The portrayal of homosexual relationships in popular media and fiction has always been fraught with public backlash and difficulties. From queerbaiting to the incessant use of the ‘bury your gays’ trope, it seems like a successful and wholesome LGBTQ+ pairing is rare, even in current, so-called enlightened times. Get ready for a whistle stop tour of queer media history as we delve into why exactly the gays so rarely get a happy ending.
The concept of ‘bury your gays’ is thought to have originated in the Victorian era as a way for gay authors to write about gay relationships in their work, only to strike them off and ensure conservative sexuality reigned supreme. Male homosexuality, phrased as ‘gross indecency between men’ was criminalised by the 1885 Criminal Law Ammendment Act. It was under this legislation that writer Oscar Wilde was incarcerated, and at his trial, his 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was used as evidence for his seemingly deviant behaviours.
In Dorian Gray, it’s heavily implied that Basil, painter of the eponymous portrait, is deeply infatuated with Dorian. He is ultimately murdered at the hands of the one he loves, as Dorian stabs him to death. By destroying Basil and portraying the suggested queer Dorian as a vain and murderous wretch, Wilde was not actively seen to be promoting the lifestyle of homosexuality; this allowed for the story to be circulated in popular printing without censorship.
However this ‘get out’ card of killing off queer coded characters in order to avoid portraying them in a positive light has seemingly prevailed in popular culture. Despite homosexuality being decriminalised in the UK in 1967, and queer existences and love stories have been relatively normalised and embraced in mainstream culture, the burying of the gays continues. It has become an in-joke in LGBTQ+ communities that the second a member of a queer couple confesses their feelings for the other, it is almost gaurunteed that they will either die or break up.
Willow Rosenberg and Tara Mclay from Joss Whedon’s 1990s smash hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer were groundbreaking in their roles as the first recurring lesbian couple on US prime time television. However, actors Alyson Hannigon and Amber Benson have spoken openly of their frustrations of the censorship of the couple due to restrictions of lesbian content being shown on air. Showrunners allude to their non-platonic relationship and keep it chaste, and it is not until Season 5 episode 16 when we finally see them kiss onscreen, nearly a season after Tara’s introduction to Willow.
Tara is killed near the end of season six by a stray bullet from an attempt on Buffy’s life, leading to Willow having a complete emotional breakdown and wreaks havoc with the dark magic she has absorbed in her grief. In a show full of resurrections and supernatural happenings, it feels jarring that Tara is a character that sadly does not return. Her death isn’t in spirit with the show either – in a world of mystical beings and melodramatic sacrifices to omnipotent forces she is very violently shot through the chest. It is uncomfortable and deeply painful to watch. At the time, fans were horrified that such an important couple in the history of lesbian representation ended in the time honoured tradition of death; creator Joss Whedon defended his choice, citing her death as integral to Willow’s further character development. Still, Tara’s brutal death suggests that no matter how pioneering the girls were as a couple, show writers weren’t ready to create a homosexual couple that were immune to becoming greater serving plot devices.
Another infamous moment is the death of Lexa in The 100 who is killed almost immediately after she and her female partner Clarke are seen to finally sleep together, which continues to be the source of great debate since the episode’s airing in 2016. Shot by another stray bullet, the sequence eerily mirrors the death of Tara from nearly 15 years prior.
‘Bury your gays’ was intially referred to as ‘dead lesbian syndrome’, alluding to the fact that so many lesbian and bisexual female characters seemed met an unsavoury end for the sole purpose of plot advancement. It seems that the only thing that can make the sight of two women together more shocking is to kill one of them off.
Maya from Pretty Little Liars, Bill Potts from Doctor Who, Denise from The Walking Dead, Ianto Jones from Torchwood, Jack from Brokeback Mountain. Despite being prominent characters in mainstream UK and US film and TV, each of them end up being buried, seemingly to propel the plot onwards and lead grieving partners/friends to an intense journey of self development. And, even if they both survive, it’s not guaranteed that queer couples will stay together.
