It seems like every few months, news of a beloved LGBTQ+ character being killed off from a show or movie dominates the headlines. This unfortunate trend is known as the “bury your gays” trope—the idea that queer characters are disposable and can easily be written out of stories. As members of the LGBTQ+ community, we must understand why this trope is harmful and take action to combat it.
What is “Bury Your Gays”?
The bury your gays trope has been around since well before the modern era of Film and Television, though it's gone by many names over the years, including "Dead Lesbian Syndrome" after the long history of queer female characters' stories ending in death, often after heartbreak, rejection, assault, or abandonment. The term "Bury Your Gays" has been in use since at least 2008, and now refers to any instance in which an LGBTQ+ character dies or is removed from the story after serving their purpose of moving the plot forward. Its persistence in media, even as certain societal views began to shift more towards acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals, has portrayed queer characters as expendable and either not worthy, or not capable, of attaining happiness. And while much work has been done by the LGBTQ+ community to change the way their representation is handled onscreen, the trope still exists today, leaving many members of the LGBTQ+ community feeling unsafe and unwelcome.
Examples of “Bury Your Gays”
Lexa, played by Alicia Debham-Carey, from the television show The 100 is one of the most notable examples of the “bury your gays” trope. In 2014, the character Lexa was introduced as a powerful, brave, and formidable leader of her people, who also happened to be a lesbian. While she was beloved by many for her leadership skills, intelligence, and strength, tragedy ensued when she met her untimely demise as a result of a stray bullet (which happens to be exactly how Tara, another lesbian character from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, was killed in 2002) . This death is made even more heartbreaking due to the fact that it comes shortly after Lexa finally found love with the main character of the show, another female, which had originally established the relationship as a historical benchmark for queer females on screen. A bisexual lead of a series having an on-screen romantic relationship with another woman was a rarity, especially in media marketed to an audience as broad as The 100 was.
Another well-remembered example occurred in Season 3 of The L Word. Jenny Schecter, played by Mia Kirshner, was killed off after having a mental breakdown following her messy breakup with Marina Ferrer, played by Karina Lombard. While Jenny's death was ultimately used as a plot device for Marina's storyline, it was a grim reminder of the long-standing trope and its harmful effects to the dedicated queer audience that tuned into the show for a rare chance to see themselves represented on screen as lead characters living normal lives. Not even a show made for queer audiences was safe.
Click the link to read more examples of the “Bury Your Gays” trope for Sapphic characters throughout the history of entertainment television.
Why Is This Trend So Problematic?
The "bury your gays" trope reinforces damaging stereotypes and perpetuates the idea that queer characters are disposable, undeserving of happiness, or only valuable if they meet a tragic death that deeply impacts the straight characters around them. This sends a message to viewers that LGBTQ+ identities are not deserving of acceptance or representation, which can have devastating effects on young queer people who often only see themselves represented this way in media.
In addition to this, the “bury your gays” trope further contributes to an already existing underrepresentation of LGBTQ+ people in television, film, and other media. By continuously killing off queer characters right after they’re introduced, or relegating them to minor roles with little screen time or nuanced stories, these shows fail to accurately portray the diversity and richness of the community. This lack of representation also affects how non-queer audiences perceive members of this population, as their stories are often presented as tragedies, mental health crises, crimes, or events built up to be sensationalized for shock value.
Furthermore, many LGBTQ+ characters that do appear on-screen are portrayed as stereotypes, often harmful or false ones, that don't reflect the complexity and nuance of their identities. This can lead to shallow representation that doesn’t give viewers. especially straight viewers, the opportunity to engage with these stories or connect with them emotionally. As a result, it becomes easy for audiences to view LGBTQ+ people as “others” instead of individuals with unique, but human, experiences, dreams, and perspectives.
At its worst, the “bury your gays” trope can be seen as a form of erasure as it denies queer characters of happy endings and gives audiences no hope for future progression or acceptance. It also perpetuates negative stereotypes that suggest LGBTQ+ people are doomed from the start, plagued with mental illness, or criminals, which can have serious psychological implications for all audiences.
What Can We Do?
