Q&A

How Can I Avoid Burying My Gays?

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Hi, I love this blog and the podcast and have really appreciated how much information you present on the craft of writing and also how it has helped me make sure that my writing isn’t unintentionally offensive or not inclusive.

My question is actually about the latter point. In an urban fantasy story that I am working on, there are two pretty prominent female supporting characters who are involved in a long-term monogamous relationship. Their relationship isn’t really a major plot point, but like any character, it is part of who they are. In the course of the story, one of them dies. That is a pretty important plot element, and the death is important to a lot of events that happen in the later part of the story.

Is there any way to have that not fall under the “bury your gays” trope? I don’t want to play into a harmful pattern in storytelling, but at the same time, this is a death that is really important to the plot.

Any answer to that would be so awesome and helpful. Thank you.

Again, you all are great.

-Clair

Hey Clair, glad you’re enjoying the site!

I’m also glad you’re considering problematic tropes like burying your gays. We need more storytellers who think about this sort of thing when writing.

Full disclosure: avoiding this trope can be a little tricky, as its definition is a little blurry around the edges, even within the queer storytelling community. The only 100% sure way avoid is to not kill queer characters.

You’ve already said that this death is critical to the plot, so another option would be to change these characters’ relationship to something other than romantic love, and make some other secondary characters queer instead.

If that doesn’t work for you, there are a few things you can do to make it less likely your story will be viewed as burying its gays:

1: Make sure there are other queer characters around, particularly queer characters of the same orientation as the dead character. You’re looking at a lesbian couple here, so it likely won’t be enough to have a gay male couple in the story as well, especially since lesbian characters in particular have a cliché of not getting to be happy.

2: Give the character a heroic death. Another big factor in this trope is the image of a queer (most often lesbian) character dying tragically in her partners’ arms, with a death that didn’t really accomplish anything. If the character dies saving a planet from destruction or destroying an evil artifact, that will help a lot.

3: Just as importantly, give the character agency in her death. Just like queer deaths are often pointless, it’s very common for the character to be going about their day when suddenly they get killed by a seemingly random event outside of their control. If they choose the path that leads to their death, they feel more like characters in their own right.

4: Do everything you can to make it not look like Tara’s death in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That scene is perhaps the most famous example of a story burying its gays, and references to it can draw up unpleasant memories.

Finally, be aware that none of these recommendations are an entirely reliable solution. Even if you do everything “right,” sometimes the reaction to a queer character’s death is more about broad media trends than the specific events of a story. Something that might be fine in a vacuum can still create negative feelings if it’s part of a bigger trend.

Hope that helps answer your question!

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Comments

  1. Brigitta M.

    For those of us (about 3 or 4 people on this site probably) who haven’t seen “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in an ice age could you cover what was specifically problematic about Tara’s death? Or maybe just a link to where it is discussed so we (and by we, I means specifically “me”) can avoid this issue in a more thoughtful way?

    Thanks.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      As I understand it, in a vacuum Tara’s death is a standard issue burying of gays. It takes one of the few queer characters in a show of mostly straight characters and kills her, even though this is a show were very few major characters actually die. She has no agency in her death, she’s not even related to the events that ultimately cause it.

      What makes that scene more notable than other cases of the same trope is the context. For all its flaws, Buffy was one of the first big shows to give us a loving, complex relationship between two women. Fans loved it. We’d just finished a long arc of them splitting up, then getting back together.

      Then Tara is brutally killed, shot in a show that normally pretends guns don’t exist, and all of that was taken away. It certainly wasn’t the first time people noticed that gay characters were likely to be sacrificed, but it helped crystallize that awareness.

      • Tifa

        Very well said, Oren. My thoughts exactly.

      • Leon

        Tara’s death was what pushed Willow over the edge. I can’t remember all of the details but Tara and Willow were very happy, and I can’t imagine Willow going dark side if Tara was still about.
        How would you have handled it differently?

      • Leon

        The point of Tara’s death is that it is pointless. That’s what pushes Willow toward that existential event horizon.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        If I were in charge of Buffy Season Six, I wouldn’t have done Dark Willow at all. It was a weird storyline that never really worked. If I had to find a way to make Willow go dark, I’d have found something else to push her over the edge. If it had to be a character death, I’d have killed Xander. He’s Willow’s best friend, his death would work just as well.

        • Leon

          Is there anything about Buffy that isn’t weird?