One of the most spotlit contemporary examples is Call Me By Your Name, a 2017 film by Luca Guadagnino, adapted from the novel of the same title by André Aciman.
It tells of the passionate tryst of teenager Elio and his much older American lover Oliver over one hot summer in North Italy, 1983. The affair is cut short in the age before social media and easy communication as Oliver (Armie Hammer) returns to America. The film ends beautifully, but hauntingly, with Elio (Timothee Chalamet) staring mournfully just below the camera lens to the strains of ‘Visions of Gideon’ by Sufjan Stevens. The original book ending is almost worse, with Elio and Oliver meeting up years later and essentially becoming strangers. Oliver is married and the two realise that whatever they once had has long since died.
The slow-burn summer romance is sensual and full of youthful awakenings. It is a treat for the eye and for the young queer heart, but it is devastating in its climax. So often it seems that homosexual lovers become pawns of emotional exploitation and are used to elicit pain and catharsis, rather than serving as a feasible relationship standard.
Queerbaiting is a term used to describe when showrunners, often pandering to fans, dangle the bait of a potential queer relationship between two characters. It is something that is perhaps never quite explicit, allowing networks and production companies to always remain innocent of promoting ‘alternative’ lifestyles on the still very much conservative programming schedule.
In 2020, TV network CW came under fire during the final episodes of long running drama Supernatural after 15 years. Characters Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) and Castiel (Misha Collins) were fan favourites as a couple. This was something which the Supernatural writers, who often wrote in a reactionary way to the fanbase, frequently catered to with ‘queerbaiting’ – moments that came so close to, or even beyond, being queer but were quickly moved on from or given a platonic explanation. In one particular self-referential moment, Castiel asks ‘Why are you using me as bait?’ and the villain of the episode replies ‘I mean it’s kind of what you’re for, isn’t it?’
The pairing, ship name Destiel, was officially confirmed in the show’s final season, in which Castiel finally confesses his love for Dean moments before being dragged to Superhell (don’t ask) and dying. As expected, fans were up in arms at this handling of the couple with many criticising it as coming off as incredibly homophobic – the potential romance is sacrificed in a cheap moment of shock and unsatisfactory pay off. After so many years of making implicit suggestions that there was something more than friendship between Castiel and Dean, CW crudely uses the relationship as a means for a lazy final bombshell.
Hannibal, an NBC show that ran from 2013-2015, was a reimagining of Hannibal Lecter from the Silence of the Lambs franchise, was also criticised by fans for queerbaiting between FBI agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen). Both characters share an intense relationship throughout the series, but it is never made clear whether their connection is a mutual intellectual understanding or something more passionate. Writers of the show framed much of their interactions in a romantic and sensual way, and yet never explicitly tip the scales in either direction. In one sequence, the two are shown to be sleeping with separate women at the same time and the camerawork frames it as if they are sleeping together. The show cannot quite commit to it, and therefore profits off teasing the audience with thinly veiled references; it is seemingly fine to show a homosexual relationship as long as you never actually authenticate it. Writer Bryan Fuller even admitted in an interview that ‘Will Graham is heterosexual, but Hannibal is absolutely in love with Will Graham because he represents the magic of humanity in a way that transcends sexuality ‘ [Collider, Dec 2015 ] ‘Transcends sexuality’? Might I instead suggest it is a fear, or avoidance, of the responsibility of acknowledging queerness and simply profiting off its exploitation as a narrative device that keeps audiences coming back for more.
2012-2016 was a strange time on the internet, where blogging platform sites like Tumblr escalated fandom culture and allowed like-minded enthusiasts to thrive in echo chambers of fanaticism. It was these massive online communities that provided the audience to which show writers would later react and pander.
There was a huge fascination, and fetishisation, of male queer romances amongst young people, particularly young women. Fans’ desires to see their fictional ‘ships’ become canon in their favourite show led to showrunners listening to and half-indulging them by queerbaiting, most salient with Supernatural, but also evident in other shows of the time such as the John Watson/Sherlock Holmes relationship in BBC’s Sherlock. The problem I have with many presentations of LGBTQ+ couples and queerbaiting in popular media is that it so often there to indulge the mass heterosexual, or fetishizing audience, rather than out of a commitment to showing a healthy, sincere relationship.
