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May 29, 2018

An Historic Coming Out

A young man's coming out journey is a first for the Disney Channel.

By: 
Iva-Marie Palmer


This year, Andi Mack made history as the first Disney Channel show to have a character come out as gay and to devote a story arc to the revelation.

In the season 2 premiere, as titular character Andi tries to sort out her feelings for crush Jonah Beck, one of her best friends, Cyrus, played by Joshua Rush, tells their mutual friend Buffy that he too has feelings for Jonah.

Buffy's reaction, "You've always been weird, but you're not different" speaks not only to Cyrus but to the show's young audience, many of whom might be dealing with similar coming-of-age discoveries about themselves. The storyline also showed viewers how to be a supportive friend in such a moment. In the next episode, as Buffy asks Cyrus about when he will tell their friend Andi, he requests she be "patient and non-judgmental," a good lesson for anyone.

Portraying the coming-out journey in an age-appropriate but authentic way was important to the show's creator, Terri Minsky who also helmed the shows Lizzie McGuire and Less Than Perfect.

"Our teen girl characters, Andi and Buffy, are on a journey to figuring out who they are, and I decided that Cyrus should go on that kind of journey too," Minsky told Variety. "His starts with a couple of friends who make him feel safe — they don't judge him, they protect him.

"That's what we all need, no matter who we are — people who love us, and in the case of Cyrus, people who love him before he even fully loves himself. I know there's a lot of kids out there who think they are weird and different for similar reasons, and I want Buffy to say it to all of them. I want them all to see they are loved and affirmed."

The coming-out storyline is historic for the Disney Channel (a same-sex relationship was portrayed on animated series Doc McStuffins) but it's fitting on Andi Mack, which premiered in 2017. The show takes pains to delve into the many ways tweens have to figure themselves out.

In its pilot episode, Andi Mack was ostensibly to revolve entirely around Andi's story. On the eve of her 13th birthday, Andi's free-spirited older sister Bex (Lilian Bowen) returns home and Andi (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) learns that Bex is not her sister, but her mother. But rather than making its supporting cast of Buffy (Sofia Wylie) and Cyrus be sidekicks to Andi, they get to likewise shine as they navigate the emotional landscape of junior high.

The episodes tackle plenty of moments of adolescent awkwardness – from saying the wrong thing to a crush to showing off outsize ambition to keeping secrets from parents.

But instead of neatly wrapping up the various embarrassment, failure or foot-in-mouth scenario at the end of the each episode, the show is aware of something young people already know: the oddness, anxieties and trials of the tween and teen years – whether in situations small or large are all of a piece of the growing-up experience.

Cyrus's coming-out journey has likewise been handled with sensitivity and depth. Actor Rush told the website Just Jared Jr. of playing the openly gay, Jewish teen, "Andi Mack has such a great message about loving yourself, loving your family and being loyal to your friends. I want to see Cyrus keep asking hard questions and figuring out who he is over the rest of this season and in season three."

His statement came in April, when Andi Mack's cast took home the inaugural GLAAD Media award for outstanding kids or family TV programming.

Cyrus's gay storyline has detractors, including some Christian leaders. The Kenya Film Classification Board banned the show in that country, stating that, "any attempt to introduce gay programming in Kenya will be met with the full force of the law," according to a Deadline Hollywood article.

If anything, such opponents only serve to show how important it is that LGBTQ kids have a show like Andi Mack and its Cyrus Goodman character to offer them representation in media through a relatable and multifaceted portrayal of a tween's journey to embrace his identity.

As Lee captioned an Instagram after the cast received its GLAAD award, "Took this W for anyone who has ever felt they were irrelevant or unwelcome in this world. we're with you. forever and always."

Whether LGBTQ or not, tweens will likely find themselves and their experiences represented on Andi Mack. The GLAAD award came shortly after the show's February bar mitzvah episode, in which Cyrus finally tells Andi that he's gay.

That episode also explored youth anxiety in a careful way, as Jonah Beck (Asher Angel) – the popular, seemingly always upbeat Ultimate Frisbee player – suffers an anxiety attack after Andi tells him she's not sure she wants to continue their relationship.

Dealing with storylines like these is something Minsky and her writing staff is careful to do in a way that suits today's tween audiences, who are more sophisticated and aware than kids before them. "I can't do the things every single coming of age show has done unless I figure out a way to do it differently and take it in an unexpected direction," Minsky told Cynopsis Media shortly after Andi Mack was picked up for a third season.

This mentality also comes across in the show's stories for its female characters, too, something very important in our #MeToo era. Buffy, a star athlete and student, is unapologetically ambitious, while Andi – who's been raised thinking her grandmother was her mother until Bex showed up – has not only her family situation to come to terms with but also doesn't know how she feels about dating.

In one episode, she tells Buffy, "I thought it (having a boyfriend) would be more fun fun, like a breath mint commercial." Andi breaks things off with Jonah – who she's crushed on almost obsessively because she realizes that she does more things for him than he does for her and, yes, it's ironic to see a girl bail on her Prince Charming in a Disney show.

But, this is a kids' show that knows what kids are really dealing with, but Minsky didn't contrive to make "strong female characters" in the rote "girl power" way but aimed to make full people.

"There's always this 'you can grow up to be whatever you want,' but we haven't seen a female president in the United States. We don't see female faces when you're looking at anything where decisions are being made," Minsky, who made the pilot with a mostly female team, told CNN.com.

"I just feel like it has to start with the kids as represented in the shows as having the power over their world, and hopefully that translates to people watching it without specifically calling it female power."

That power – whether from a girl emboldened to be a star athlete or to break up with a boy, or from a boy who's attracted to another boy – is demonstrated by characters who get to be themselves. It's a powerful message for any kid – straight, gay, differently abled, introverted, extroverted, and so on – to know that feeling weird or not quite sure of themselves is not only normal but worthwhile.

For consistently delivering a series that confronts and embraces tweens and the dynamics of their friend, family and romantic relationships, Andi Mack is deserving of its Television Academy Honors.

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