When Beauty and the Beast hits theaters this week, it comes with what director Bill Condon boasts is an “exclusively gay moment”—but emphasis must decidedly go on the word “moment.” By all accounts, the only gayness to be found is some fleeting innuendo from Josh Gad’s character LeFou; that’s followed by some coded euphemisms from Mrs. Potts, and a two-second hand-clasp in a crowded dance scene.
The new LeFou is about as gay as the original LeFou, who dog-whistled in the 1991 film with winking lyrics like “you can ask any Tom, Dick, or Harry/and they’ll tell you whose team they prefer to be on.” For those of us who’d hoped for an unambiguous same-sex romance, it’s fairly disappointing—but not half as disappointing as what Josh Gad said about marriage equality at the film’s Australian premiere.
A little background on the situation in Australia: The country’s leaders have been engaging in an aggravating hot-potato-fumbling of marriage equality for years now, despite overwhelming public support for the freedom to marry. Surveys generally peg support in the mid-sixties, but politicians have avoided the issue with stalling tactics like a ludicrously expensive proposal to hold a non-binding public vote. Frustration with national leaders over their cowardly avoidance of relationship recognition is reaching a fever pitch, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently finding himself unwelcome at the gay and lesbian Mardi Gras parade earlier this month.
It is unlikely that anyone would have thought to ask Josh Gad about this state of affairs, if not for that much-ballyhooed “gay moment.” After the brag from the film’s director, LeFou’s sexuality became a public obsession: A drive-in theater in Alabama cancelled screenings, Russia rated the film adults-only, and Malaysia is seeking a censored version. (Though given how vaporous the gay moment has turned out to be, what would they even censor?)
And so, at the Sydney premiere, a reporter asked Gad if he had a message for the Prime Minister about marriage equality. “I’m going to stay out of that one. I don’t need that controversy,” he replied, and then he was hustled away by minders.
Under the best of circumstances, this would be a mildly annoying position for an actor to take in 2017. But from LeFou, who should know better, it’s galling. I am certain that Josh Gad is a strong supporter of the freedom to marry. Not only has he spoken openly about his position in the past, and not only did he anchor a Daily Show segment celebrating marriage equality, but I have personally witnessed his enthusiasm for the issue.
It happened in 2011, when I was one of the many people working on a lawsuit to overturn California’s Proposition 8, which banned the freedom to marry. To raise money for the cause, advocates had organized a fundraiser that involved a performance by Broadway stars; Josh Gad, who was starring in The Book of Mormon at the time, was at the venue when the plaintiffs in the case arrived. I’ll always remember how he gasped and greeted them like heroes. Here was a lead actor in the most popular show on Broadway rendered star-struck by the sight of two regular citizens who were standing up for equal rights. It was a moment of graciousness and warmth that was as charming as any heart-of-gold character Josh has ever played, and in the intervening years I was completely unsurprised to see him celebrate advances in equal rights, speak with affection for his gay family and friends, and criticize Antonin Scalia.
That’s why his coy coded LeFou is so aggravating, and his sudden reluctance to discuss equal rights is so baffling. An oblique effeminacy does not a closet door smash—if it did, the first queer Disney character might be Flower, the shy giggling skunk (who ultimately enters what I view as a lavender marriage) in 1942’s Bambi. I’ll admit that as a character note, it’s fun to see LeFou mince. I love a queeny queer performance, especially when it comes from an actor who I know has genuine affection for LGBTQ people. But as a political position, “I’m going to stay out of that one” hurts. “I don’t need the controversy” will be hard to forget.
A few months ago, there was a heartbreaking story from Australia of a man was unable to make arrangements for his partner’s remains when he died on an Australian honeymoon. That widower would probably have preferred to stay out of it, too. He didn’t need the controversy either.
As I’m sure Josh knows, queer people can’t always set aside our queerness when it becomes inconvenient. Whether we’re out or not, it’s a reality of our lives; and although it’s generally a magical gift to be gay, there are times that our sexuality puts us in jeopardy. If an actor is going to portray us on-screen and speak excitedly about his character’s “effective” and “important” sexuality in interviews, I can’t help feeling abandoned when he shrugs and wanders off when asked if he stands beside us in real-life.
Fortunately, this won’t be the last chance that Josh—or any actor, for that matter—will have to do what’s right and be a strong ally. He missed a valuable opportunity in Sydney. Now I’m looking forward to seeing how he’ll make up for it.