While speaking with Variety as one of their Power of Pride list honorees, Ortega explained the decision not to have Ryan's character come out in the franchise, admitting he "didn't think" it was possible at the time.
"The character of Ryan in 'High School Musical,' Sharpay’s twin brother, we decided he’d probably going to come out in college," Ortega, 70, said. "It was less about coming out and just more about letting his true colors come forward."
While Ortega praised Disney for being open-minded, he said he was concerned the family-friendly studio wasn't ready for a gay storyline.
"I have to be honest with you," he told Variety. "I didn't think at the time [it would've been possible] -- and Disney is the most progressive group of people I’ve ever worked with."
"I was concerned because it was family and kids, that Disney might not be ready to cross that line and move into that territory yet," Ortega continued. "So, I just took it upon myself to make choices that I felt that those who were watching would grab. They would see it, they would feel it, they would know it and they would identify with it. And that is what happened."
The award-winning choreographer went on to discuss how he wove queer storylines and references into some of his other films including "Hocus Pocus," revealing the positive responses he received from the LGBTQ+ community.
"The fun of 'Hocus Pocus' is -- I mean, the girls are almost drag queens. I pushed for them to go there and kind of felt that we have an audience if they did, and God knows we did," Ortega explained. "There's just kind of a spirit and a fun that is representative of my own spirit and fun that lives under some of my work. And that makes it, I think, queer-friendly -- if that's a good way to put it. And I think that there has been so much progress that you can actually say that now, and people won't freak out. Because it used to be people, they'd be like, 'Oh, no! What is he trying this message to children?'"
He continued, "I have to say thousands of kids that have said, 'If it weren’t for ‘High School Musical,’ I don't know that I would have ever been comfortable in my skin. I don't know when I would have been able to feel comfortable enough to come out, embrace who I am.'"
Earlier in the interview, Ortega recalled a negative encounter he had with law enforcement when he was touring with the American love rock musical, "Hair" in the '70s. Ortega, who was 21 at the time, claimed he was framed by a "crooked" police chief in South Carolina and arrested for drugs.
"They didn't want us in South Carolina. They didn't want us in Florida. They didn't want us in Oklahoma," he explained. "There was fear about what this show talked about and sang about. I played a character that was bisexual, and this chief of police did not like what I stood for and did not like that we were there."
"He planted enough narcotics in my hotel room to make me out to be a major drug dealer. And I was arrested and facing 25-years-to-life," Ortega continued. "I spent weeks in jail and thousands of dollars for representation. And in court, it all came out. He was removed from office. I was freed, given a police escort to the airport and I was able to rejoin my company."
When Variety asked how the officer managed to allegedly plant the drugs on him, Ortega claimed the officer "decked" him after he came into the audience during a performance.
"I was onstage opening night. He was in the audience. No one knew it. He was a balding man, and I introduced myself as George Berger [his character]. And I jumped off the stage wearing hardly anything and climbed over the audience," Ortega recalled. "And I picked him to sit in front of, and I kissed him on his bald head. And I called him 'Mother.' And he decked me, and I fell backward out of my chair. The whole show stopped, and the cast jumped off the stage."
Ortega said that days later, when the cast was getting ready to leave South Carolina, he was arrested in his hotel room and put in jail. Fortunately, the judge on the case, as well as her daughters, had seen the show and "did some digging" after learning the officer had arrested Ortega under his character's name.
"The entire thing was just -- it was unbelievable," he said, reflecting on the incident. "It was a horror story that just had this incredible bright ending in that the whole thing was thrown out of court. He was removed from office. I was set free, but never to be the same. Christ, I'm still always looking over my shoulder."