Today, DreamWorks' terrific How To Train Your Dragon 2 glides into theaters. Of the film's several rare creatures is a particularly important one: a matter-of-fact gay character. In a blink-and-miss aside, viking character Gobber comments on a husband and wife's reunion after several years of estrangement by saying, "This is why I never married...that, and one other reason."
Craig Ferguson, who voices Gobber, ad-libbed the line, which he meant as a coming out. The movie's openly gay director, Dean DeBlois, kept it in, explaining to Fox 411, "I think it's nice. It's progressive, it's honest, and it feels good, so we wanted to keep it."
That Gobber is butch and otherwise not identifiably gay makes his coming out that much more powerful. He's just gay, that's just part of him. For those who'd make the argument that sexuality has no place in a kid's movie, recognize how this film's plot hinges on reigniting a love between a man and a woman. Watch how Kristen Wiig's Ruffnut Thorston lusts after Kit Herington's Eret. Realize that the protagonist here, Jay Baruchel's Hiccup, is also matter-of-fact about his sexuality—he just happens to have a girlfriend (America Ferrera's Astrid).
This is just a recent example of a growing relaxation with gay characters in cartoons. At the end of ParaNorman, a jock named Mitch rebuffs a female peer's advances by explaining that he has a boyfriend. Much has been written about the perceived queerness of Frozen's Elsa, a societal reject who implores herself to "let it go" and be herself, but there's even a less ambiguously gay moment in that blockbuster: Oaken, the proprietor of Wandering Oaken's Trading Post and Sauna, calls out to his family across the room in the sauna and a grown man surrounded by four children wave back.
Introducing gay characters to children in such relaxed ways refutes decades of homophobic conventional wisdom: gays will confuse children, or worse, they'll make children turn gay themselves. "Protecting" children from gays is just shorthand for bigotry. Homophobia has long been justified by painting gays, particularly gay men, as child predators—it's the rationale for Uganda's recent and virulently homophobic legislation, for example.
Animation has a long history of flirting with queerness, if at arm's length, mostly through sissy characters and otherwise effeminate men. For decades, it was implicit as it was in movies in general. As Vito Russo wrote in his history of queer cinema, The Celluloid Closet, "Although at first there was no equation between sissyhood and actual homosexuality, the danger of gayness as the consequence of such behavior lurked always in the background."
While the sissy has a long, complicated history in cinema that doesn't always necessarily associate queerness with wrongdoing, repeatedly queer-coded characters in animation are dangerous, evil, or at the very least, frivolous. In Ub Iwerks' 1935 short, Sinbad the Sailor, a sissy's camping warrants a deluge of knives that nearby pirates throw at him. Disney's Cinderella, 1950, features a moment of gay panic and wary regarding when two male mice get cozy and one likes it a little too much. The antagonist of Powerpuff Girls in the late '90s is basically Satan (referred to as "Him") and utterly queer, with sculpted eyebrows, made-up cheeks, and a candy-coated voice he uses when he isn't utterly deranged.
Those examples and many more are included in the video above (note: it focuses on portrayals of male queerness/sissyhood, as depictions of female queerness are far rarer and more benign—see Peanuts' Peppermint Patty and Scooby Doo's Velma). You can see what is more or less a progression: gay-seeming characters are the butts of jokes, and then they're nuisances, and then they're evil, and then they're normal. There are weird blips along the way: Bambi's Flower was allowed to openly flirt with Bambi in 1942, batting his eyelashes and all, with no consequence. Conversely, 2012's Wreck-It Ralph contains the most explicitly homophobic sentiment that I've ever seen in a cartoon: Ralph ridicules the lisping and flamboyant antagonist King Candy by calling him a "nelly wafer." (That blow to progress is reminiscent of the increased gay bashings in New York in the wake of marriage equality. Some feel the need to step back as culture moves forward.)
Representation of minorities in pop culture continues to be a fraught issue. I don't really need the validation of seeing people like me on a screen—that's not what I use pop culture for (if anything, it's to make brief entries into worlds that I'd never otherwise enter the orbit of). But it seems to me that having positive, openly gay characters in children's culture could make a difference to impressionable minds. If nothing else, it shows kids that being gay is no big deal. It's not anything to be ashamed of. Other people's sexuality is no threat. Given the alternatives of stereotyping, maligning, and all-out bashing, I think animation is in a good place now, and it's getting better.
Note, the video above was partially sourced from Jess DePaul and Zach Barnard's YouTube video/college project Gay Characters in Disney/Pixar Movies, which also contains examples not covered by the montage I put together above: