The ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope refers to the long history of media (books, film, television/all art ever) killing off queer characters. Often, this trope is used to further a straight, cisgender character’s plotline and/or to demonstrate that queerness—if seen at all—must be viewed as harmful.
‘The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing. […] Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.’ (The Motion Picture Production Code 1930)
The history of this trope is largely rooted in American film and television censorship, particularly the Motion Picture Production Code 1930 (also known as the Hays Code), and The Television Code of the National Association of Broadcasters. For decades, these guidelines outlined what constituted appropriate creative, news and advertising content, determining what was, and wasn’t, morally permitted content for viewers.
In practice, this meant that to get your morally contentious art (including ‘scenes of passion… miscegenation… white-slavery [and] scenes of actual child birth’) produced, you had to present them ‘subject only to necessary dramatic contrasts’.1
Which is to say, if you want to represent a queer character, code them so the audience gets The Wrong Idea. Which is to say, dramatically contrast them as the antithesis of the good hero enough that audiences understand it was their difference that led to their tragedy. Which is to say, we ended up with a lot of queer characters who were alone, dead, depressed, self-hating, or all of the above and more.
American television, 1976-2016:
Out of 18000+ straight TV characters, there were 383 lesbian/bisexual TV characters. Of those 383 characters, 95 of them died. Of those who didn’t die, only 30 of them got happy endings.
Or, if percentages are more your thing: Over 40 years of TV, only 7% of all queer female characters got a happy ending.2
After a spate of lesbian character deaths on popular television in 2016, the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope finally found itself getting some mainstream scrutiny. Sparked by the demise of Lexa, a fan favourite on American post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama The 100, fans took to social media to voice their disappointment. They ended up trending on Twitter and gained mainstream attention (The Huffington Post3 , The Washington Post4 , Variety5 , and the BBC6 all wrote about it). They also raised US$15,000 for four billboards around Los Angeles promoting the LGBT+ Viewers Deserve Better movement—an organisation that so far has raised US$172,000 for The Trevor Project, a national 24/7, toll-free and confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth.
The intense backlash The 100 faced stemmed from its large queer fan base, which had initially found its inclusive representation (two young, queer women leading their respective armies while falling in love) progressive and a relief. And it wasn’t worthy of condemnation or surprising that a show, one where characters died more quickly than you could remember their names, would kill off an army leader for dramatic value. But the fact that Lexa was accidentally shot to death, in the same episode she and Clarke (the other young, queer female leader) made love for the first time, reaffirmed for queer audiences, consciously or otherwise, that our happiness would always be secondary to a mainstream voyeuristic lust for the shock value associated with queer death (‘Oh no, isn’t it just so sad that…’).
If this reaction to a fictional character’s death seems disproportionate to you, then you’re right. We shouldn’t need to care this much about losing one fictional character. We shouldn’t feel personally attacked when that rare person we finally get to fully identify with is lost from our screens. We shouldn’t need to find ourselves reminded of a history of invisibility and exclusion every time a single fictional character dies. We shouldn’t need to be reminded of our Otherness every time we try to watch some goddamn entertainment to relax, but here we are.
In 40 years of American television history, only 30 lesbian or bisexual characters got happy endings.7
In the first six months of 2016 alone, 16 lesbian or bisexual characters were killed.8
‘Bury Your Gays’ isn’t just about representation, because representation isn’t just about media. The stories we consume tell us how to move through the world. We learn through repetition and patterns. Narrative gives us a way to place ourselves in a big scary world, figure out who we are and what paths we are likely to safely travel.
That in 2016 a disproportionate number of queer women of colour were still being asked to accept that our path of least resistance was one of erasure is unacceptable. That in 2016 we were still not the lead roles audiences presumed wouldn’t be killed off, no matter how unrealistic the scenario, is unacceptable. That in 2016, the fact that the presumption of our deaths and disposability was more likely than us staying alive seems absurd.
LGBTI people aged 16 to 27 are five times more likely than the general population to attempt suicide in their lifetime; Transgender people aged 18 and over are nearly 11 times more likely.
