Bury Your Gays Deep Dive

Trope Deep Dive: Bury Your Gays

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!

The purpose of my Tropes to Avoid series is to highlight clichés that are common to specific identities, which often shape the way that non-queer people think of — and subsequently write — queer characters. In this, we find many well-intentioned but ill-informed content creators forging ahead with their internalized ideations of a particular type of character, ignorant to the harm they might enact by doing so. Tropes to Avoid seeks to help address that.

However, some tropes are so pervasive in media about queerness that they have become synonymous with queerness itself, and are sometimes considered integral to writing queer stories. I’ve touched on this a bit in the past with my coming out series, but it’s important to have a broad understanding of the cultural ideas that affect the entire LGBTQ+ community, rather than piecemeal knowledge of individual identities.

Hence, this new series — Trope Deep Dives — and its inaugural entry, Bury Your Gays

What is “Bury Your Gays”?

I’m like six years late to this party, but here we go.

Bury Your Gays is a trope in which queer and queer-coded characters are killed off at higher rates than their cishet counterparts.

Image of Lexa from the CW's The 100. She is a young white woman with dark brown hair that is gathered into several small braids, wearing dark leather armor, black war paint around her eyes, and a circular decoration between her brows. She holds a knife and has an expression fo disinterest.
Lexa’s death will never not be bullshit — and it kicked off the “summer of dead lesbians” in 2015/16. (The 100)

Of particular note here is not just that the characters die, but the nature of their deaths. Often, these character deaths will be used as shock value, to punish them for their choice in lovers, or will appear to come out of nowhere in a story where death really didn’t seem to be otherwise on the table.  Or, in stories where death is VERY on the table but treated as something of a revolving door, the queer character’s death is treated as final and absolute, while non-queer characters can be brought back to life, a frustrating theme common in superhero and supernatural fiction. Sometimes, it’s also used to advanced the plot in a “dramatic” way, despite there being demonstrably more compelling or sensical options available. There’s also something to be said about the particulars of brutality — queer characters are often particularly brutalized, especially if they are also women or people of color.

Some people argue that Bury Your Gays is just a reflection of real life — being queer is difficult and dangerous, after all. Attempts at illustrating the queer experience often put outsize focus on community-specific health problems, homophobic hate crimes, and the high suicide rates among queer folx. As gay men and trans folx were disproportionately killed by the epidemic, Tragic AIDS Stories became their own archetype. Likewise, a common ending in media about queer youth involves suicide or being murdered.

Rather than illustrate the painful realities of queerness, these narratives just paint a bleak and tragic picture of queer lives, one devoid of happy endings. And that, really, is the issue.

Avoiding and Subverting

I already very much know the counterargument to this trope being presented as, well, a trope.

No, queer characters do not need to be given super-extra-special plot armor to make sure that they never ever die ever, in case you make a lesbian sad. Not everything that bears the surface-level descriptors of a trope — in this case, dead queer characters — is inherently bad. But you do have to be aware of Bury Your Gays.

Avoiding this trope can be easy — just don’t write in genres that are likely to involve character death. Coming-of-age narratives, romances, sitcoms — none of those rely on a third-act tragic death scene, and in fact it can feel wildly off-tone if one is included. In this situations, you can avoid Bury Your Gays by simply understanding the tone of your own story. Does it actually add anything to the narrative to have a character tragically die, or is it just going to cause undue distress or confusion? Is there another way to accomplish the same goal without killing the character? Maybe one that’s more tonally consistent?

Of course, if you write in genres that feature actual threat of death to your characters, there’s always the chance a queer character’s life might legitimately be on the line. In these cases, I’d advise a few things.

Image of Tara's death from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Willow, a white woman with red hair, holds Tara, a white woman with brown hair, as she lays dying. Willow wears a white blouse which is splattered with blood. Tara wears blue jeans and a blue sweater, and a bullet hole is visible on her chest.
Ah, yes, “a human death by human hands,” a well-established caveat to resurrection in a show where multiple main characters have died and been brought back. (/s) (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

First, have multiple queer characters/couples. What sucks about Bury Your Gays is that it often comes for the one central character that’s queer, or else for half of the lone queer couple that exists in the narrative. The trope gets diluted, though, if you’ve got multiple queer people in your story — it doesn’t feel like a character died for being queer, since other queer people are perfectly fine. Still, though, this isn’t a free pass. If your respectable white cis gay couple lives happily ever after, but a queer Black nonbinary person is brutally murdered, maybe consider how you chose which of your queer characters was most disposable.

Secondly, consider cause of death. If all your straight characters are killed in noble, honorable fights with complex enemies, but your one queer character is immolated over the course of six pages by a fiery hell demon that eats their soul and then wears their burnt corpse like a cheap suit — maybe consider why you feel the queer character is the one that deserved that treatment.

And finally, remember what it means to kill a character. Character death is absolutely not something to be taken lightly. You need to have an idea of how killing a character will impact everyone around that character, as well as your narrative as a whole. This video does a great job of explaining this, and understanding how you’re using death can help you avoid burying your gays. (See also OSP’s videos on fridging and fates worse than death. The first is often a glaring example of this trope; the other is sometimes used in an attempt to subvert the trope on a technicality and just makes things worse.)

Subverting Bury Your Gays can be a little tricky.

You can just not kill your queer character. This could be spicy in a horror film, where perhaps your “final girl” is queer and their queerness is, in fact, what helped them to survive. You can also fake out the audience, like Wynnona Earp accidentally did during the 2015 “Summer of Dead Lesbians” when Officer Haught was shot while wearing a bulletproof vest. That sort of thing can be a fun and surprising relief for queer audiences, but be careful not to overuse it!

If you’re working in spec fic, you can also remove the concept of death entirely — San Junipero is beautiful precisely because of how it transforms the deaths of its lesbian characters into an enduring story of immortal love and happiness.

Whether you subvert Bury Your Gays or just straight up avoid it, though, understanding the trope is essential for writing any queer character.

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