For a long time, there has been an epidemic tearing through TV shows made for “Hip Young People.” This trope has not gone unnoticed by fans, but somehow it continues, knocking down character after character until all we have left is a large pile of the fictional dead and some disappointed queer teenagers begging for better. Originally diagnosed as ‘Dead Lesbian Syndrome,’ this pandemic has developed into a full blown case of ‘Bury Your Gays.’ Plainly, the trope is this; LGBT+ characters can exist in fiction, but in the end, they can’t be happy in their supposed ‘gayness.’ It has to lead to their ruin in one form or another, whether by a gunshot wound inflicted directly after getting out of bed with their lover, a homophobic relative killing them or their beloved, or the ever tragic, and frankly too real, AIDS crisis.
The trope originated in the early twentieth century in literature, when many authors petitioned publishers to be able to write gay or lesbian relationships into their novels. The original answer was of course a resounding ‘no.’ However, publishers began to see it as a way to reach a wider audience, and so created a compromise with writers. Same-sex relationships were allowed to be published, but due to their cultural ‘immorality’ at the time, the characters must face tragic end for choosing to go down this path. For women, the most common end was suicide due to the ‘less immoral’ half of the pairing returning to the ‘correct’ way of life and marrying a man. For men, it was often some form of violent attack or hate crime.
As time progressed, so too did the publishers, and it is far less common in today’s popular literature. The question we need to ask is whether TV shows have done the same. Have they moved past this archaic notion of ‘tragic gayness,’ towards strong and well-rounded representation or are they still peddling the same story with new names and places?
“By the end of the broadcasting year, nearly 48% of these characters had been killed off, the majority of them being queer women.”
In 2016, GLAAD, a U.S. non-governmental media monitoring organisation founded by LGBT+ people in the media, found that in primetime broadcast television, 4.8% of characters fell somewhere under the umbrella of LGBTQ+. Of that 4.8%, 0.8% were lesbians (a huge drop from the previous year) and 0.2% were transgender, representing a jump from zero trans characters on broadcast TV to three. By the end of the broadcasting year, nearly 48% of these characters had been killed off, the majority of them being queer women. So while the overall existence of LGBT+ characters had increased from the previous year, they were still being killed off at an alarmingly high rate, much higher than that of straight characters. The most well-known offenders were shows such as The 100, in which series regular Lexa was shot directly after having sex with the female main character Clarke; The Walking Dead, in which both of Tara’s girlfriends died in graphic and violent manners; and Supernatural, a show already heavily criticised for its gratuitous use of ‘queerbaiting.’ The showrunners decided to kill off Charlie, a character essentially meant to represent the shows primarily young female fan base, which they initially mocked.
In 2017, the number of LGBT+ characters in primetime broadcast TV made a jump to 6.4%. While there has been a statistical increase in the presence of LGBT+ characters over the past year: 3% gay men, 1.5% lesbians, 1.6% bisexuals, 0.1% trans characters, these represent a marginal increase in film and television as a whole. Nevertheless, the number of queer character deaths on television in 2017 did drop by about half from the previous year.
Backlash over the continuous deaths of LGBT+ characters in 2016 seems to have sparked a response in media, with shows like Black Mirror, famously known for its tragic endings, writing an episode specifically about an interracial queer female couple finding happiness together. Brooklyn 99, a show which has had a black gay character in command from day one, has now revealed that one of their main characters, and fan favourite, Rosa, is also bisexual, and it’s rumoured that popular actress Gina Rodriguez will be appearing on the show as her girlfriend.
Netflix has been commended for showcasing representation with original shows including Sense8 and One Day A Time, a Netflix original sitcom, featuring a main character who is not only gay, but happily so, being accepted and loved by the majority of her family, and even going on to form LGBT+ specific clubs in her catholic high school and finding a girlfriend.
It seems as though the tide of representation is changing for the better on television, with streaming networks at the forefront of the movement. With this change, however, it’s important that we continue to hold networks and showrunners accountable, and try not to add any plots to the queer character graveyard.