The disproportionate reaction comes from the disappointment, hurt, and frustration that in 2016, queer characters were still suffering from the same moral code from the 1930s. It’s a boring cliché by now, but the media we consume and the narratives we cling to don’t exist in a vacuum.
The way increased positive representation translates to real effects—the creation of a collective imagination conceptualising the people around them as normal—is not a new concept. Storytelling has always been about what we can envision about the world. Exclusion from this narrative, or only learning one narrative of inevitable tragedy, is deeply damaging. It has real consequences.
Stories help us understand our isolation as a shared experience. Multiple stories allow us to recognise ourselves in others; specific experience truthfully represented helps us know that we have been seen, acknowledged. Stories remind us of community, tells us that at least one other person got it, whispers that it isn’t hopeless because if they made it, then so can you.
This responsibility regularly falls to marginalised stories—the fewer there are of a type, the more the one story is expected to represent a whole community. ‘Normal’ narratives—straight, white, middle-class—feel normal because there’s so many of them that they’ve become normalised. There are so many of these stories that we stop thinking about them as stories and start considering them the default, the ultimate goal we should strive for, an invisible suggestion that becomes a stranglehold for anyone who doesn’t fit.
We are in the canon:
As tragedy porn.
So. 2017 in Australia. We saw public lambasting of the queer community. It wasn’t new.
The Coalition for Marriage launched a campaign linking same-sex marriage with what they perceived as ‘radical sex and gender theories’ being compulsorily taught under the Safe Schools program. Yet no-one bats an eye at compulsory heterosexuality and gender binaries being force-fed to everyone literally since birth. Former Liberal MP Chris Miles authorised pamphlets claiming ‘married biological parents have a better record for providing safety and development of healthy, well-adjusted adult children,’ yet multiple, peer-reviewed studies debunk this claim9.
Posters and flyers filled with fake figures, debunked evidence, and hateful messages linking queer couples with abuse, paedophilia and neglect were propagated on-and-offline10. Marginalised communities of every intersection were scapegoated (‘It’s the migrants’ votes!’); straw-manned (‘What about the homeless/disabled?’); slippery-sloped (‘What’s next, supporting our sex and gender diverse community?’), and just straight-up11 attacked12 in13 public.14
LGBTI people aged 16 and over are nearly three times more likely than the general population to be diagnosed with depression in their lifetime, while Transgender and Gender Diverse people aged 18 and over are nearly five times more likely to be diagnosed with depression in their lifetime
The ‘respectful debate’ around the SSM plebiscite fundamentally authorised a ‘debate’ over someone’s humanity and their right to exist. That’s not respectful, that’s legalised discrimination.
The ‘respectful debate’ around the SSM plebiscite fundamentally authorised bigoted lies linking queerness and harm being used as legitimate arguments against a legal right. That’s not respectful, that’s the foundation of the ‘fake news’ problem that’s rapidly taking over the public arena.
The ‘respectful debate’ fundamentally authorised people to reinforce false assumptions about how a secular parliamentary system is meant to function. It also eroded a democratic system via probably the most embarrassing path an elected lawmaker could take: eschewing the responsibility of doing your job by pawning it off on an expensive, non-binding opinion poll that returns results similar to publicly accessible polls from the last five years.15
After the postal vote was announced, QLife, an LGBT phone-counselling service, recorded over a 20% increase in demand, beyondblue registered a 40% increase in call volume16, and Youth service ReachOut experienced almost a 30% increase in demand. ReachOut’s chief executive Jonno Nicholas suggested that what’s driving the calls is ‘not really about the nature of the (public) conversation. It’s the sense that “My life is continually up for judgment”’.17
The stories we choose to tell always call reality into being—which brings me to the canon.
A canon is a cultural immortalisation of narratives we use to understand histories and possible futures. It’s what people were thinking, and what (presumably, hopefully, pending the kindness of some lordly, biased gatekeepers) a lot of people shared an interest in.
We are in the canon:
So. Romeo and Juliet.
Romeo and Juliet makes it to almost every ‘Greatest Love Stories Ever’ list. Deeply entrenched (whether or not we like it) into the cultural fabric of our lives, Romeo and Juliet is the one everyone knows.
