The year 2006 was a vastly different time: My phone had two buttons that called my mom and dad, and radio stations played Fergie’s “Fergalicious” and the Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha” back-to-back. It was also the year I had my gay awakening while watching Zac Efron in “High School Musical,” a mid-2000s classic.
Of course, I didn’t fully realize that I was gay back then. The word wasn’t even in my vocabulary. But watching Zac Efron as Troy Bolton shoot baskets and sing about his love for theater made my stomach tingle. Whenever he was in a scene, my heart would skip enough beats to concern a doctor. If Efron wasn’t there, 6-year-old me wasn’t interested.
In a whirlwind of feelings, the only explanation my kid brain could think of Efron was, Oh he’s super interesting and cool. He looked like he had it all: He was conventionally attractive, he could dance, he could kind of sing and his acting wasn’t too shabby. So I just thought that I wanted to be him. I distinctly recall a magazine interview where he stated his favorite color was blue. Like a coin, I flipped my favorite color from red to blue. It never occurred to me that he was actually my celebrity crush, but there was no other heterosexual explanation for this behavior.
For the longest time, I thought these feelings were normal for other boys. But talking to my male peers made me realize my idea of “normal” was a bit queer.
During lunch at elementary school, we discussed the third film in the series. Of course, I raved about all of Efron’s scenes and songs, and many of my classmates agreed. However, I wasn’t prepared to hear everyone talk about how hot Zac Efron’s co-star, Vanessa Hudgens, was.
Variations of “she’s so hot” and “I wish I was Troy” circled the table. I nodded along as if I agreed with them. I definitely thought Hudgens was pretty, but the vivacity and passion in this conversation reminded me of my inner feelings for Efron. As much as I thought Hudgens was beautiful, I simply didn’t have the same draw to her as the other boys. I wanted to turn the conversation back to my man Zac, but I stayed silent.
This was the catalyst for my internalized homophobia. At that young age, I knew it was better to be quiet about these feelings than outwardly show them. I was already getting picked on for being the quiet, shy kid, and I didn’t need to give anyone more ammo. I buried my feelings like a dead relative, swearing to never dig them up.
But 11 years later, it was announced that a spinoff television show of the “High School Musical” series was going to be released on Disney+. It would be called “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” and the show follows a high school theater production of the first film. When I heard this news, my inner “High School Musical” fan was resurrected like Jesus on Easter. I marked my calendar for the premiere and cleared my entire schedule just to watch it live.
During the first episode, I almost fell out of my chair when I realized there would be a gay couple … in this Disney children’s show. As the next episodes dropped, I binged them like my life depended on it.
The gay characters, Carlos and Seb, begin as friends, but their relationship slowly blossoms into a full romance. Every scene the two share made me giddy, and I waited with bated breath to see them end up together. If I couldn’t have a whirlwind high school romance, at least I could live vicariously through them.
Although they are not the main characters, their presence on a Disney show was groundbreaking. This fictional queer couple was seen by millions of people around the world, many of them being kids.
This is a huge 180 from the media I consumed as a kid. The lack of representation in my youth definitely affected my budding sexuality. The director of the “High School Musical” series actually intended one of the main characters, Ryan Evans, to be gay, but didn’t feel that Disney’s audience would be ready for it. If Ryan was explicitly gay in the movies, it would have helped me understand my feelings for Zac and made me realize I was gay, too. Ryan’s queerness could have saved so many years of self-hatred and depression simply by providing validation on my television screen.
But after more than a decade, I’m so happy that “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” and a large number of other shows have more LGBTQ+ characters. The queer kids of today might not even know who Zac Efron is. But they can feel comfortable enough to talk about their own queer celebrity crushes like the one I had with Zac Efron. They can see queer characters on screen and know that they don’t have to stay silent at their elementary school lunches anymore.
Although children may still struggle with their identity, queer characters will ease their anxieties about accepting themselves, and ultimately, allow them to feel happier in their own skin. Hopefully, these children will never have to wonder, “What the Efron with me?”
Nicholas Clark writes the Monday column on LGBTQ+ issues in media and politics. Contact him at [email protected]