There is a glaring culture of exploitation around the presentation of homosexual/erotic relationships, as if they are a box tick to appear superficially ‘woke’ or tolerant but must be bundled off before they develop too much or become beloved by fans. They become an object of the fetishist’s gaze, wherein meaningful, chaste and personality based encounters and developments are side-lined for the explicit sexual sequences.
Perhaps infamous for exactly this is Blue is The Warmest Colour (2013) containing a near eight minute long sex scene. It was criticised heavily for its patriarchal gaze with many suggesting that the film caters more for the sexualised viewing of the male audience rather than a sympathetic portrayal of a lesbian love affair. Lead actors Lea Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos both described the experience with director Abdellatif Kechiche as ‘horrible’ and refused to work with him again. In the original graphic novel by Jul Maroh, Adele’s character is driven to suicide, so at least in the movie adaptation she lives. They do sadly break up and move on with their separate lives, but at least they get to live, right? Simply surviving a narrative seems like a low bar for success, but this is the reality of queer representation on screen.
There are, however, two instances of heartbreak that I am willing to let slide.
First, the 1996 musical RENT by Jonathan Larson wherein transwoman Angel tragically dies of AIDS, leaving her also AIDS positive lover Collins behind. The 2003 movie adaptation is an excellent watch with a banging soundtrack, but the sequence surrounding Angel’s death is uncompromisingly raw. Similarly, the new 2021 series It’s A Sin from former Doctor Who writer Russel T Davies also gets a pass from me. It focuses on a group of characters living through the UK AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s and three of the central cast sadly die from the disease throughout the run of the mini series. It’s A Sin is an excruciatingly wonderful piece of television that will make you bawl your eyes out and chuckle wanly in the same breath and it is vital: so many of the voices of that generation are no longer around to tell us their stories themselves. An entire generation of young people were lost to a viral infection not fully understood.
The impact of the AIDS epidemic on the queer community is such an integral part of modern LGBTQ+ identity; not only was there a horrific loss of life but misinformation led to countless hate crimes and increased prejudice in society. Many people died alone, with medical staff refusing to go near them. AIDS was even called Gay Related Immuno Deficiency before further medical research was conducted.
Queerness and trauma are so interwoven after centuries of persecution and criminalisation. People are still murdered in the 21st century simply for who they love. It is difficult to present, especially historic, relationships in a wholly optimistic and wholesome light when the reality is that so many people have faced and continue to face unspeakable traumas, solely for their sexualties or gender expressions.
I realise it is untruthful to show a historic queer relationship without acknowledging the hardships and prejudice experienced in such a hostile contemporary society, but I have to ask, when will we stop making misty eyed, sentimental regency queer romantic-tragedies? Of all the tools and creative minds readily available to authors and filmmakers, when will we finally decide to sever the ties between gay love stories and tragic, heartrending sagas?
And where can we find a middle ground? Between chaste, overly policed relationships and the exploitative, crude displays of rutting?
Perhaps I am too fussy; give me something where a queer couple simply live their lives. Let me watch a pair of lesbians tend to their cacti collection, two gay men going on a run to the park and then having a loving family dinner with their children.
The seemingly inherent trauma and crippling shame of the queer existence seems to seep its way into all media. It’s true; homophobia continues to be rampant. Homosexuality is still a crime in more than 70 countries globally. But must we always include angsty scenes of violent hate crimes and familial abandonment in our queer stories? The majority of us have lived out these scenes in our own lives; be it mindless cat calls, being hassled on the street or hearing of friends being rejected by conditionally loving families. Give us something wholesome where intolerance doesn’t have to infringe.
We have shows set on spaceships, alien planets with magic, witches and talking beasts; must we always live so insistently in the ‘real’ world with our inclusions of ‘realistic’ prejudice and relentless trauma?
Can’t we give the gays a break? I think it’s time, we’re owed a happy ending.