Hey lovely readers! Today I want to talk about writing better LGBTQ characters by understanding a major trope to avoid. It’s called “Burying your gays,” and it’s Real Bad. Let’s look at this trope in action so we can understand what not to do.
Below are major spoilers for the game “Life is Strange” and for the shows “The 100” and “Buffy.”
Let’s start by defining some quick terms, so we’re all on the same page:
WLW – Women who Love Women. An umbrella term for lesbian, bisexual, and pansexual women.
Queer women – See above.
Burying Your Gays – a horrible, overused trope where gay characters are killed off randomly, brutally, and often right after they’ve finally found happiness. [TV Tropes link.]
So! I just played through the Square Enix game Life is Strange, and I was entirely delighted in the beginning. You play as Max, a high school senior in a cute coastal town, taking photos and solving mysteries via time travel.
What’s even better is that the main two characters, Max and Chloe, are queer women. It’s left up to player interpretation if they are bi or gay, but since Chloe at one point literally calls boys, “gross,” and says that no one but her is good enough for Max, my personal interpretation is that she’s a lesbian who’s still in the process of figuring that out.
Anyway! In the first few episodes of Life is Strange, you have this sweet story about these two childhood friends reuniting and having adventures. They watch the sunset together overlooking the ocean, they walk along train tracks and reminisce about their shared childhood, and they go for a midnight swim after breaking into the school pool.
While these aren’t the best life choices, the game shows a genuine and sweet relationship that develops between the two. Aside from a lot of flirting, however, and a brief kiss as a result of a dare, Chloe and Max never acknowledge their feelings for each other out loud. That is, until Chloe’s about to die. (I said major spoilers, didn’t I?)
The climax of Life is Strange involves Max and Chloe standing in front of a hurricane that’s about to wreck their town. Max is given the choice to either save the town, or to save Chloe. For arbitrary and nonsensical reasons, Max can’t do both.
Yes, you heard that right. Our lesbian MC either has to choose between saving her best friend/long lost love, or saving an entire town of people. The “right” choice here is meant to be obvious: you’re meant to sacrifice the one to save the many.
If you choose the “right” ending (to save the town) you travel back in time, watch Chloe bleed out on a bathroom floor, and choose do nothing about it (for the greater good, apparently.) If you choose to save Chloe, the two of you wait out the storm and then drive off together into the sunset. Nothing is acknowledged or talked through, including the fact that you just let everyone else in the town die.
More conspicuously, in the ending where you save Chloe, Max and Chloe never discuss their feelings for each other, and the game doesn’t end on a kiss.
Guess when the game does end on a kiss, though?
That’s right, you guessed it! When the lesbian is about to die. More specifically, when one queer woman is forced to choose between saving the woman she loves, or a saving an entire town full of people.
If Max chooses to save the town, letting Chloe die, you get a passionate kiss from Chloe (finally!) before, well, going back in time and watching her slowly bleed to death as you do nothing to stop it.
Which is bullshit.
From a storytelling angle, I do understand wanting to save all the Big Emotional Moments for the climax, but here’s the thing: not all storylines are created equal.
For a cishet love story to end that way might be interesting, because there are a million happy cishet love stories out there. A single sad ending for one heteronormative couple is a drop in the bucket compared to the massive amounts of happy stories to be easily found.
But queer love stories are few and far between, and they almost always end in tragedy. “Burying your gays” isn’t revolutionary, but giving them happy endings is. And if you can’t give them that, at least give them happy lives before they die.
In Life is Strange, Max and Chloe only ever kiss/confess their love if you make the choice to sacrifice Chloe. That’s right folks; in order to have the “happy ending” of the two characters getting together, one of them has to watch the other die.
In a world where queer relationships are tested at every turn, that’s NOT the message the LGBTQ comunity needs. The message that finding love will only end in death? We’ve heard it. We’ve heard it from The 100, where Lexa dies literally minutes after finally consummating her relationship with the woman she’s loved and for several seasons. (Also, she dies from a stray bullet, not in battle like she would have wanted to, as the leader of a warrior people.)
We’ve heard it from Buffy, where Tara is killed- again by a stray bullet – seconds after reuniting with the love of her life. Willow and Tara’s long awaited, loving reunion is also Tara’s death scene.
Are you seeing a pattern? In popular media, the message is, “If two women are happy together, one or both of them will die.”
Would these few examples be as big of an issue if there were hundreds of other happy, living queer women in media? Of course not. But are there hundreds of other examples of happy, living queer women in media? Nope. Not at all.
To bring this all back to Life is Strange: as a queer woman myself, I was delighted to play through this game, and watch as two reunited friends figure out what they meant to each other.
Then, once I was entirely invested, I was crushed to realize that there was no possible happy ending. Really, the “happiest” ending possible involves a confession of true love and a kiss…immediately followed by a lesbian dying via (you guessed it!) a bullet.
Taken on its own, I do love Life is Strange. I’ve read several theories on the meaning behind it, and, taken in a vacuum, I can appreciate the story for what it is.
But I don’t exist in a vacuum. I exist in a world where I lost my entire support system when I came out. I live in a world where my parents disowned me and kicked me out of the house, even though I didn’t have the ability to work due to disability. And in that world? I don’t need a reminder of the fragility of life. I need a reminder that love matters, and can save the day.
An important end note: Every piece of media in this article is severely lacking in other areas of representation as well. Joss Whedon’s work is well known for its racism and misogyny; The 100 treats its characters of color atrociously, and Life is Strange barely contains any characters of color at all. All of which are unacceptable.
Additionally, none of these pieces of media contain a single trans or disabled character. White, ablebodied cisgender gays are the often the only LGBTQ characters make it into popular media at all. Which again, is unacceptable.
So before I end I want to also acknowledge that there’s a lot more work to be done. The LGBTQ community should be as diverse on screen as it is in real life, and true representation must include trans characters, characters of color, and disabled characters to be complete.
To that end, if you’re a minority author or artist, leave a comment below so we can connect! Tell me about what you’re making, and what inspired you to make it. Heck, shamelessly self promote your latest project, and leave a link to your website.
I’m dedicating my energy to creating original works with diverse heroes, and I’m seeking out others who do the same. So say hello in the comments and let’s learn how we can support each other.
Winter Morrison is a queer disabled indie author. They’re writing a YA fantasy series about about lesbian faeries and first loves. Subscribe in the sidebar for updates!