This was the thesis statement of the first panel I attended last weekend at Flame Con, an annual comics convention in New York City for LGBTQ+ people. This panel “The Subversive Simplicity of Queer Joy” provided a much-needed affirmation that queer people – in fiction and in real life – deserve happiness just as much as cisgender-heterosexual people do, even if most of the world doesn’t want us to have it.
Flame Con is a utopian rainbow bubble full of magic, wonder, inclusion, and uninhibited joy. Flame Con celebrates people’s differences and tells queer people of every race, ethnicity, ability, neurotype, religion, age, and gender: “You are not alone and you deserve to be happy.” Purely by coincidence, the day before the con I also attended an unrelated event celebrating queer love and joy in the real world. For me, these two events could not have come at a better time.
Warning: I’m going to talk about death and violence in fiction. I will not name names and I will be as vague as I can.
This means I can’t provide links as often as I usually do. Instead, from time to time I’ll mention a term to research if you want more information. Be warned that you will likely encounter spoilers if you choose to do that.
Again: if you don’t want to read discussions about non-specific queer character death, you’ll want to leave this page now. I understand.
This past weekend, I spent three days in spaces where the idea that queer people deserve happiness was not in dispute. This provided a refreshing change from the past two weeks, as well as the 12-13 years before that, when queer joy has been refuted or rejected with alarming consistency.
Queer characters, despite under-representation in mainstream media especially, are disproportionately killed in fiction. This pattern includes movies, television shows, books, podcasts, video games, and comics. Even fan-created webseries are not above giving queer characters the axe.
(For more info, look up “Bury Your Gays.”)
This of course means that many queer characters who are still alive at the end of their stories are mourning the death of a significant other. There is a history to this: In the first half of the 20th century, films and books were prohibited from portraying gay or lesbian characters who did not eventually die or marry a character of a different gender.
(For more info: “Motion Picture Code,” “Lesbian pulp fiction.” I don’t know if there were rules about transgender characters, but I think I can make an educated guess.)
Although those rules aren’t technically in place anymore, the pattern remains. To this day, stories about LGBTQ+ characters disproportionately end in tragedy and grief.
An article in The Guardian in 2013 (linked article contains SPOILERS for several pre-2013 films featuring LGBTQ+ characters) stated:
Whether it’s suicide, AIDS (a particularly maudlin [Actor] performance in [Film] employs both), being beaten to death, state execution, getting shot, or getting raped and then shot, LGBT characters are just not allowed the happy endings that their straight counterparts enjoy. My personal favourite comes from [Film Title With Link to Said Film], in which [Actor] simply drops dead for no reason. Presumably overwhelmed by sheer homosexuality, his heart can no longer keep beating. Beware, non-heterosexuals: Sudden Gay Death Syndrome can strike anywhere.
The first time I saw a romantic relationship between same-gender protagonists on mainstream television, I was in my late teens. I felt drawn to them, fascinated by them for reasons I could not identify. This beautiful couple grew, struggled, and overcame hardships together, and I fell head-over-heels for them before I realized they were like me. This relationship formed one of the first steps of my (very) long journey towards self-understanding.
Then one of them died suddenly and unexpectedly. The other spent the rest of the series in various stage of grief and heartbreak as she gradually overcame the loss. Even though other characters on the same show died before and after this character did, her death in particular ripped me apart for reasons I did not understand at the time. It was not until several years later, when a different show killed off a fan-beloved lesbian character, that I started to find the words to explain why the experience of grieving a queer character was so different from mourning a straight-cisgender one.
The over-representation of LGBTQ+ character death can cause real damage to queer people who are beginning to understand their identity. Representation in fiction is a powerful tool that can shape the identity and self-worth of its audience, but it is also a dangerous one. How can it be safe for queer people to own who we are if all that awaits us is tragedy? How can we learn to value ourselves when media is constantly telling us we deserve to die?
Since queer character death is so frequent in fiction, there is a ton of variation in terms of how it is presented and how each incident fits into its respective narrative. For example, there are contexts where character death is more likely, including war, dystopia, frontiers, and historical or pseudo-historical settings. In narratives that involve action, violence, and risk, it’s unrealistic to expect all characters to survive. Even though LGBTQ+ people form a very small percentage of these characters, its neither fair nor practical to ask each one of them to be spared.
