Examining the History and Development of the Worst Trope Ever, ‘Bury Your Gays’

Examining the History and Development of the Worst Trope Ever, ‘Bury Your Gays’

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LGBTQ people have been asking for representation in TV and film for ages. And eventually we got it — sort of. Because nothing can ever be easy, this representation often came hand-in-hand with possibly the worst trope of all time, commonly referred to as ‘Bury Your Gays.’

The ‘Bury Your Gays’ concept has actually been around since the 19th century, with the Criminal Amendment Act of 1885 outlawing “acts of gross indecency with male persons.” In Victorian-era Great Britain, engaging in or promoting “perverse acts” was illegal. This meant authors could face jail time and the loss of their careers for publishing work depicting gay characters in a positive light, leading them to instead present them as expendable characters who suffer an early death. This historical and legal context explains why authors such as Oscar Wilde (himself a queer man) used the trope themselves.

But the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope becomes increasingly problematic when there are no circumstances to dictate its necessity, and when straight writers use it consistently for shock value. LGBTQ characters seem to be an obvious outlet for trauma porn in media.

“Over the decades of LGBTQ stories told onscreen, there is one dominant theme: Suffering,” says this well-done video explaining ‘Bury Your Gays.’ “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.”

The ultimate struggle, of course, is to be expendable.

Of course, sometimes characters die. What makes this particular trope different is that gay characters’ deaths and their sexuality seem to be intrinsically tied together. Sometimes this death occurs “shortly after or alongside a positive development with regards to their orientation, further linking the character’s orientation to the death of the character,” such as with The 100’s Lexa. Often, the death of a queer character is simply a plot point — furthering the narrative arc, motivations, or character development of non-queer characters. And because LGBTQ characters are so few and far in between, constantly killing them off reinforces the link between queerness with suffering, and promotes the harmful stereotype that our lives are defined by tragedy.

LGBTQ characters aren’t even safe in films where they’re at the helm. Approximately 40% of Oscar-winning portrayals of LGBTQ characters actually died in their respective films. This includes Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and Sean Penn in Milk — from AIDS and by assassination, respectively.

Other popular examples include characters like Loras Tyrell (who is still alive in the books), Renly Baratheon, and Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones; Poussey Washington in Orange Is the New Black; Edward Meechum in House of Cards; Adrian Mellon in IT Chapter 2; and Adam in Voltron: Legendary Defender.

Lesbian and bisexual characters are disproportionately affected by the trope, with over 140 of them being killed to date. “Since the beginning of 2015, we’ve lost more than 50 queer women on television —often in violent ways that benefit somebody else’s story,” notes Marie Claire. In contrast, we’ve seen a total of approximately 18 couples with happy endings.

So, yes, we’re being represented on-screen. But all representation does not automatically mean good representation — especially when it comes from straight writers who use us for shock value and at the cost of our own stories. The LGBTQ experience cannot continue to be reduced to constant suffering and hardship; not when we also have so much love, joy, rebellion, and strength in our history, too.

Which of your favorite characters have become victims to the Bury Your Gays trope?

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