One of the best ways to address the “bury your gays” trope is to start by creating more diverse and well-rounded characters who are LGBTQ+. This means including characters with varied backgrounds, interests, motivations, and relationships rather than relying on stereotypes or one-dimensional depictions. Writers should also be careful not to tokenize queer characters--in other words, avoid having them appear only for short time periods, or as plot devices that only serve to develop the story of a cishet protagonist.
In addition to this, writers should strive for more nuanced storytelling when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues. Instead of relying on tropes like the “bury your gays" device, writers can create stories in diverse genres and formats that highlight the normalcy and humanity of queer individuals. Portray them as lead characters who are heroes, or detectives, or lawyers, or scientists with big dreams. Take it a step further and show them as people, regulars at sports bars, or book-lovers, or dog-trainers. Give them families, give them epic romances, give them heroic journeys, and found families. Give them hope.
Beyond that, especially given today's political climate, there is still an incredible demand for queer stories that focus on the everyday challenges of living as an LGBTQ+ person in a society that often doesn't accept or understand them. This could include exploring topics such as coming out and acceptance from family/friends, dealing with discrimination in the workplace or school system, navigating dating and relationships within the community, etc. By depicting these struggles in an honest way, best achieved by actually hiring and speaking to LGBTQ+ individuals audiences can gain a better understanding of what it means to be queer in today's world.
It's also important that writers portray LGBTQ+ relationships in their full complexity. Not just focusing on romantic storylines, but also highlighting friendships between queer people. This can help foster an environment where friendships between two people of different genders/sexual orientations aren't seen as strange or unusual, but rather celebrated. Furthermore, by emphasizing how interdependent queer communities are--with allies being an integral part of it--writers can help create narratives that challenge prejudice and bring about positive change.
Finally, it is essential that writers find more opportunities to give LGBTQ+ characters happy endings. No one should be forced into a tragic fate just because they identify as something outside of heteronormativity. There's already enough suffering due to real-life discrimination, and persistent tropes and stereotypes, including the "bury your gays" trope, only serve to continue false or harmful narratives in the public perception and understanding of LGBTQ+ individuals. Instead, happy endings for these characters should be framed as acts of resistance against homophobia and transphobia. By writing stories with positive outcomes for queer individuals, we show viewers that acceptance and progress are possible even within a flawed system.
What Progress Has Been Made?
In recent years, a great deal of progress has been made in pushing back against the “bury your gays” trope. One way this has been achieved is through more positive representation of LGBTQ+ characters on screen. This includes, as recommended above, writers providing nuanced portrayals of queer characters and their relationships, rather than relying on shallow stereotypes or flat characterizations. These characters are also given better development and story arcs that go beyond the over-used death storyline associated with the trope.
Another way progress is being made is by giving LGBTQ+ characters storylines that reflect the diversity of their lived experiences instead of limiting them to stories about coming out or being accepted by family. This includes characters who have formed romantic relationships with other queer individuals, stories focused on their professional successes or showcase them in non-traditional roles within their community, and, more increasingly, stories that feature LGBTQ+ individuals as leads in different genres, including fantasy and action.
Some of our favourite examples of more positive queer representation include: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Our Flag Means Death, Schitt's Creek, and Love, Victor.
Unfortunately, some of this progress is now being undone as more and more shows with queer leads, many of them featuring Sapphic leads specifically, have faced cancellation in the past few years. Some of these shows include The Wilds, First Kill, Paper Girls, Batwoman, and Warrior Nun. This new trend is now being called "cancel your gays," and many worry that it's the mark of a new era of LGBTQ+ stories meeting untimely ends.
Note: Fans of Warrior Nun [see: warriornun.com) and First Kill (see: savefirstkill.com] are both still fighting for these shows to be renewed or picked up by other networks. Check out their websites for more information on how to help.
The "bury your gays" trope has been used far too often in entertainment, negatively impacting individuals in the LGBTQ+ community (and the community as a whole) in more ways than we can count, but we have the power to change this dangerous narrative. If you're able, we recommend actively supporting media platforms that feature positive representation of queer characters, while unsubscribing from or calling out those that perpetuate negative stereotypes or utilize tropes like bury your gays as plot devices. By taking action together, we can create an environment where everyone feels seen, accepted, and celebrated!