Seeing it touted again and again as normal, epic, romantic, beautiful and tragic—in a way that somehow doesn’t make people want to swear off heterosexuality—is pretty alienating for a young queer person. We can’t figure out what the hell we’re feeling, because it sure doesn’t look like the Greatest Love Story Of All Time that 90% of our classmates are absolutely swooning over.
Romeo and Juliet became the backbone for Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit because it is deeply loved. Because it (can be) a highly engaging tale. Because people know it. Because it’s Shakespeare and ‘universal’, which really only meant straight, White, and man.
Because when queer characters die, it’s because they failed to adapt to the environment; when straight characters die, it’s because the environment failed to accommodate them. When straight characters die, it is the unthinkable death. It’s a disaster that should’ve been prevented, the accident, the last possible imaginable possibility. When queer characters die, it is the inevitable end. It’s the known. The of course. The uh-huh.
It was time to make it gay. It was time to fuck the canon up. (It’s been time to fuck the canon up for a long time).
In May 2017, led by a passionate ensemble interested in queerness, decentralising Whiteness, and the Western literary canon’s history of exclusion, I co-wrote and co-directed with Margot Tanjutco Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit.
It’s a lesbian rom-com-romp through straight and queer romance tropes featuring an Incompetent Chorus of Dead Lesbians: Juliet (from Romeo and Juliet, now a gutsy wannabe pilot stifled by a conservative Asian family) and Darcy (the Byronic hero ripped from Pride and Prejudice, now acceptably broody as a queer woman recovering from heartbreak).
Did I mention it’s an electro-pop satirical musical?
Sitting there watching a cast of queer, gender-diverse badasses tear up the stage on our first outing of the show, I thought: Fuck me, if 16-year-old me had seen that…
Or if 16-year-old me had seen that many identifiably queer people taking up space in that way. If 16-year-old me had seen a lesbian couple onstage, singing, dancing, laughing together. If 16-year-old me had seen an audience laugh at them—with joy, with love, with encouragement.
So we took it through a second development to write some original songs, and as that was happening, so too was a national debate over whether we were living in 2017 or 1917.
The opening night of our second season in November 2017 coincided with the results of the ABS marriage equality postal vote being announced. We didn’t plan it; we were very, very nervous. The morning of November 15th, I stood with a friend outside the State Library and felt conflicted. It’s a feeling familiar to a lot of queer folk. Trepidation washed over by relief washed over by this sick sort of tired-frustrated-vertigo.
61.6%—only? We’re meant to be grateful for that?
We are in the canon, and the canon tells us nearly 40% of the country voted ‘No’.
The stories we choose to tell always call some kind of reality into being. Sometimes that reality can be one that keeps kids from hating themselves and makes it just a tiny bit easier to move through the world.
We need queer stories. Not because inclusivity is about respecting the people around you as people, not because multiplicity of stories recognises multiplicity of personhood. Just because we need them.
Like, literally need them to live the way we need air and water and food to live. We need them when another person says that we should be patient, when someone else tells us it was we who failed to adapt to the environment rather than the environment failing to accommodate us.
We need them because stories get us through the rough shit and sometimes when you’re lying on the ground after a breakup wondering if true love is only for the straights, you re-watch Skins (UK) for Naomi and Emily’s epic multi-season gay-ass back-and-forth so ‘be brave and want me back’ can hit you like a sappy ton of bricks to remind you that you probably can love again? And live. Maybe.
(As long as you forget that three years later someone NEEDLESSLY DIES OF CANCER).
Jean Tong is a writer and director creating politically irreverent works best described as ‘wry outrage’. She has previously presented at Emerging Writers’ Festival (Tipping Points) and published in Peril Magazine. In 2018, Jean presents hungry ghosts (Melbourne Theatre Company) and Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit (Comedy Festival at The Coopers Malthouse).
If you or anyone you know is in need of assistance, there are support services available through Lifeline (13 11 14), beyondblue (1300 224 636), and QLife (1800 184 527).
- The Motion Picture Production Code 1930