The Bury Your Gays Trope

Why Cinema Killed Her Queer Darlings

by Lily Hannigan

Shows like Heartstopper and Sex Education could make us forget there was ever a time when LGBTQ+ people struggled to see themselves on screen. In a bygone era, baby gays would take to beta internet forums to discuss vague hints at homoeroticism, or sit through five series of a 4/10 drama for a three-episode arc where a character ‘experiments’ with their sexuality. Now, it feels more irksome when writers miss the opportunity to overtly define a character as queer, and even Velma from Scooby Doo has come out of the closet.

image of a woman looking out of the frame in a gold jacket, taken from the film A Fantastic Woman

Still from A Fantastic Woman (2017) directed by Sebastián Lelio.

GLAAD’s most recent study into LGBTQ+ representation found that 18.6% of films from major studios featured at least one LGBTQ+ identified character. However, despite consistently referring to ‘an increase in LGBTQ+ representation,’ when you dig into the data, it turns out NONE of the 118 films GLAAD surveyed included a trans-identified character. Rather, 68% of the examples featured gay men; 36% lesbian women; 14% bisexual people and 0% featured trans people. So, while trans people have made appearances in award-winning feature films and TV productions of late – eg. A Fantastic Woman (2017), Tangerine (2015), Pose (2018-2021) – the nature and frequency of this representation leave much to be desired. 

And even in this rainbow age for film and TV, regressive tropes from bygone eras will occasionally rear their heads. Significant amongst these is the ‘bury your gays’ trope, aka ‘dead lesbian syndrome,’ aka screenwriters killing off, or disappearing, queer characters. 

The 'Bury Your Gays' trope explained

The phrase ‘bury your gays’ has been used by literary and film critics, but it seems to be both more prevalent and more problematic on screen. It refers to the frequency with which gay and lesbian characters come to untimely deaths, generally after a brief, sensationalised or melodramatic storyline. 

The subtext is that the presumed-heterosexual audience can only maintain an interest in gay characters for two and a half episodes before getting itchy feet. After that, you can only imagine that writers’ rooms go silent as they wonder what to do with their freshly gay creations until someone says ‘we could always kill one off and push the other into the background until everyone forgets this ever happened?’ and everyone nods in agreement. 

At least, that’s true of Tara’s death in Buffy. And Jack in Brokeback Mountain. And Marissa in The OC. And Pauli in Lost and Delirious. And Brandon in Boys Don’t Cry (admittedly based on a true story – more on that shortly). Other examples of the trope sit outside of this paradigm but still provoke strong reactions from audience members. Poussey’s death in Orange is the New Black and Dana’s early death from breast cancer in The L Word being amongst them. Though the scenarios vary, the fact remains that killing off LGBTQ+ characters is a thing. And queer audiences are tired of having their lives reduced to trauma, brutality and suffering.   

still from Brokeback Mountain, featuring the two gay male main characters; one lying in the grass, the other standing with a rifle

Still from Brokeback Mountain (2005) directed by Ang Lee.

It’s a trope that comes in multiple forms and has changed its shape over the last century of cinema, in-line with changes in censorship rules and society more broadly. But these may not be the only reasons LGBTQ+ characters have a shorter ‘shelf life’ than their straight counterparts. Whether it’s the fault of TV executives who fail to see that gay characters can add depth to a show without their sexuality provoking damaging repercussions. Or the appeal of sensational tragic stories, both in and outside of the queer community. Or the fact that many queers have, in reality, been subject to untimely deaths, whether through murder, suicide or the AIDS crisis, it’s undeniable that if you’re an actor in a queer role, you might be out on your ear sooner than you thought.

A (very) brief history of censorship in Hollywood

In the early days of cinema, there weren’t any censorship laws specific to the medium. 1920s movies rarely featured queer characters, but sex, nudity and sensuality did proliferate – at least until moralists, puritans and the Catholic Church began to condemn Hollywood, and movie tycoons began to fear for their profits. 

To make a show of clearing up their act, the Motion Picture Association devised the Hays code, a set of regulations to ‘help’ filmmakers understand what was and was not acceptable on screen. The Hays code was officially in place until the 1960s, but its influence seems to have been more enduring.  

Among the long list of restricted material in the Hays code are ‘lustful kissing,’ ‘childbirth’ and ‘venereal diseases.’ The guidelines around race are even more shocking, with interracial relationships also being ruled unfit for screen. Crucially for what would become the bury your gays phenomenon, ‘sexual perversion [read: GAY] or any inference to it is forbidden.’ 

The queer-coded Mrs Danvers and the protagonist of Hitchcock adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca

Still from Rebecca (1940) directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

The implication of this was twofold. First of all, telling stories about or including explicitly gay characters at all puts filmmakers in danger of receiving sanctions, not getting funding or not having their films shown by picture houses. The Celluloid Closet, a documentary that explores the link between the Hays code and LGBTQ+ representation more fully, cites three adaptations of novels about gay issues, where any trace of homosexuality is simply written out. 

