Spoiler for The Picture of Dorian Gray??? (But Is it really a spoiler though if it came out in 1890????)
Spoiler for season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season three of Glee.
Trigger warning: mention of suicide, homophobia, gun violence
At the age of 24, I don’t even come close to being able to literally identify with the people who’ve pioneered the LGBTQ+ rights movement. But this summer, as I was working as a nonfiction counsellor at TYWI’s summer camp, I could not stop thinking about how fast LGBTQ+ rights have changed in the last decade.
On average, I was about 10 years older than the campers and I couldn’t help but reflect what an incredibly different world it is that they’re growing up in. And I love it. It blows my mind that I can just scroll through Netflix and see more than two options. If my LGBTQ+ friends wanted to see some representation when I was in high school, our options were basically just reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Brokeback Mountain, or RENT. And if we were really gluttons for punishment, Glee. If one of us were lucky enough to have accepting (cool) parents who paid for the Showtime network, we could sneak in a couple episodes of The L Word while studying after school. While they were absolutely groundbreaking at the time, LGBTQ+ characters suffered miserably. Though Glee is cheery compared to Brokeback Mountain, I just cannot stand the convoluted plots Ryan Murphy comes up with.
But that’s not the point. The point is that LGBTQ+ media has come so far in the last decade. Tara and Willow’s characters in Buffy were one of the first (if not the first) mainstream TV show to show a gay kiss in 2001, only to have Tara murdered by a stray bullet in the next season. In 2011, New York became the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage. If you turned on the TV that year, you’d see that Glee was in its third season, and had a character forcibly outed as gay, resulting in an on-screen suicide attempt that rocked me to my core. But it’s 2021, and I can go to Disney+ and see Luz and Amity in The Owl House, a children’s cartoon, going on an adorable date. If Tara and Willow were crawling towards gay rights, Luz and Amity are propelling into hyperspace.
I can’t even begin to describe how amazing it is that media is finally beginning to steer away from the kill your gays trope.
The kill your gays trope is also often referred to as bury your gays. It is the trope that typically says that if a character is confirmed LGBTQ+, they will die at some point. Sometimes it’s used as a “plot twist,” or it seems like a lazy way to add drama. This trope has almost become a way to say that begging LGBTQ+ is synonymous with a life of despair, that your happiness comes with a strict time limit and conditions.
When we look at the historical lens of LGBTQ+ characters, there is a consistent pattern of death and violence. But it isn’t just TV and movies. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) is generally considered to be a catalyst of this trope. In Wilde’s novel, though highly censored in its initial publication (one chapter at a time in a literary magazine), featured two characters with so much homoerotic subtext that even after blacking out tons of dialogue, the publisher received incredible amounts of hate mail. Maybe this is why the main character kills himself as the novel’s last chapter was published, months after publishing began. Only relatively recently was the complete uncensored version released, and yes, it’s overtly gay. I mean, when a man says to another man: “It is quite true I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend. Somehow I have never loved a woman…. From the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me,” that’s not just guys being dudes. But there is no happy ending. It seems that as soon as something even remotely gay is confirmed, the character is killed off. Heteronormative society is pleased once more in knowing that there isn’t a gay character that they have to pay attention to.
The kill your gays trope seems to have originated from a need to assimilate. In the 1800s, life was objectively bad for everyone, unless you happened to be lucky enough to be born into nobility. Even long before Wilde’s time, the humanist movement of the renaissance saw for once, a value of art, philosophy, and creativity: under the exception that it was socially acceptable and didn’t break the rules of society. I’m tired of seeing art with an asterisk. Art shapes culture and culture shapes how we feel. LGBTQ+ creators telling stories where their characters are unapologetically themselves feels so radical to me. It blows my mind that there is a new generation of LGBTQ+ kids coming into the world where these are the only stories they know.
Without a doubt, the creation of the Hays Code in 1934 helped shape this trope in TV/movies. The code was a strict set of censorship rules prohibiting anything that the Motion Picture Association of America deemed immoral: including sexual perversion, which to William Hays, meant anything from interracial couples to living LGBTQ+ people. The Hays Code believed that the media should show morals: so if a character was acting immorally they would be punished. And so kill your gays was literally written in stone. Because being LGBTQ+ was “an immoral behavior,” it needed to be punished. A violent character’s death would show the audience that this type of activity would not be tolerated in society.
The Hays Code was not explicitly written for books, but books and media have always been intertwined. When Stephanie Meyer wrote Twilight, suddenly vampires were the big thing everywhere. Similar patterns followed with The Hunger Games and dystopian girl dramas. Books are a part of the popular culture that shapes us. So it isn’t hard to draw a pattern between LGBTQ+ censorship in novels while the Hays Code was in its prime. Underground books came in defiance of these rules in the 1950s, gay pulp fiction novels, but they were riddled with problems and often portrayed the very rules they fought against.
Even though I rag on Ryan Murphy for his bizarre plots, there is no doubt in my mind that he created something revolutionary with Glee based on the simple fact that LGBTQ+ characters were allowed to live, get married, be proud — have a happy ending. This isn’t to say authors can’t kill off their characters: your book, your choice. But historical context is so important, and when LGBTQ+ characters have a history of oppression and strict censorship, something so simple as being allowed to live feels like the radical middle-finger defiance that I long for.
is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. When she isn't writing, she's reading and working on her bullet journal. You can read more of her work at ashaswann.com