Aka: How to Kill Your Queer Characters in Ways That Don't Suck
SPOILERS within for It: Chapter Two, Halloween Kills, The Ranger, Supernatural, and Star Trek Discovery.
Bury Your Gays, also known as the Dead Lesbian Sub-plot, is the insidious trope that ensures any LGBTQ+ character realized or suggested must die. Its roots are gross, but kind of obvious. For many decades, if you wanted to portray ‘sexual deviancy’ in any form in film, literature, or other media, you could only do so if it was punished or led to destruction in some way. Even sympathetic portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters often ended in a ‘noble sacrifice’ or being an ‘innocent victim’ to further a cis-heterosexual character’s story. Even LGBTQ+ creators often found themselves forced to play out these tired narratives just to ensure their work reached an audience or wasn’t banned for indecency.
Then came the 80s. Oh, boy, the 80s, where the enormity of the AIDS crisis collided with what had been a steadily growing acceptance of LGBTQ+ representation in media. Suddenly, gay meant disease and misery again. Against that backdrop, it was hard, even for our own community to imagine a world in which LGBTQ+ people were not surrounded by death.
But now that it’s 2022, haven’t we all had enough? LGBTQ+s are present in just about every mainstream narrative on every platform in western media and beyond. We’re even the lead character in a few.
So, after decades in the role of punished deviant or sacrificial lamb, do we really need to see yet more of our ilk meeting grisly demises onscreen?
Or can we at least get a warning if it’s all going to end in tears?
Maybe? Maybe not?
Super helpful, I know. So, let’s dive.
The Ranger doesn't revolutionize slashers, but it does do LGBTQ+ rep the right way.
Enough with the LGBTQ+ Deaths Already!
The reasons for ‘Bury Your Gays’ pissing many of us off are obvious enough. The equation of our very identities and loves with death, misery, and despair over, and over, and over is not just frustrating, it reinforces the insidious idea that we don’t deserve or can’t hope for happiness, or that our destruction is a result of our sexuality. Compare that to the consistent attachment of heterosexual identity to images of love, family, and security (sex acts notwithstanding, and slashers are a whole other post), and it’s a wildly imbalanced, gross, and destructive portrayal of love. Yes, it’s in line with mainstream ideas of a certain time period, but as we’ve established, it’s 2022. In theory, at least, we’ve all moved on.
So, it often still stings when a queer character meets an untimely end in an otherwise great story. If that’s the character you’ve identified with and invested in, it sucks to have that rug pulled out from under you in this way.
And double bird flips if that death is played for shock value, or worse, laughs. I know we all want to pretend we’re all so enlightened in 2022, but I vividly remember audience members laughing at the bashing and subsequent death of a gay character at the start of It: Chapter Two (2019). Now, this is a horror movie. There’s plenty of death to go round, but when there’s literally no other queer representation on screen (I said on screen, not conveniently outed at the press conference after the fact or open to interpretation), that’s a problem, particularly with a mainstream audience that isn’t half as progressive as you might expect.
But Everyone is Fair Game… Aren’t They?
If equality is what we’re after, doesn’t that open the door for LGBTQ+ characters to be offed the same as anyone else? Well, of course! But the key to that is offing the character, the same as anyone else, which is where a lot of narratives still fall short.
I write horror and urban fantasy, both of which are genres with high body counts and grisly scenes. Death is something I can’t avoid in my narratives, particularly among queer characters since they’re so common. So with that said, let’s talk about what that means, and (a by no means exhaustive list of) ways to actually make it work.
1) They’re not the only queer in the village
Similar to what I said in my post about gay villains, the burden of representation lessens when you have multiple characters belonging to the represented group. Since my books are mostly LGBTQ+ cast, it’s not so problematic if one or two of them meets a grisly end. In no way is their queerness attached to their fate. There’s no aspect of ‘punishment’ or inevitability here based on identity. If on the other hand, you have a situation like It Chapter Two, where it’s a solitary character killed early with no others in sight, even if the death is not portrayed as a punishment, it still singles out the sole LGBTQ+ proxy in a negative way. Most movies that fall under the ‘queer horror’ canon can kill their queers with impunity because we’re in a mostly queer space where this is only natural. On that note, if you haven’t seen Knife+Heart, Stranger by the Lake, or any of the movies on my queer horror list, check them out as examples of how to make this work.