If films did feature queer, or possibly queer characters, puritanism, they were forced to make significant concessions. This could mean ‘queer coded’ characters were intentionally unsympathetic, like the vampiric and cruel Mrs Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, eerily obsessed with her diseased mistress. Or it could mean creating characters that are so repulsed by their sexuality that they are driven to self-destruction, like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof who obliterates his mind with drink, or Martha in The Children’s Hour who feels ‘so sick and dirty’ for being in love with another woman that she hangs herself. 

Tragedy and queer characters on screen

The bury your gays trope is fundamentally tragic. Right at the point the lovers come together, they are doomed to fall apart. To have one or both lovers perish at the apex of their happiness, allows the relationship to remain perfect in its cut-off potentiality – there’s a reason Romeo and Juliette is still put on four centuries after it was written. 

Shirley Maclaine and Audrey Hepburn in The Children's Hour; they two leads sit together with faces stricken by concern

Still from The Children’s Hour (1961) directed by William Wyler.

It’s possible that there’s a part of queer culture that needs to see these tragic narratives writ large on screen. Things are getting better for LGBTQ+ people, but we are still subject to exclusion, rejection and contempt; sometimes by society and sometimes by those closest to us. This version of the bury your gays trope, typified by Brokeback Mountain, Lost and Delirious and The Children’s Hour transmutes the pain of those very real, messy experiences and turns them into something beautiful, structured and (potentially) cathartic. 

The reality of death in the LGBTQ+ community

From hate crimes to suicide rates to AIDS, sadly, there are reasons that stories about trans, gay and lesbian people throughout history have higher mortality rates.

Whether films about the AIDS crisis properly fit the bury your gays trope is debatable. In the 1980s LGBTQ+ people (predominantly, but not exclusively, gay and bisexual men, and trans women) died in their thousands. People whose social lives revolved around the gay scene lost whole circles of friends, lovers and acquaintances.

film still of Al Pacino in HBO's 2003 adaptation of the play Angels in America

Still from HBO’s adaptation of Angels in America (2003) directed by Mike Nichols.

Angels in America, It’s a Sin, and the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague do not sensationalise queer trauma; they are only representing the brutal reality of the AIDS pandemic. If anything, this horrific and recent episode of queer history is actually underrepresented on screen. But in some films set in the 1980s, where AIDS isn’t central to the plot, the threat of the disease surfaces momentarily, such as in 2012’s Pride, a feel-good retelling of the unlikely collaboration between striking Welsh miners, and a collection of London-based gay rights activists.

Brutality and homicide in queer cinema

The 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry is less cut and dry in its portrayal of trans man Brandon Teena, who was raped and murdered in real life, six years before the movie was made. Whether the movie was a net good for trans men or not is still debated today amongst critics and trans activists.

still of Brandon Taylor and love interest played by Chloe Sevigny in 1999 film Boys Don't Cry

Still from Boys Don’t Cry (1999) directed by Kimberly Peirce.

Reviewers at the time described Teena as a ‘self-hating lesbian,’ damaging rhetoric that gender-critical types are still spouting. And when Swank was awarded an Oscar for best actress, it was for her portrayal ‘a boy – a girl living as a boy – in Nebraska,’ the announcer spluttering over his introduction, rather than for Swank’s portrayal of a trans man.

Boys Don’t Cry cemented Teena’s life in cinema history, drawing global attention to the harsh realities of living as a trans man or gender non-conforming woman. Nevertheless, the film continues to divide audiences over whether it does a net good for the LGBTQ+ community. Trans men have been allowed even less airtime than trans women. Detractors of Boys Don’t Cry are left frustrated that the first feature film devoted to the live of a trans man was played by a cis Hollywood actress, that the film was ambiguous about Teena’s identity, and that the first story of a trans man to hit the big screen culminates in his being degraded in the most dehumanising way imaginable.

Similarly, Orange is The New Black includes a host of queer characters. But that didn’t stop viewers from recoiling when much-loved black lesbian character Poussey was brutally murdered by a prison officer. The death itself heavily referenced the murder of Eric Garner by white police officers two years before the show aired. Both Garner and Poussey died by suffocation, saying ‘I can’t breathe,’ while being held down by uniformed white authority figures. Critics derided Orange is The New Black for exploiting this recent and traumatic event for shock value. And given the gut-wrenching similarity between these deaths – one real and one constructed – with the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

Is all representation good representation?

In decades gone by, some gay rights activists believed in the representation of LGBT people at any cost – whether that meant falling on reductive stereotypes or existing only to support straight heroines (a role unbeatably fulfilled by Stanley Tucci in Devil Wears Prada, a film in which no one dies).

We hope our deep dive into death in queer films and TV hasn’t left you feeling depressed! If you’re interested in musings like this on queer and feminist history, we urge you to follow us on Instagram and sign-up to our mailing list via the link below.