  2. Adam Reynolds

    Spoilers for Person of Interest season 5

    So one example that largely follows this advice(except for #1) was Person of Interest, in which the character Root was killed just after being reunited with Shaw. The thing about this pairing is that it occurred organically, almost entirely due to the excellent chemistry between Amy Acker and Sarah Shahi. The fact that the couple were kept apart was also due to Sarah Shahi’s pregnancy that caused her to be written out of the latter half of season 4, which put the brakes on the relationship just as it was getting started. It is almost certainly the case that Root’s fate was intended while her relationship with Shaw was not.

    Root as a character is loosely similar to Zuko in that she starts as an antagonist who eventually becomes a hero. The difference is that she was much more willing to commit immoral acts herself knowing that it was wrong, without quite the same justification as Zuko. Root herself understands that she would never be able to ride off into the sunset, and there is an element of tragedy to their relationship from the beginning. She also gets her greatest desire, as The Machine takes on her voice as its own, giving her a sense of morality.

    Anyway, despite all of that, from what I saw many fans were still devastated. So I’m not sure you can pull this off regardless of how well you try it.

  3. Jimbo Slice

    The way I see it, an important character who had a relationship died. The gay part is practically window dressing by comparison. Death doesn’t get picky, so why should you?

    • Cay Reet

      Because ‘Bury Your Gays’ is a very damaging trope. In the past, gay characters weren’t allowed to have a happy ending and were usually killed off before the end of the story (and with one character in a gay relationship being killed off, you can pretty much guarantee that the second one doesn’t have a happy ending, either). It’s important not to make the death of a gay character, when actually part of the plot, seem like a simple rehash of that trope.

      • Armando M

        I think the point Jimbo is conveying is similar to how i see it.
        Everyone dies, and the “don’t bury your gays” is a trope of “positive discrimination” that by itself separates the gay characters. In the end if many characters die and one of them is gay i don’t see the problem with that.
        “Positive discrimination” is still discrimination in itself, in the particular case Clair presents the question i would have is how the character being gay does affect the story since she was killed. Because for what i could get from her description i would advise “Go for it”, particularly if she can use points 1 (where it can balance the representation), or even more so point 4 of Oren’s Advise where the idea is not fixate on the gay part and focus on the human side; as Jimbo said “an important character who had a relationship died” and we should all mourn her regardless of orientation.

        • Cay Reet

          I agree with you that an important character death is always an important character death. A lot of deaths of gay characters, however (even if they are important), are often seen as a ‘bury your gays’ thing. That’s why it’s not easy to just say ‘go for it’ in this case.

  4. Dom

    As one of the gays, I think the safes bet is to take option number 3 and just give your character’s death some agency, which should be done for most/all of your characters.

    Of course, sometimes in life, people just die and it sucks, so a death with no agency can work in certain genres and certain situations.

    But really, if a main character is going to die, I think it’s important for them to die for a good reason, regardless of them being gay or straight. It sounds like Clair here has a pretty good reason for the death, so I’d say go for it.

    Yes, in the back of my head, I’m already feeling that obligatory lament over a gay character dying (especially one in a presummably happy relationship), but every writer doesn’t need to fear killing off a minority character just because the media does an awful job showing representation.

    But, every writer most certainly should strive to be as fair as possible when their writing actually is showing representation for minority groups.

  5. Tifa

    I found this video about what is and what is not queer-bating quite interesting.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8amFT1g1-o

  6. gfox

    no offense meant to anyone, but this “bury your gays” thing is kiiiiinda dumb. i mean, what difference is there that the dead character was straight or lgbt+? i’m gonna get my comment deleted aren’t i? f*** it. could you care to explain how gay people dying is problematic but straights dying is not? Another thing you bring up: death not accomplishing anything. in most stories, character death ALWAYS has some greater narrative purpose.
    Another thing: the “dying heroically” thing you mentioned. People die. some people die gloriously and heroically and others don’t. Get over it (this applies to all characters *cough cough* spoiler for TLOU2 *cough cough*)

    • Cay Reet

      Representation. Usually, there’s one or two gay characters in a story but several more straight ones. If you kill that one gay character, there’s none left. If you kill one of five or so straight characters with bigger parts, there’s still some left.

