Even as a teenager watching High School Musical, it was obvious to me that Ryan Evans was gay. Of course, the movies never said that, and he even ended up dating a girl by the end of the franchise; apparently, it was too taboo in the mid-2000s to let Ryan be himself. But now, a decade later, Disney+'s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is giving the LGBTQ+ community the representation the originals never did.
For one, there are at least two gay characters in Carlos, a choreographer, and Seb, a teen boy who auditions to play the traditionally female role of Sharpay in East High School's production of High School Musical. Nini, who lands one of he leads as Gabriella, also has lesbian mothers. All of these people are allowed to exist in the show fully, without their sexuality being coded like Ryan's was. When Seb wants to play Sharpay instead of Ryan, drama teacher Miss Jenn jumps at the idea. "I love that," she says. "That is so fresh."
For HSM, it really is. Though the movies never addressed Ryan's sexuality, Lucas Grabeel, who played him, seemingly confirmed the character was gay in a 2016 interview with BuzzFeed. "After reading the script, the first thing I said to [director Kenny Ortega] was, 'OK, Kenny, Ryan's gay, right? I know it's Disney Channel so I'm not really gonna be gay, but I mean, yeah, right?'" Grabeel remembered. "He talked to me about his own life and he was like, 'I see a lot of myself in Ryan. Yeah, I knew I was gay in high school, but I didn't tell anybody.' … It was about making it real."
When an AfterElton.com reporter pressed Gary Marsh, the president of Disney Channel Worldwide, in 2008 about why the franchise suppressed Ryan's sexuality, he said that the channel's content didn't "deal with sexuality" at all. "That's just sort of not where our audience's head's at," he said, per New Now Next. "They're really a pre-sexual audience, for the most part, and so sexuality is not how we look to tell any kind of stories."
The reporter pushed back, noting that there are a number of heterosexual relationships in the movies. "Yeah, but that's not about sex," Marsh responded, as if queer people's relationships are all inherently sexual and only sexual.
A decade later, queer people — and their relationships — blend seamlessly into this new world of High School Musical. Perhaps Ortega felt that Ryan not knowing or overtly showing his sexuality was true to his story at the time, but the world has changed a lot since Ortega was in high school. Many queer teens are now comfortable with their sexuality and open about being LGBTQ+.
"I wasn't there at the time [when Ryan's story was written], and I understand the challenges of trying to appeal to as broad an audience as possible without riling people up," HSM series showunner Tim Federle told TV Line of the original films. "I don't feel that my show is trying to make up for anything that wasn't there before, but I do think it's a new generation, and having a cast full of 15, 16 and 17-year-olds, I'm aware that I can't put anything in there that they're going to roll their eyes at. They're real teens living real lives."
For Federle, part of telling those real teen stories was showing a relationship between Seb and Carlos. So far viewers haven't had much of a chance to get to know Seb beyond his casting in the school musical, but Federle said more is coming. "If you stick with the series long enough, you’ll see [Carlos and Seb's] relationship grow into something that I think is both highly relatable and maybe a little bit new for Disney," he told TV Line.
New for Disney is still old for those of us who have been seeking representation for decades, but it's certainly a step in the right direction. Grabeel told Billboard in 2018 that young men would often come up to him and thank him for the small bit of representation that Ryan did provide, even if it was coded.
"Ryan is not officially gay in any of the movies," Grabeel said. "But I think anyone that watches him can identify with who he was in high school: someone trying to figure it out. And I have young men in high school come up to me saying that, [though] it's hard to talk about their sexuality, seeing that kind of character represented in a good light and a fun way was really helpful to them."
Now imagine how helpful having out gay characters will be.