Queer Death in Media: Drawing Attention to the Bloodshed
The world we live in has taken great strides towards the acceptance of queer people. Gay marriage is legal in most countries in the Western hemisphere, and canonically queer characters exist in fictional media! Representation of queer characters in media leaves a lot to be desired, with a shocking amount of canonically queer characters (who are series regulars) end up dead, usually in brutal and violent ways. Many of them are shot or murdered simply to further the plot of heterosexual characters. While we have made strides in the recent decade, it’s important to analyze our past history of representation to really see that things could be much better.
Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
For those who have not read Nightwood, it’s a story of a love square between four characters, three of whom are queer women, and one outside observer. The book itself was published in 1936 during the Modernist era of American literature, a time where authors were experimenting with new ways of writing and representation. During this time female characters were being written and represented as powerful and autonomous characters capable of making their own decisions. This section of time was when women had gained the right to file for divorce and the right to vote, and many yearned for some sort of autonomy for themselves.
Djuna Barnes wrote Nightwood in some way to gain some catharsis following her relationship with Thelma Wood while living in Paris. The character of Nora in the novel occupies the majority of Barnes’ abstract narrative, and Nora frequently visits the character of Dr. Matthew O’Connor, a man who openly expresses his desire to be a woman, and dresses in traditional women’s night clothes during the time of Nora’s visit about midway through the novel. Matthew’s monologues offer to the reader some explanation of Nora, Jenny, and Felix’s feelings. Nightwood is one of the most open and honest portrayals of queer relationships in Modernist era literature, and Barnes does all this through a sometimes-confusing abstract narrative.
Roger Austen noted that Nightwood was among the best written novels of the 1930’s concerning gay themes, but that American readers were confounded by the notion that Matthew was neither portrayed as a “scamp or mongrel” nor does he suffer a “suitable penalty” for leading a “life of depravity.” Sure gives a queer person hope, that critics want something bad to happen to the LGBTQ+ characters in the novel, huh?
Despite these criticisms, Barnes portrays none of the queer or transgender characters in the novel as good or bad, but simply as human. And, as important for the rest of this article, none of them die by the end of the novel (although Robin does somewhat lose her mind, and pretends to be a dog.)
So what “suitable penalty” did Roger Austen have in mind for the character of Matthew O’Connor? If it’s anything like we’ve seen in recent fiction, the answer is “death,” and lots of it.
Of course, in our world’s history, there has been a lot of death in regards to the queer community, specifically the AIDS virus.
The AIDS virus ran rampant in the 1980’s, and initial review suggested that it only targeted gay men. It was perpetuated as a “gay plague” of divine intervention to wipe out the queer population of the world. The idea was that gay men were so depraved in their behavior to be able to create lasting relationships like heterosexual couples was too much, so God sent down his divine judgment to rid the world of them.
Randy Shilts’ 1987 book, And the Band Played On, suggests that the Ronald Reagan administration dragged their feet in dealing with the AIDS epidemic. This was largely in part due to blatant homophobia that was perpetuated by the gay community’s distrust of news reports and information being given to them. The first confirmed cases of the AIDS virus were in 1981, and Reagan didn’t speak out about the epidemic until 1987, after which over 20,000 people had already died as a result of the disease.
In our world today, you’ll nary find a critic like Roger Austen who believes that some divine punishment should befall a queer character in media. But it still happens so often. The audience is consistently given queer characters to enjoy and see as representation of themselves, and it is so quickly robbed away from them without a second thought, and many times it’s not even good writing! The character’s death means nothing more than a means to fuel the protagonists into hunting down the bad guy or solving the murder. Additionally, queer characters who are killed are usually one half of a relationship, leading to even more sadness and angst for queer characters who believe that they can never be happy.
Statistics show that an alarming 31% of lesbian or bisexual women on television between 1976 and 2016 end up dead. Another 38% are written off with no resolution or are guest characters, whilst only 10% receive a “happy ending.” While these statistics don’t include gay men or asexual or intersex characters, it is a shocking statistic that shows just how broken the representation system in our media is.
Here you’ll find some examples of queer characters’ deaths that just hit a little too hard to handle, and just felt out of place in the grand scheme of things.
