In recent years, audiences have heard more about the “bury your gays” trope, leading to questions about its history in Hollywood and why it’s so controversial. Even as LGBTQ+ representation in film has improved, LGBTQ+ narratives in film largely revolve around the concept of suffering. Death, villainization, abuse, and tragedy are all common components of the LGBTQ+ experience in Hollywood. Though some stories are slowly starting to break the mold, the bury your gays trope is one that continues to plague LGBTQ+ media.
Proper LGBTQ+ representation in media is invaluable. Not only can it provide empathetic education about LGBTQ+ issues and identities, but it also works to help dispel negative stereotypes surrounding the community and to increase self-acceptance and actualization in queer people. When TV and film only tell stories of suffering and death for their LGBTQ+ characters, it drives home the idea that to be queer is only to suffer. As death tolls continue to rise for LGBTQ+ characters — especially in television, where queer characters are being killed off at a disproportionate rate — the community has called for media creators, including series such as The Walking Dead and The 100, to do better with their portrayals of queer characters and their surrounding narratives.
The number of queer deaths in television and film has reached such a height that online databases have begun to keep track of LGBTQ+ deaths in media — and the fewer cases where the LGBTQ representation of queer characters leads to a happy ending. Does the Dog Die, a popular crowdsourcing site that tracks triggers and content warnings in media, has a dedicated section to track whether an LGBTQ+ character dies. One nonprofit organization, LGBT Fans Deserve Better, was created in response to the disproportionate amount of death and unhappy endings for LGBTQ+ characters, especially female LGBTQ+ characters, which have been killed at an alarming rate over the years.
What The “Bury Your Gays” Trope Means
The “bury your gays” trope has been so named because LGBTQ+ characters are far more likely to die in film and television than their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts. If LGBTQ+ characters in movies aren’t being literally buried, they are being forced through suffering, queer-coded villainization, or buried beneath queer subtext. These deaths often come shortly after the queer character is finally able to confess or act upon their sexuality, giving them a brief moment of happiness before they are extinguished. However, similar to the trope of female characters being “fridged,” their deaths and suffering are frequently used not to develop their own narrative, but those of the characters — especially the straight, cisgender characters — around them. As LGBTQ+ stories are told, there are naturally going to be moments where the characters do suffer and die; it is simply a natural part of storytelling. But when their character is reduced solely to this suffering in order to make them a martyr or a moral scapegoat, that piece of media is no longer doing justice to the LGBTQ character or their narrative; they’ve been stripped of their identity in order to be used as a tool. The trope treats queer LGBTQ+ characters as if they’re easily expendable and undeserving of their own development. It also dangerously normalizes the idea that to be queer or LGBTQ+ is to live a life full of suffering, trauma, or unhappiness.
Queer Representation In Early Film
In early film and 19th-century literature, the bury your gays trope was actually a refuge for queer authors. In order to get LGBTQ+ stories published, authors would use the death of their queer characters as a way to subvert censorship; if their queer character suffered a terrible fate, the authors were no longer promoting “perverse acts,” which could prevent publication at the best and result in arrest at the worst. This workaround allowed LGBTQ+ stories to be told but came at the price of queer characters being portrayed as mentally ill or simply confused and often resulted in their lovers being “fixed” of their homosexuality after their deaths. As films explored various subjects over the years, LGBTQ+ characters became more prevalent, though they were still subjected to exploitation and suffering. The films of the 1920s and early 1930s were far racier than those of the decades to come, openly featuring sexually-liberated women, violent activities, and queer characters, though, creators frequently had to toe the line in order to escape criticism. Films like Wings (1927) and Morocco (1930) both featured same-sex kisses, but would walk the thin line between romance, friendship, and performance in order to get away with their use of queer characters.