personal essays

How Beauty and the Beast Made Me the Gay Man I Am Today

I wanted adventure in the great wide somewhere. Photo: Disney Enterprises

I first became aware that Disney was doing an animated version of Beauty and the Beast the same way we all did: by seeing a set of teaser images of Belle in her town square at MGM Studios in 1991, a trip my 12-year-old brown face had begged for until it turned purple. I was wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and my bowl cut was secure under an oversize baseball cap that Huey, Dewey, and Louie would have envied until their beaks fell off. I had spent the past year attempting to be Ariel the Little Mermaid wherever I went: slumping on couches with my feet locked together; leaning sideways in front of my bathroom mirror with one hand held out longingly (“Wish I could be …”); nearly drowning in my neighbor’s pool after sitting cross-legged on the bottom and trying to catch the just-right beam of sunlight that filtered down through the water. So the idea that the fairy-tale extravaganza could be ostensibly continued — and in France, the Belle of countries — was enough to turn my purple face into an actual rainbow.

I had spent my childhood as the proverbial nerd with a book in my hands at all times. Books didn’t point at you in the cafeteria and mimic your awkward sashay. Books didn’t pinch your arm and talk about the odd darkness of your skin. Books didn’t pull your Sebastian the Crab drawing from under your delicately posed wrist and tear it up in front of you while others laughed. Instead, books opened themselves up to you and let you know their secrets, secrets you could share and keep when you felt that no one else could understand you or your extensive collection of Happy Meal toys arranged by year of release.

To put it succinctly, I think of my childhood as the first live-action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The movie took over my life as swiftly as a magical curse could transform a maître d’ into a candelabrum. Right from the moment that I met her, saw her, I was completely enamored of Belle, and my parents were thrilled that I chose to walk upright again after having “swum” across our living room floor for months.

As I had with its aquatic predecessor, I bought the soundtrack to Beauty and the Beast on cassette tape with the coins that I usually reserved for Sweet Valley High paperbacks. The now-iconic image of Belle in her custardy ballgown peering up to the Beast’s gigantic head became as essential to me as the gods in my temple — Lakshmi stately on her lotus floatie or Krishna poised to play his flute. I cannot accurately convey the number of times that I drew this image of the couple in my childhood, but it quite likely matches the number of times that I have watched Beauty and the Beast (a number that is also roughly equivalent to my current weight). I have drawn the image in oil pastel and colored pencil; I have cross-stitched it onto a sock and recreated it in beads. Pipe cleaners have been involved. Despite the slurs that might have greeted me in shop class in seventh grade, I managed to carve Belle’s half of the image into a diamond-shaped slab of wood, which I turned into a clock that tick-tocked in my bedroom for more than a decade. I once replicated the movie’s fabled bell jar by using a real rose and a container of Leggs pantyhose. (A fact more harrowing than Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.) To this day, a drawing I did of Belle and the Beast in regular gray pencil is on display in my parents’ sitting room. “It’s forbidden!” I imagine they say when someone asks to actually touch it.

Beauty and the Beast was my best friend. I’d sing the film’s songs alone in my bedroom and feel as if I were having a conversation. That might sound pathetic, but when you’re a brown kid growing up in rural Ohio, sometimes you need to create these spaces for yourself so that you can figure out what you truly value. I wanted to glide across that stately ballroom floor, cherubs shifting in a montage above my head; I wanted to shuffle down a long dining-room table while streams of rosé Champagne cascaded from the ceiling; I wanted to have my own talking wardrobe; I wanted Cogsworth and Lumière to invite me to their summer share in Cannes. I had the Beauty and the Beast kids’ meal toys from Burger King, a stack of cards with various stills from the movie on them, the figures from the decorating kit that the people at Kroger used to garnish my age 12 birthday cake, about 15 picture books based on the movie (organized by spine color), and, of course, an official movie poster that, along with my Little Mermaid one, created the world’s gayest diptych.

My obsession with Beauty and the Beast was not confined to the film. When I hit freshman year of high school, the stage musical came out and sent me into full Maurice insanity. I didn’t exactly have to beg my family to travel to New York City to see it because, by this point, they knew it was inevitable. The logo of the musical was an avant-garde deconstruction of the beast’s profile, a series of white stripes flecked end to end, a similarly gesticulated rose beside them. This became my go-to doodle, drawn everywhere from a notebook in algebra class to a napkin at Chili’s. There were additional songs in the Broadway musical (somewhat blasphemously, their lyrics were written by Tim Rice and not the late Howard Ashman), and they ricocheted off the same shower walls that had been subject to “Gaston” until their tiles almost shattered in ceramic hari-kari. The Beast’s new ballad, “If I Can’t Have Her,” was a personal favorite of mine, and on one particularly wanderlusty night, I even managed to creep onto our roof, by way of my older brother’s bedroom window, and project the song into the sky as if I were auditioning for the role. Perhaps some superhuman casting agent in the Big Apple would hear the strains of my voice on the wind from hundreds of miles away …

Every summer, I was a ball boy at what would become the Western and Southern Open tennis tournament in Cincinnati (a statement that contains a whole gay fairy tale’s worth of madness). When I wasn’t working a match between two world-ranked players, I would spend my downtime drawing that Beast doodle again and again and listening to the show’s CD on a Sony Discman. You can imagine how this was greeted by some of the other ball boys, though, sadly, none of them had the Gaston-like looks to match their Gaston-like jeers. But if I had learned anything from Belle, it was perseverance in the face of bullying — a tale as old as homophobia.

When I learned about the choice to include an “exclusively gay moment” for LeFou in the new live-action Beauty and the Beast, I thought, “When do I get my royalty check?” Two Halloweens ago, I even made the man who would become my husband dress up as Gaston while I went as LeFou. (In some divine reward for whatever I may have endured as a closeted kid, he actually does have Gaston-like looks to go along with his nice-Beast temperament.) It had never occurred to me that Beauty and the Beast would not be, you know, the queer center of my life — or just plain queer by itself. After all, when you feel isolated, trapped in a metaphorical castle, sometimes it’s your own capacity for magic that liberates you.

Rakesh Satyal is the author of the forthcoming novel No One Can Pronounce My Name.

How Beauty and the Beast Made Me the Gay Man I Am Today