Trigger Warning: Today’s topic is the “bury your gays” trope. The following post and any resulting conversations may contain triggers for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly those who have suffered any abuse for their identities and/or are survivors of attempted suicide or whose loved ones have been affected by such trauma. Please proceed with caution.
A discussion of Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” has caused some…heated debate within my Master’s Literary Studies program. Unfortunately, such conflict is inevitable when discussing hot-button issues like the treatment of LGBTQIA+ characters in modern literature. It’s certainly given me something to think about, namely the “bury your gays” trope and its effects.
The debate in my class’s discussion forum is mainly over whether writers should take the opinions and sensitivities of certain communities into account when writing a story. The “kill your gays” trope and its persisting prevalence in Western culture emerged during this discussion as an example of why writers should take at least some care in considering how you will represent a specific community. Admittedly, I faded in and out after the initial posts by these people because I feared things could take a bad turn. I also feel, after stupidly repeating myself multiple times in the post, that I made no real contribution and that I just put my foot in my mouth. Still, I have some very strong opinions on this matter.
Before I continue, I want to define the “bury your gays” trope as I have come to understand it. In popular culture there’s a tendency for LGBTQIA+ characters to be killed unnecessarily and/or unnecessarily cruelly. Another prevalent trend is for LGBTQIA+ characters to be given tragic story lines overall, not just being killed off. For more information on this issue and the LGBTQIA+ community’s problems stemming from it, please follow this link.
I’ve said repeatedly that writers shouldn’t care what other people think and just write what they’re going to write. I still believe that. However, many writers, myself included, forget the sort of effect that their works can have.
Writers shape culture, social dynamics, and politics as much as we reflect them. One prominent modern example is the study that suggests that readers of Harry Potter are more empathetic towards stigmatized groups because they read Harry Potter. What we say in our books, short stories, and poetry have a much greater effect on people, on the world, than we could ever imagine.
I know what you’re thinking at this point: if writers have such sway, shouldn’t we use that influence to show people the horrific conditions under which the LGBTQIA+ community often suffers? Yes and no.
We need to use our writing to bring attention to the problem. Sometimes that involves depicting the disastrous outcomes of prejudice, whether there’s a sad ending or a happy ending after the dust has settled. Nevertheless, these traumas should not be the only way in which we represent the LGBTQIA+ community.
Imagine depicting people of color, Jewish people, Muslims, and other minorities only with tragic plots and/or stories in which they die, or that the majority of stories with these communities turned out that way. Could we say it’s to bring to light the injustice, prejudice, and abuse to which they are subjected? It would be racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia. Mind you, all minorities are still severely underrepresented and misrepresented in Western literature. However, if we were to treat them with a parallel of the “bury your gays” trope, would we be able to justify it by saying “characters die” or “tragedy makes for interesting stories”?
Here’s another way to look at it. You know how heterosexual (particularly white heterosexual) people have come to the realization that so many “love stories” end tragically and encourage their children to not follow those examples? Well, take that feeling and apply it not just to love stories but a vast majority of books, TV, and movies in which heterosexual people are main or secondary characters. It’s not something we’d want our children or other people with similar sexual identities to aspire to, huh? Doesn’t really fill you with hope for your own life, does it?
I’m not saying that all LGBTQIA+ characters are treated this way. There is, however, a disproportionate number of them that are in comparison with hetero-normative characters. The 100 TV show killed off Lexa, who had a relationship with the main character Clarke; The Originals killed off Josh’s boyfriend, Aiden; some people even consider Dumbledore as an example because he dies, his relationship with Grindewald was tragic, and he is not openly depicted as gay in the Harry Potter books. These are just three of the examples that I’m aware of.
I hate admitting it but I’m not innocent of this trope, either. In a story I submitted for my Master program’s first writing forum, my main character–whose sexual identity is put into question–is killed and, for the reader, seems to be in an ambiguous in-between state, a limbo of sorts. I often thrust my main characters into horrific situations, sometimes even killing them, and especially so in fantasy pieces like this story. That’s why I didn’t even think about the possibility of harming the LGBTQIA+ community with this particular ending.
I can justify it all I want by saying that I was trying to illustrate the poor treatment of the LGBTQIA+ community and the scapegoating that they are subjected to, but there’s a thin line between conveying a message about a negative stereotype and perpetuating it. Before realizing I played into that issue, I had already decided to expand it into a novel (three, actually) that follows the main character after the supposed death. That’s no excuse but my plans do include a better, if bumpy, plot for the main character, so I’m trying to not perpetuate anything negative as I continue my stories.
That brings us to an important question: what if the story is best the way it is, with something bad happening to an LGBTQIA+ character?
The answer is complex. If, after an extensive review and self-reflection, we decide that that’s how the story needs to be, we have to leave the story that way. I was told by the person who helped me realize the social implications of my story that it was a good story; I just shouldn’t publish it yet, given the current socio-political climate. With this story, that’s probably the right path. The fact that I’m trying to make it the first chapter of a novel made that decision easy.
But what about those who need to publish the story exactly as it is in order for it to be its best? Well, you could wait until this trope has been disposed, has itself been buried. You could also write and publish other works which have LGBTQIA+ characters but do not put them through the “bury your gays” trope, instead finding a way to write a great story in which they are content. My strongest recommendation, however, is to not have your first published piece contain a “bury your gays” situation. You wouldn’t publish a story involving racism which ends badly for the person of color as your first published piece, would you?
Ultimately, writers must be the masters of their work. We can’t let the possibility of offending people make us question every one of our choices, but that doesn’t give us free license to offend people without caring at all. If we write negative stereotypes (gender, race, sexual identity, religion, etc.) or constantly kill off minority characters/give them tragic plots more often than our non-minority characters, we perpetuate negative stereotypes and attitudes towards minorities. We can even push people with these identities over the edge. Besides, if we don’t explore alternate endings, we may miss out on a story we’re more proud of. We can’t be policed by other people’s beliefs and sensitivities but we would do well to consider them as we revise our work.
Thoughts? Concerns? Examples of the “bury your gays” trope you wish to discuss? Counter-examples? Remember, we welcome all perspectives but the discussion must remain civil and intellectual. Anything less wouldn’t be productive (and any trolling/bullying could result in your suspension or banning from the comments section; please remember to check the comments policy before posting).