Bury Your Gays

On Using Gay Tragedy as a Plot Device

Since the dawn on time, mankind has been a race of storytellers. We have a rich history of oral storytelling that dates back to the Stone Age, and the communication of stories and history through cave paintings. The desire to expand our imagination through the construction of fictional worlds and characters continues to be of huge societal significance in an era of self-reflexive, post-modern media.

LGBT fiction has always been an area that has been somewhat lacking in terms of exploration by story tellers in any medium, partially due to social stigma, and partially due to a lack of interest by the general public. As LGBT awareness increases, so do the stories centered around us. Gay tragedy, however, is a plot device that seems key to almost every LGBT romance.

The website TV Tropes, explains the main uses of the "Bury Your Gays" trope as follows:

Often, especially in older works (to the extent that they are found in older works, of course), gay characters just aren't allowed happy endings. Even if they do end up having some kind of relationship, at least one half of the couple, often the one who was more aggressive in pursuing a relationship, thus "perverting" the other one, has to die at the end. 

The most simple definition of the trope is: No happy endings for gays/lesbians.

Additionally, the problem isn't merely that gay characters are killed off: the problem is the tendency that gay characters are killed off in a story full of mostly straight characters, or when the characters are killed off because they are gay.

The further you delve into character arcs, TV tropes, and narrative ploys, the more obvious it becomes that no one in the LGBT community gets a happy ending. In modern day LGBT storylines, writers often attempt to justify the death of gay characters with a heroic act of self-sacrifice made almost in order to simultaneously appease the LGBT community, while comforting the majority of the audience with a reason for a gay character’s existence within the narrative, as if we should justify our existence. Many people have pointed out the injustice of killing off the few LGBT characters a show might have in order to teach the audience a lesson on morality. The overarching message is this: you’re not welcome here.

This insistence on making every LGBT death significant in that meta-thinking way that directors and screenwriters salivate over could stem from the pulp lesbian novels of the mid-20th century. The majority of these paperback lesbian fiction stories came complete with as much gay tragedy as you could handle, again, perhaps to teach us a lesson regarding the relationship between the church and the LGBT community, or perhaps to reflect the reality of the time. Books like We Too Are Drifting and Torchlight To Valhalla were the forerunners in LGBT fiction, written to appease an audience with the morals of the 1930s, an era overshadowed by social issues and the economic fallout of the Great Depression.

However, these cheap and generally disregarded examples of literature became the cornerstone of modern media and representations of alternative lifestyles and gritty topics such as drugs and racism. The very nature of the fact that all LGBT media borrows from a medium concerned with proving that immoral behaviour will inevitably result in consequences is inherently problematic.

In short, modern creatives are still being unknowingly influenced by works of LGBT fiction often written by men, for men, with graphic descriptions of sex and satanism, culminating in happily married and heterosexual characters. (It seems that Stephen Moffat has lifted Irene Adler straight out of one of said novels with the "gay until she met the right man" plot line. See Adaptational sexuality or Situational sexuality)

The difficulty, when it comes to handling LGBT characters, is balance. The piece of media itself may contain so few LGBT characters that the death of a couple, or even one character, can convey a very sinister and significant meaning for members of the show’s audience. Some directors do it for the shock factor, some for nothing more than the fact that, in most series, anyone can die. Often, killing even a single LGBT character can entirely erase any trace of LGBT representation in a series.

It’s generally safe to say that those who do fall victim to this trope are either characters who have recently entered into a relationship that the show’s fans have heavily supported for years, or were on the verge of entering into said relationship before one, or two, major character deaths occur. While this does add a sense of bittersweet irony to a narrative, it also says a lot about a director or screenwriter. As Abigail E de Bruin says in this article regarding Clark and Lexa from the post-apocalyptic drama, The 100, fans deserve better.

The people who fund these shows, arguably, should be able to see themselves get a happy ending on screen. As an LGBT audience, isn’t it bad enough that we make up only 2.9% of characters on prime time television? Isn’t it bad enough that we’re constantly being bombarded with the message that more than one gay character per show is excessive, even after years of seeing ourselves go completely unrepresented in the industry? Isn’t it bad enough that many of us have grown up seeing ourselves regularly being belittled or made out to be the butt of a joke in many forms of media?

All of these things are bad enough, without the people who have been privileged enough to be able to break into their chosen field of work, when many LGBT writers are unable due to socioeconomic factors out of their control, effectively deciding whether or not we deserve happy endings, yet still caterwauling about what a good ally they are to our community.

Our lives are not an Aesop’s fable. We don’t need a moral to our story, nor a reason to justify our continued inclusion in a story, and we certainly don’t need to be reminded of truths that already play on our minds.

On the flip side, however, is the argument that often, these tropes are used by LGBT creatives in their own stories. Perhaps this is more of a reflection of our continued reality than anything else, especially when you consider the high risk of both suicide, and other epidemics like HIV/AIDS among LGBT communities around the world.

Generally, the risk of an LGBT character dying due to social stigma in the "real world" would be much higher. Perhaps in a more poignant manner, the use of this trope by members of the LGBT community reflects a sad reality both in the way of a shortened life expectancy, and the flippancy with which the media treats the community, in the same way that rap music reflects the difficult reality faced by many people of colour. 

Every cloud has its silver lining, and in this case, the silver lining is the gradual increase in LGBT characters in any and all forms of media. Even 10 years ago, it would have been nearly impossible to name a mainstream TV show featuring a gay couple or a trans character as a protagonist. The fact that we can even have this debate shows real, inspiring progress. Younger writers, directors, and actors are paving the way for narratives that explore what it is to be LGBT in the world they’ve grown up in, and what it could mean to be LGBT in genres that haven’t yet been explored. They’re expanding their horizons beyond the usual drab LGBT romance, and into worlds of magic and science fiction that will no doubt make all the difference in the future. LGBT fiction is on the up and up.