Sometimes the death of a character – queer or otherwise – serves the plot in a way that is organic, meaningful to the story, or respectful to the character. Obviously that judgement call that will vary from person to person, but it’s not productive to pretend that well-written queer character death isn’t possible. Also – especially with long-running television shows – there are times when a character must be written off because the actor is no longer available to play them. In these instances, death may be the most reasonable way to make this work with the narrative, rather than performing plot-aerobics to remove that character permanently .
That said, there are several patterns that can make instances of queer character death more problematic than they already are. Frequently, the death of an LGBTQ+ character is directly related to their queerness; examples include AIDS, hate crimes, or suicide. Many queer characters die minutes after confirming or advancing a romantic relationship and/or sleeping with a character of the same gender. Alternatively, they may be killed off in the same episode or book in which their relationship was confirmed, advanced, or revealed to other characters. These plot decisions tell the audience that queerness is the reason these characters died.
Queer character death can also feel pointed if the death doesn’t serve the narrative or fit the setting. Again, this point depends on subjective judgements made by readers or viewers. Still, when a cis-het character dies in a way that feels incongruous with the story, it may be seen as bad writing or death for shock-value (or one of a number of other problematic tropes). When it happens to an LGBTQ+ character, it fits into larger pattern which suggests that creators see queer characters as dispensable or don’t know how to write LGBTQ+ stories with happy endings.
This interpretation carries even more weight in stories where only queer characters die, in endings that show most or all cis-het characters still alive while the one, if any, remaining LGBTQ+ character grieves.
Regardless of individual circumstances, the sheer number of queer character deaths in relation to the number of queer characters in fiction is so disproportionate that it sends a message on its own. In contrast, the underrepresentation of queer stories with happy endings, especially in mainstream media produced by larger corporations, is staggering.
(For more info, check out this infographic about dead lesbian and bisexual women characters on TV. Obvious warning for SPOILERS for a whole bunch of shows released in or before 2016.)
Yes, there are a lot of complicating factors to the “Bury Your Gays” trope. Almost inevitably, especially in recent years when this trope has been getting more attention from mainstream media, every time a queer character is killed off we have the same conversation. Each time, we ask if this particular death made sense in this particular instance. No detail is left unturned. There are productive and unproductive arguments from both sides of the question.
The trouble with the “This Time It’s Okay” argument is mainly that it ignores or dismisses the larger context where LGBTQ+ character death keeps happening. Over and over again, we watch queer characters die. Again and again, we witness the one surviving queer character grieve while the cis-het characters enjoy happy endings. Even in the best of circumstances, queer character death is problematic simply because it exists in a world that feels that LGBTQ+ characters – and by extension, real people – do not deserve the same joy as their cis-het counterparts.
Here’s a (spoiler-free) quote from the writer who created the infographic listed above [brackets are my additions]:
Stories exist in imaginary worlds but they are consumed in the real world, where, just this week [March 2016], North Carolina passed sweeping and unprecedented anti-LGBT legislation. And where three presidential candidates don’t believe gay people should have the right to get married [update: neither does the current Vice President]. And where a gay person can be fired simply for being gay in most states [still true]. And where LGBT youth homelessness is rampant [yep]. And where LGBT bullying occurs with alarming regularity in schools [definitely still true].
We need hope in stories. We need light in stories. And we need stories to work their magic in the lives of the people who would oppress and persecute us because we’re gay. Stories are fatal to bigotry.
To care about story isn’t to ignore the darkness of the real world; to care about story is to put your hope in something that changes the real world, more than anything else. There’s a reason all religious texts are made up mostly of stories. There’s a reason the same-sex marriage approval rating in the U.S. rose in direct proportion to the number of gay characters on television. Story gets inside us and changes the alchemy of who we are.
And yet, over and over again we have the same conversation. The same points are hashed out time and time again. It’s frustrating and discouraging. It’s exhausting.