Maya St. Germain, Pretty Little Liars
Pretty Little Liars has come to be one of those shows I just watch to see what ridiculous thing ends up happening next. Who is A? Are you A? Am I A? Is that baby A? It’s just always interesting to see what conclusions the girls will jump to on a whim.
Emily Fields is one of the four titular Liars in the series, getting swept up in a murderous mystery that threatens her town of Rosewood. From the beginning, she’s a closeted lesbian, but as she gradually opens up and comes out to herself and her friends, her life begins to improve. She even gets a girlfriend!
Maya was the best thing to ever happen to Emily–she came along and turned Emily’s world upside down, in a good way of course, not in the murder-y mystery way. Maya is eventually hunted down and killed by an ex-boyfriend for choosing Emily over him.
Maya’s death in no way serves the story–Lyndon had no connection to A whatsoever, and was just a psychopath who let his jealousy and anger take him to a place he couldn’t come back from. Lyndon even tries to in some twisted way replace Maya in Emily’s life by stalking her and trying to date her. When Lyndon attacks Emily, she kills him in self-defense and avenges Maya’s death, and Maya is never mentioned again.
In a town like Rosewood, where a sociopath who goes by “A” is repeatedly tormenting you and your friends, it’s hard to find happiness and peace, and Emily really found that with Maya. Although Emily moves on and ends up with Paige, they break up too, and as of the current season Emily is still single and going through a really rough time. It really suggests to the audience and fans that lesbians are in no way deserving of happiness, or even living.
Elias Harper, Quantico
Quantico tells a story from two perspectives, the past and the present. In the present, FBI agent Alex Parrish has been framed for the bombing of Grant Central Station and desperately tries to solve the mystery to clear her own name. The past tells the story of Parrish and her fellow trainees during their tenure at the FBI academy.
Elias Harper works as an analyst, and he falls for the seemingly-gay Simon Asher. After studying Simon for a while, Simon eventually comes clean and tells Elias that his “gay” persona is a way for him to cope with all the terrible things he did in the Middle East–that constructing and living as this persona, who happens to be gay, helps him ward the dark thoughts at bay.
It’s some heavy queer baiting, and Elias doesn’t take it well. The FBI eventually arranges a mission where there is seemingly a bomb in the FBI training academy–Simon works quickly to defuse the bomb, and tells everyone who doesn’t want to die to leave quickly. Elias leaves, and after Simon defuses the “bomb” Elias and the audience learns it was a simulation. Elias is dismissed from the FBI academy for failing to live up to their “ride or die” standards.
Elias resurfaces during the Fall finale as an “informant” for Alex to help her uncover who perpetrated the bombing. Alex works with him briefly before she realizes a discrepancy in his story. She makes Elias confess, and he admits that the Big Bad of the season has blackmailed him to commit the Grand Central bombing, but that there’s another bomb and he doesn’t know where it is. Alex releases him, and refusing to be arrested, Elias jumps out a window to his death.
As the only openly gay character on the show, it really sucked to see Elias go. He figuratively died when he was dismissed from the academy, and then really died when he jumped to his death. The queer-baiting with Simon left a bad taste in my mouth as well. He was unhappy AND he died at the end.
Delphine Cormier, Orphan Black
Delphine was meant to be a double-agent to get close to Cosima as her Monitor. Delphine initially played her role quite well, but ended up actually falling for Cosima and developing a relationship with her.
Cosima and Delphine have a very loving relationship on the show, but eventually they break up. Delphine knows she is still in love with Cosima, but before she can do anything to make up with her, Delphine is shot and presumably dies in a parking garage. The creators of the show have teased that she’s still alive somehow in Season 4, but ultimately her fate as of now is as a lonely lesbian who died to fuel sadness in the main protagonists.
Tara Maclay, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Tara and Willow’s relationship was one of the most progressive queer relationships depicted in main-series television at the turn of the new millennium. Their relationship was also the most natural and based on love, but alas it could not last.
The Buffy universe is one of many supernatural horrors, and Willow and Tara weathered apocalypse, demons, vampires, the wrath of a God, and all other supernatural entities without issue. And then Tara dies to a gunshot, with a bullet meant for Buffy.
