Bring your family. Bring your kids. Bring someone else’s kids. And join us, in celebrating these timeless classics that were brought to us by a member of the LGBTQ community, Howard Ashman.

by Mitch Zoelzer, Oakland-East Bay Gay Men’s Chorus member