Several years ago I came across an award-winning graphic novel in a bookstore. I had heard of it among recommendations for stories centering same-gender romance, so I picked it up. As I was reading the summary and studying the cover art, a feeling of dread washed over me. I had already had the ‘Bury Your Gays’ conversation more times than I could count. Over and over again I had let myself become invested in LGBTQ+ characters, only to watch their stories end in tragedy. Again and again I had bemoaned queer character death with (mostly queer) people who understood and (mostly non-queer) people who didn’t. At that moment, I realized that it was not worth putting myself through that again, even for the best of stories.
I flipped to the last few pages of the book, and there she was: one of the main characters, standing alone and sad at the other’s grave.
I closed the book, put it down, and walked away. That has been my pattern ever since. Movie/show/book/comic with queer characters in it? Great. Tell me how it ends. Still ongoing? I’ll wait. A queer character dies? No thanks. There are occasional exceptions of course, but for the most part I stick to this rule. Honestly, I’m so grateful that I’ve done this. Yes, it means that my consumption of LGBTQ+ stories is significantly limited, but to me it’s been worthwhile.
For one thing, I haven’t been blindsided by queer character death in over a decade. On the rare occasions when I do choose to read or watch a story featuring queer character death, I can brace myself for it. Some people may argue that knowing ruins the story, but if the story doesn’t have an emotional impact without a sudden, unpredicted death of an LGBTQ+ character, then to me it’s not worth investing my time or energy.
At the aforementioned Flame Con panel this weekend, one of the panelists talked about the value in reading or watching stories by creators who value queerness. When queer audiences know or trust that all the queer characters are going to survive, we can relax into a story and become emotionally invested in the characters, enjoying the adventures without the feeling of dread that comes with a queer character whose fate is unclear.
So why, after a weekend of constant affirmation of the value of queer joy in fiction and real life, would I write a long post complaining about queer tragedy?
Two weeks ago, ‘Bury Your Gays’ took me by surprise for the first time in almost a decade. Without knowing it was going to happen, I saw one queer character die and the other grieve, while all of the cis-het characters in the ensemble cast – including at least four different-gender couples – enjoyed happy endings.
And yes, it hurt just as much as it did all those other times.
*(If you’re curious, Google “bury your gays 2018 backlash.” Also, you’re welcome for the amount of time I spent trying to find a search term that wouldn’t give anything away.)
So yes, I’ve spent the past two weeks having conversations that I had witnessed* but not directly engaged in for several years. In the midst of this emotional hurricane, I’ve rehashed all the same points with people who feel that this specific instance is different, that under these circumstances queer character death is acceptable. As usual, arguments on both sides range from calm and productive to hurtful and inflammatory. Nothing about this situation is new.
*(Look up “bury your gays 2016 controversy”)
This. Keeps. Happening. Again and again we have these conversations. Over and over, queer viewers express anger and disappointment and are told we need to calm down. We try to defend our right to survive and be happy, and we’re told that we’re over-reacting, that our expectations are unreasonable and it’s our fault for letting them get so high. We point to the number of fictional queer casualties and are told to be grateful that queer characters exist at all. We point to the demographics of the characters who are allowed to find joy, and we’re told to accept the story for what it is.
In the past decade, I’ve had this conversation more times than I could count, which is nothing on people who haven’t gone out of their way to avoid queer character death as I have. I can only imagine how they’re feeling. Because I’m tired. I am so very tired.
Which is why this weekend could not have come at a better time. Apart from one 3-minute incident from which I was able to extricate myself, Flame Con provided an affirming and invigorating experience in which attendees were told, time and time again, that our existences mattered, that our experiences mattered, that we deserve happiness and joy and we are not wrong to be upset when we are denied that.
Unfortunately, asking for that, even creating it, is a subversive act. People who write queer stories are counteracting decades (almost a century) of media asserting again and again that queer characters can exist but they cannot be happy. A silly rom-com becomes an act of subversion when the main characters are the same gender; a fluffy teenage comedy with a transgender protagonist is a downright insurrection. Creating these stories, and supporting the people who do, is a political act, an inflammatory statement in a world that does not want to see LGBTQ+ people be happy. But we do it. We need it. Because queer people deserve joy too.