Throughout the many LGBTQ stories that have been told onscreen, there is one dominant theme: suffering. From the “Bury Your Gays” trope that sees queer characters dying far more frequently than straight characters, to stories that foreground the struggles of LGBTQ lives, we rarely allow them to be happy. So why have we insisted on making queer characters miserable? Here’s our Take on how this trope has dominated LGBTQ representations over the years, and whether we can get to a place where suffering isn’t always part of their story.
Over the decades of LGBTQ stories told onscreen, there is one dominant theme: Suffering. We’ve seen LGBTQ characters portrayed as criminals, hypersexual villains, or tortured souls. But one pervasive feeling tends to unite them: To be queer is to struggle.
Even as we’ve moved further away from limiting stereotypes, pop culture has still been especially rough on LGBTQ people — putting them through the wringer with storylines about homophobia and abuse, or even punishing them with death. The longstanding convention of narratives killing off queer characters far more frequently than straight characters is known as the “Bury Your Gays” trope. Queer characters die so often in movies and TV that the website DoesTheDogDie.com’s list, “Does an LGBT person die?” has too many examples to count. The Bury Your Guys trope is pervasive both in its literal form and also in its subtler impact — because even when queer characters aren’t subjected to overt violence or death, many of them still haven’t been allowed to be happy.
So why have we insisted on making our queer characters miserable? Here’s our take on how this trope has dominated LGBTQ representations over the years, and whether we can get to a place where suffering isn’t always part of their story.
Bury Your Gays
The idea of burying your gay characters has been around since the 19th century, an era when homosexuality was deemed punishable by prison under indecency laws. LGBTQ authors like Oscar Wilde were unable to write about queer characters without enduring censorship — or worse — and were forced to obscure them. At his own indecency trial, Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was used as evidence of his depravity, because of the painter Basil Hallward’s seemingly obvious attraction to Dorian. But Wilde had intentionally buried this homosexual subtext — and even symbolically punished it by having Dorian murder Basil.
Although attitudes have certainly changed since the 19th century, the Bury Your Gays trope has remained pervasive. After Hollywood adopted the 1930 Hays Code, which banned “depictions of sexual perversion,” queer characters all but vanished from the screen, with homoeroticism again relegated largely to subtext. And most of the time, those implicitly queer characters were made out to be villains. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller Rope revolves around two characters who are explicitly gay in the stage play it’s based on, although the film never mentions it. Nevertheless, as many critics have picked up on, it codes their murder of a classmate as a homosexual act.
This implied link between queerness and villainy would continue long after the Hays Code was abandoned. Queer men, in particular, were depicted as predators, given to acts of sexual violence. For queer women, their murderous tendencies often coincided with hypersexuality. Inevitably, they are killed, with their deaths are presented as a form of justice, leaving the audience relieved.
When they’re not killed for being villains, queer characters are often depicted as martyrs, with their lives naturally ending in tragedy. As the AIDS epidemic spread in the 1980s, it became equally pervasive in LGBTQ stories — the specter that hangs over everything else. In 1993’s Philadelphia, Tom Hanks
plays a lawyer, Andrew Beckett, who loses his job after he’s diagnosed with AIDS. He brings a humanizing face to the disease, but he’s also largely reduced to it: Beckett never shares a real kiss beyond a peck with his lover, played by Antonio Banderas, because ultimately, the film is about Beckett dying — not living. These depictions have served an important purpose, bringing valuable awareness to real-life struggles faced by LGBTQ people. But they’ve also fostered the perception that being queer is dangerous — even deadly.
Taken to its extreme, this has seen LGBTQ characters dying at their own hand after being tormented by their own sexuality. The 1961 film The Children’s Hour, adapted from Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play, offers one of the earliest examples of this trope in its story of two boarding school teachers, Martha and Karen, who are accused of having a lesbian affair, which causes Martha to realize her true feelings. Both film and play are based on a real-life story that ended with both women-only losing their jobs. But The Children’s Hour ends with Martha committing suicide, overcome with guilt about her own feelings.
Martha Dobie: “Oh, it’s all my fault. I have ruined your life and I have ruined my own.” - The Children’s Hour
We can still see this trope play out even decades later. Often these stories depict their deaths as a tragic sacrifice, made before an uncaring world. These stories not only normalize and even romanticize suicide
for queer characters, they run the risk of influencing their audiences to feel the same way. In 1998, the makers of the short film Trevor — about a boy who attempts suicide after his peers bully him for being gay — established The Trevor Project, dedicated to LGBTQ youth suicide prevention. In a 2020 study, it concluded that 40% of LGBTQ young people had seriously considered suicide. And fictional depictions
do play a role in that: A 2010 study found that the more a viewer identified with a suicidal protagonist, the more likely they were to share those negative feelings. And as Stanford researcher Samuel Clowes Huneke has argued, “so long as [LGBTQ] teenagers see characters who look and talk and think like themselves, and who then kill themselves, suicide will continue to suggest itself as a plausible course of action.”
Trevor: “Sometimes I imagine that I will die an early death, and everyone will be sorry.” - Trevor
The Bury Your Gays trope has faced some of its greatest scrutiny on television. TV shows have proved especially deadly for female LGBTQ characters. Between 2015 and 2016, 42 lesbian and bisexual women were killed off in US TV shows — and in 2016, four of them died in a single month. The most prominent among these was Lexa from The 100, who was killed just minutes after finally sleeping with her love interest, Clarke, and whose death prompted a widespread backlash against the Bury Your Gays trope.