Knife+Heart+Style for Days
2) They’re just another brick in the (slaughterhouse) wall
In horror, death is par for the course. So, when you have a slasher like The Ranger, which serves up an adorable gay punk couple in its menagerie of disposable teens, or Halloween Kills (gonna come back to this one), or Chucky, or any other narrative with a high body count that again, doesn’t conflate sexual or gender identity with deviance or death, it’s not what we usually consider ‘bury your gays’ because the story is literally burying everyone. A few recent mainstream horror films have noticeably let their queer characters live (I’m not going to spoil which ones), but not in ways that are so obvious or on the nose that this it feels like kowtowing. As with most things creative, there’s a balance to strike here. Outside of horror, say what you like about stupid, overdone or pointless deaths in Game of Thrones, nobody ever accused its deaths of being homophobic, for the same reason.
The new Chucky series gets queer rep right on pretty much every level.
3) A death that is noble or important
This one’s a bit treacherous since it’s suspiciously similar to the magical best friend trope. In this case, the best friend makes the ultimate sacrifice to save or benefit a usually cishet protagonist or their goal. (Oh, hey Supernatural, nice of you to stop by). The magical best friend is usually someone from a marginalized community already, so the death usually needs to be deeply satisfying to be effective, and even then, you’d better make peace with pissing somebody off. I stand by what I usually say in that artists shouldn’t be cowed by the tyranny of popular opinion, but since putting some oomph under a character’s death usually makes for a better story anyway, there’s really no reason for expendable gays who die pointless, stupid, or ‘offscreen’ deaths that only serve to frustrate. Remember when I said things had started to turn for the better by the early 80s? Yeah, it took a lot of… lousy attempts to get there.
4) Make sure your other characters care, or at least notice
Alright, Halloween Kills, did it not occur to anyone in tiny Haddonfield that the return of Michael Myers might warrant a heads up to the gay couple who bought, renovated (of course!), and were now living in the Myers house? It’s like they shot most of the movie before a focus group got hold of it and went ‘you know… you really need some queers in here,’ so a few scenes were hastily shot around a gay couple nobody else in town seems to know, acknowledge, or think about. Don’t do this. Diversity hire afterthought knife fodder is not a sexy archetype, ever. It’s not homophobic. Don't get me wrong, the manufactured outrage over the killing of these two unexpectedly popular characters is pure nonsense. It's just... strange, and othering and feels like, as I said, an afterthought.
Big John. Little John. ALL THE JOHNS!
5) Make sure their death advances the plot, not just the cishet hero’s journey
Your LGBTQ+ characters, like all your other marginalized community characters, do not exist solely to be sacrificed so your protagonist can learn a lesson or progress in some way. Again, see point three. Star Trek Discovery fouled this up on its first season, and while actors quickly tweeted out their assurances that fans should ‘stay with it,’ assurances that later proved founded, it was… an unfortunate moment we’re maybe just not culturally ready for yet. Yes, queer characters should be able to occupy any role in any narrative, including this one, but it is waaaay overdone, and we haven’t yet reached a point such death doesn’t land in this way. It’s also just not great to introduce a character solely to dispose of them for shock or gore factor, so don’t amplify the problem with politics.
This scene looks like it's about to get sexy. It's not.
6) Don't overcompensate
I haven't yet seen the new Kevin Bacon slasher They/Them, set in a queer conversion therapy camp. I'm certainly curious about it, but I'm also hearing murmurs that it treads way too carefully around the Bury Your Gays trope in a way that undercuts its own suspense and impact. So without reviewing a movie I haven't seen, I'll say it again. Do not be scared to kill your LGBTQ+ characters. I hate 'you can't.' 'You can't' limits us as creators and produces half-assed, toothless narratives that ultimately defeat the whole purpose of the representation we've fought so hard for. It reduces that representation to mere box-ticking by Hollywood execs too scared to piss off Twitter, and that's the antithesis of what we need in our queer narratives. Today can be a good day for your queer character to die.
Did fear of Twitter and Reddit turn They/Them into a toothless tiger?
But... make it matter. Make it make sense. Write it in a way it doesn't feel like a kick in your audience's teeth. Until we're far more advanced in terms of equality, and how we see ourselves in media, burying our gays will take a little more ceremony than it might with other characters.