To have come so far and survived so much, the fanbase felt robbed to have Tara die to a silly gunshot. Her death of course fueled Willow’s already existing angst and ends up being one of many reasons why Willow “goes dark” so to speak in a later season.
Thelma, Maya, and Tom, Hex
While I’ve never personally seen the show, it is unique in that of the four canonically queer characters the show has, all of them are dead! Although death is not a permanent end in the Hex universe, with many of the characters appearing as ghosts. Thelma is introduced as the main character’s lesbian best friend, but she is quickly murdered by a demon. At her funeral, the priest talks about how Thelma’s death was because she so “individual” as a person that it left her isolated and alone. Lovely.
Maya is introduced later as a woman killed by the villain to give Thelma a girlfriend. Thelma and Maya quickly hit it off, but because the villain has been keeping tabs on the good guys through Maya, the main character is forced to kill her. Thelma is of course upset.
Tom is killed at the hands of the man he fancies within an episode of being identified as gay.
In March of 2016, The 100 took a turn for the worse (as far as queer fans are concerned) when on-again off-again lovers Clarke and Lexa’s relationship was forever changed when Lexa was killed. It was particularly hard to accept when Clarke and Lexa had just consummated and had made efforts to repair their relationship. Leading an entire clan can get stressful on a young woman’s nerves, and Lexa’s death did nothing to help Clarke.
Fans on social media made a rallying cry in refusal of Lexa’s death. They argued Lexa’s death was for little more reason than to culminate angst in Clarke. Lexa was also one of six lesbian and bisexual women killed in mainstream television during the 2015-2016 schedule.
A group of women, many of whom work on the Canadian medical drama Saving Hope started #TheLexaPledge in honor of the character of Lexa. The hashtag was started by Noelle Carbone, Sonia Hosko, Gina Tass and Michelle Mama. They argued for and created a list of rules that they themselves vowed to follow and be held accountable for in their representation of queer characters in television. They also encouraged other show-runners and producers to adopt their rules, and hold themselves and each other accountable in order to ensure LGBTQ+ people are accurately represented in a way that doesn’t involve their only form of representation being killed off to further the plot.
In addition to their vows to ensure that queer characters are not killed off to further to plot of straight ones, and promising to consult sources within the LGBT community such as The Trevor Project, the promises made under #TheLexaPledge banner vow to ensure that fans are never baited or misled through social media or any other outlet, as well as “[to] ensure the queer community is properly and fairly represented on T.V.”
It’s not just in television either. Lynn, a minor character in Insurgent, comes out of the closet after being fatally wounded. Christian Nation features a televised stoning of a gay character, the bombing of Castro, a predominantly gay neighborhood in San Francisco, and the execution of a gay married couple during a wedding. The Book of Lost Things features gay knight Roland trying to uncover what happened to his lover Raphael. Raphael is of course dead, and Roland goes to join him once he discovers this.
We must of course consider the impact we’re making when gay characters are dying en masse on our television screens, in our books, and in film and art. Understandably gay characters aren’t the only characters who die, but predominantly their deaths feel meaningless.
Whether consciously or not, our consumption of film, television, and literature that perpetuates the idea that all gay characters die, or all gay characters end up unhappy. We’re living in a post-modern era, and we are also creating art and media that can break free from these ideals. We can show gay characters who end up happy, who have loving and lasting relationships. We can demand those things of producers of media now. And of course not all media perpetuates these notions. There are very good pieces of media that showcase wonderful portrayals of queer relationships between people who are neither dead nor unhappy.
Can we trust television’s writers and producers to make change when we ourselves do not hold them accountable? #TheLexaPledge hashtag united many fans under one banner and paved the way for a list of guidelines to be presented. In order to ensure that real change happens, we as the fans and consumers of media must be willing and able to say “I will no longer accept unnecessary queer death in media,” and understanding the difference between a well-thought out plot for a queer character, and one that perpetuates stereotypes and the toxic “Bury Your Gays” trope.
As the saying goes, be the change you want to see in the world.
Bury Your Gays – TV Tropes.
Shilts, Randy And the Band Played On.
Austen, Roger (1977). Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America (1st ed.). Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. ISBN 978-0-672-52287-1.
#TheLexaPledge Could Change the Future of Lesbian and Bisexual Representation on T.V. The Mary Sue.
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