For many, the most galling aspect of Bury Your Gays is the way it often treats LGBTQ characters as expendable, using their deaths solely as a motivating plot point for others. These characters’ suffering
might serve simply to further the narrative arc of a non-LGBTQ character, or provide a moment of shock.
But even when stories center their deaths, usually by depicting LGBTQ characters who are murdered because of homophobia or hate crimes, these characters still risk ending up as symbols, rather than as people. As with those depictions of AIDS or suicides, the deaths of LGBTQ characters due to homophobic violence often reflect an ugly truth: The story of Sopranos’ Vito Spatafore illustrates how gay characters would really be treated in his hypermasculine mob environment. Films like Boys Don’t Cry and The Laramie Project have done much to bring attention to the realities of homophobic violence through the true stories of its victims. Still, the sheer ubiquity of this violence in fictional films remains divisive: it underscores the feeling that LGBTQ people will inevitably be rejected and abused. And collectively, these stories reinforce the idea that to be queer is to live under a cloud of violence and misery, where safety and happiness are under constant threat.
Miserable LGBTQ+ Lives
Even when LGBTQ characters are allowed to live, they still face a disproportionate amount of angst. Often we see gay characters who are lonely, melancholy, or outright depressed. And typically, they’re given obvious reasons to feel this way: LGBTQ characters are subjected to discrimination, rejection, mockery, and violence.
LGBTQ tales are also often about a character’s struggle for acceptance, from their families, from their communities, and even from themselves. And while these films — many of them also based on real-life experiences — usually end with the gay characters breaking free, accepting themselves, and even finding some happiness, the prevalence of this narrative in LGBTQ cinema again serves to underline that being queer automatically means being alienated and unwanted by your community.
Nomi Marks: “For a long time, I was afraid to be who I am because I was taught by my parents that there’s something wrong with someone like me.” - Sense8
As some critics have noted, it can even sideline queer people in their own stories, making it all about how straight and cisgender people react to them. In The Danish Girl, the story of Eddie Redmayne’s transgender woman Lili is largely told through the perspective of her partner Gerda, who struggles to adapt after Lili comes out. And while the 2017 film 3 Generations revolves around a transitioning teenage boy played by Elle Fanning, it’s really about his family and their feelings.
Maggie: “It’s been hard on her… him… us. It’s been really hard on us.” - 3 Generations
Rarely are these characters allowed to just be the center of their own narrative — let alone be happy in them.
This trope has become so pervasive, the internet has even compiled lists of movies about LGBTQ characters with actual happy endings, highlighting just how rare they are.
Shame, rejection, and fear are all real-world issues that LGBTQ people face. But it’s only recently that we’ve begun to see stories that look beyond them to show queer characters not just surviving but thriving — and it’s telling that just allowing them to be happy feels revolutionary.
Moving Beyond Suffering
In 2017, the death of Lexa on The 100 sparked such an uproar that fans actually created the Lexa Pledge, asking TV writers and producers to commit to giving LGBTQ characters “significant storylines with meaningful arcs,” to consider that “the deaths of queer characters have deep psychosocial ramifications,” and to “refuse to kill a queer character solely to further the plot of a straight one.” But while some creators were quick to sign it, others weren’t so sure. Instead, they argued, it was more important to focus on how their LGBTQ characters are portrayed — not just whether or not they die.
To that end, the increased representation of LGBTQ characters has come with richer, more complex stories about their lives. 2017’s Call Me By Your Name offers an honest portrayal of longing, love, and sexuality that may end in sadness, but it also ends with both of its queer characters alive, and grateful for what they’ve shared — something that’s even more remarkable considering the film is set in the 1980s, an era that lived under the specter of AIDS and rampant homophobia.
Love, Simon tells the story of a closeted gay teen that shows him grappling with being outed and enduring bullying from his peers. But ultimately, the film isn’t about his struggle for acceptance. It’s about Simon
finding love and happiness. And in Booksmart, Amy has been open about her sexuality for years, a fact that her peers accept unreservedly.
On TV especially, LGBTQ characters now come in endless variety, living equally diverse lives in which their sexuality is only one part of who they are — even in death. When Orange Is The New Black’s Poussey was killed in 2016, so soon after the deaths of Lexa on The 100 and others, it, too, was criticized as being yet another Bury Your Gays moment. But as Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk argued, Poussey’s death represented much more than that, writing: “It’s the story of not just her sexuality, but also her love story; not just her race, but also her individual history; not just the things she signified, but also all of the ways she was vibrant and angry and joyful and unique unto herself.” The point isn’t to avoid killing LGBTQ characters completely, or even that they shouldn’t ever be allowed to suffer. The point is to ensure that their lives and their stories truly matter.
As we see more and more LGBTQ characters in general, it’s inevitable that they’ll sometimes be unhappy, or even downright miserable — and yes, sometimes they will die. But we’re already moving past the days when all queer stories were only about hate crimes, suicidal teens, or their being shunned by society — or really, even just about being queer. Today’s LGTBQ characters are allowed to be nuanced, complex, and even ordinary people, whose lives aren’t solely defined by their sexuality. And more importantly, they’re finally allowed to be joyful, experiencing the happiness of fulfilling romances, careers, and friendships, just like straight characters have for decades. And while they may suffer, it’s not because they’re queer. It’s because they’re human.
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