      In addition, there’s the history of the Hayes code which essentially forced movie makers to kill gay or gay-coded characters, because they were not allowed to have a happy ending. Every time a gay character is buried, it adds to the long list of gay characters killed for, essentially, being gay. It should go without saying that killing a gay character for being gay sends the wrong kind of message.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Editor’s Note: I’m leaving this comment up for now as a possible learning experience. Cay’s done a good job covering the basics already. It’s both a numbers game and dealing with the implication so many stories have that queer characters can only be destined for tragedy. If anyone wants to know more about the Bury Your Gays trope, we talk about it in Six Signs Your Story is Queerphobic. TV Tropes also has a good page explaining this trope.

      • Arix

        There is one thing I do wonder about this trope, although I’m not going to be as needlessly aggressive about it as gfox.

        First of all, no, I’m not a neurotypical cishet white dude, so I’m not approaching this from that angle. Thing is, as far as I see it, the ultimate goal of representation and diversity in media is normalisation. It’s not about making a big deal about alternate behaviours/lifestyles/conditions/what have you, it’s about reaching a point where they are just another part of society, something that nobody thinks twice about. And that normalisation, pretty much by definition, cannot possibly come about as long as we’re treated differently in media, regardless of whether that treatment is positive or negative. As long as such characters are treated differently because of these traits, we’re going to be seen differently by society.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Normalization is actually the point. As Cay Reet has mentioned, we’re still dealing with the aftermath of queer characters being automatically destined for tragedy. The push back against this trope is meant to correct that imbalance, as well as the imbalance in the total number of queer characters in popular stories.

          • Arix

            That’s exactly my point. If the ultimate goal is normalisation, shouldn’t we not be encouraging writers to treat these characters differently based on these traits? Of course they shouldn’t “automatically” be destined for tragedy, but nor should they automatically be exempt from it. I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but I know that on the rare occasions I see myself represented in a character, I don’t want them to have their own special plot armour because of it. I want them to be treated as any other member of the cast, subject to the same risks and challenges as any other. And I know I’m not the only one – a close friend of mine and I have had a few good talks on the matter, and she feels the same way. I’m not saying that everyone in our position feels the same, but there are definitely those of us who do. I guess that like all things, it depends on how it’s handled, and the risk of doing it badly is just too great that it’s best not to try?

  7. Bellis

    An idea I had while reading this q&a was to give the surviving partner a happy and meaningful sapphic relationship later on. This way, at least one of them gets to live happily ever after and you also have a sapphic relationship that “lives” happily ever after. This would be in addition to the other points Oren gave in the article!

    Not that this is bulletproof, it depends on how much time there is between this character death and the end of the book, whether the surviving character can build a new relationship after grieving her partner’s loss that still feels organic and meaningful and not like a consolation prize or tacked-on. (As I vaguely remember, Willow got a new girlfriend after Tara’s death, but that relationship wasn’t meaningful or memorable so it didn’t do anything to make Tara’s death less painful.)

    As for a number of commentators who question why avoiding the “bury your gays” trope is even necessary: think of the analogy of the m&m’s bowl.
    Imagine there’s a candy bowl and it gets filled bit by bit over time. There are many colours of m&m’s, but the only ones who get to go in the bowl are all yellow ones. No other colour gets to go in or be presented to an audience. After a couple of centuries, people’s complaints about this are finally heard. There, we put in a single red m&m! Happy now? Isn’t this equality?
    Well, no… The bowl is still overwhelmingly full of only one colour and it has been for centuries. All this isn’t undone by a single good representation. Even if we really started only putting in new m&m’s randomly without favouring the yellow ones (which is not what is being done) it would still take generations for the bowl as a whole to be a good mix.

    To bring it back to sapphic (or queer in general) representation in fiction, it is still extremely difficult to think of even a handful of actually happily-ever-after explicitly sapphic relationships even now. The biggest media producers often have none whatsoever, not even for supporting roles (or when was the last time you saw a lesbian Disney princess?).
    Heteros have happy couples all the time and had them for centuries and have a huge backlog of old stories to go to where without even trying, they’ll almost always get a representation of a happy hetero couple (usually more than one!) who both get to live past the end of the story. This is definitely still not the case for sapphic or other queer characters and relationships and it won’t be for a long time. But it will never be the case unless storytellers intentionally try to make up for this unjust history. Because injustices like this that have gone on for generations don’t just go away without intentional effort put into changing things.

    • SunlessNick

      Well put. In the case of Tara, I’d also add that her death immediately followed her reconciliation with Willow and their most explicit (outside of a male character’s fantasy vision) sexual and romantic depiction.

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