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Visibility, Portrayal, and the “Bury Your Gays” Trope
The history of portrayal of LGBT characters in the media is a complicated one. The early connection between LGBT characters and deviance informed how LGBT characters were portrayed. It also influenced how the LGBT community was viewed by the culture at large. Overtime, it led to dark misrepresentations of LGBT people and the “Bury Your Gays” trope.
Consider the gay and lesbian pulp novels of the 1940s and 50s to villainous characters in movies who were heavily implied to be gay. Often, LGBT characters were maligned or outright punished while being shown as little more than deviants or caricatures. Earlier misrepresentations gave rise to the bury your gays trope.
The “Bury Your Gays” Trope Evolves
Luckily, mass media has evolved a great deal in the past few decades. Viewers and readers are able to see more nuanced portrayals of LGBT characters that promote visibility and showcase a wide array of LGBT lives and concerns. Still, there’s a lot of work to do. The firestorm that has erupted since CW’s show The 100 killed a lesbian character shows that tensions over LGBT characters haven’t disappeared, only evolved.
Viewers and readers need to see more nuanced, natural portrayals of #LGBTQ characters. Click To Tweet
Using LGBT Characters to Bring Issues to Light
As LGBT issues became more common in popular culture, depictions of LGBT characters began to shift. The AIDS crisis gained national attention in the 1980s, impacting LGBT portrayals. Many films and television shows shifted depictions away from the “villainous homosexual” and presented more sympathetic LGBT characters. Unfortunately, this created a new bury your gays trope: the tragic, AIDS-suffering gay man:
- Slow Death – One of the most notable portrayals of a character with AIDS came in the TV movie Early Frost, in which Aidan Quinn played a gay man who travels home to tell his parents about his sexuality and diagnosis. Quinn does not die in the film, but another HIV positive character passes away due to complications from the disease. Critically acclaimed movie, but it doesn’t escape the bury your gays trope.
- Spreading Disease – Unfortunately, there were some depictions that combined the old trope of villainous deviants with the AIDS crisis. In an episode of Midnight Caller, a bisexual man knowingly infects his partners with HIV. The episode was protested by LGBT groups for its negative portrayal of HIV-positive people.
- Impassioned Support – Even sitcoms of the era introduced HIV-positive characters. In an episode of Designing Women, the characters are hired to design the funeral of a young man dying from AIDS complications. When another character makes disparaging remarks about LGBT people, one of the lead characters makes an impassioned speech defending the young man. So, the show includes weak support for LGBT people along with the bury your gays trope.
Early Frost, Emmy Award winning tv movie starring Aidan Quinn | Bury Your Gays Trope
While many of these depictions and plot lines were somewhat problematic in their attempt to show sympathetic LGBT characters, it’s hard to deny their positive effects. In many ways, showing real, relatable characters suffering from a disease that was widely misunderstood at the time helped to educate the public and shift opinions on what was frequently thought of as the “gay cancer.”
The “Bury Your Gays” Trope and Lesbian Characters
Depictions of gay men have definitely shifted away from tragic, long-suffering characters. Now, it’s easy to find more rounded, believable characters in both films and television shows. Even HIV-positive characters are shown in ways that don’t necessarily highlight the tragedy of their diagnosis. Instead, possibly because research and treatment of HIV has vastly improved, having AIDS is just one facet of a character rather than their defining characteristic. However, viewers have noted a disturbing trend of lesbian characters dying, especially in television shows.
Has the cliché of #LGBTQ character deaths shifted from gay men to lesbian fatalities? Click To Tweet
- Sex Kills – The death of a lesbian character on The 100, which occurred immediately after the character had sex with another female character, resulted in anger and shock from the show’s fans who felt that the death fell into familiar tropes and betrayed the show’s positive portrayals of LGBT characters.
- Death List – In the wake of that episode, Autostraddle began to compile a list of lesbian and bisexual characters who have died on television since the 1970s, including major characters like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Tara Maclay and Supernatural’s Charlie. As of today, the list stands at over 150 characters.
- Straight Motivation – In many cases, viewers have felt that LGBT character death is meaningless, often over-the-top, and does little more than to advance the plot–often to provide motivation for these shows’ straight, white, male characters–instead of occurring within a character’s arc.
Character death, especially on long-running dramatic TV shows, is expected and normal. The problem is that LGBT characters, and lesbians in particular, are so over-represented when it comes to onscreen death. Since there are already few enough LGBT characters in the media, losing one strikes a blow against positive representation and visibility.
The 100: Clarke and Lexa intimacy, then death | Bury Your Gays Trope
Advancing Depictions of LGBT Characters
It’s true that we’ve come a long way since early LGBT characters, but there’s still a lot of work to do. It’s difficult to find a leading LGBT character outside of a show that specifically centers around the LGBT experience, for example. As showrunners and writers continue incorporating LGBT characters, it will be interesting to see if they learn from earlier mistakes and seek ways to positively depict LGBT characters and give them opportunities to participate in stories that don’t necessarily revolve around their sexuality–or result in untimely death.
In the meantime, we can look toward shows that explore LGBT characters and experiences as part of a larger plot, like Transparent and Orphan Black. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Were you a fan of The 100 before the controversial episode? What LGBT-positive shows do you tune into? Let us know!