Recently, I’ve been thinking about the nature of LGBTQ+ literature. It was prompted somewhat by the recent controversy over the treatment of Lexa in The 100, and the resurgence of posts by bloggers I follow about the ‘Bury Your Gays’ (or ‘Bury Your Queers’ — I’ve seen both used, and tend to opt for that because I find it a bit more inclusive, although I know some people aren’t comfortable with the term) trope.
My friend Engie’s post No More Dead Lesbians is a good intro to the scale of this issue and the nature of the topic itself, so you might want to read that before you come back here.
I was trying to explain to my mum why the dead lesbian trope is so problematic, when she’s fully aware that I like to kill characters a lot and am not a huge fan of happy endings. Then I started thinking about why, exactly, it’s so common for queer characters to be miserable, and how much of that is due to moralistic writing and how much is about something deeper. Then I started thinking about how to blogify all those feelings, while suffering from jetlag.
And now I’m going to attempt to do that, but I warn you that it might not be very coherent. We were sitting directly in front of a squalling child on the plane, so didn’t sleep at all. Bear with me — my train of thought might derail in places.
LGBTQ books with happy endings are a rarity. LGBTQ stories with happy endings are a rarity in all forms of media — in TV shows, as in books and films, they’re often brutally killed just as they were finding some kind of fulfilment (I’m looking at you, Buffy and The 100 and countless others). While not everybody wants fairy tale endings, sometimes all you want is to know that they exist.
I’ve literally created a shelf on Goodreads called “unbury your queers” to keep track of the LGBTQ books I read where the queer characters live to the end, and even that was a modification from my original plan to shelve only the truly happy endings.
The fact is that it’s still extremely rare to find LGBTQ books for children. While we’re telling fairytales where everything ends happily ever after, good triumphs over evil, and the princess finds her prince, we’re giving kids happy stories… but you rarely hear about the princess who would rather marry another princess, or the prince who isn’t in the least bit interested in kissing anyone.
Society on the whole chooses to sexualise LGBTQ relationships and ideas. In the past, the idea of homosexuality etc as perversion increased the sexual element; even in this more enlightened age, you have people who think that seeing two men kissing is less appropriate for children than seeing a straight couple, and ‘how will we explain this to the kids’ is seen as a valid argument against gay marriage.
While most children probably grow up seeing straight people kiss on TV and in real life all the time, as soon as it’s a queer relationship, it’s considered inappropriate, sexual, something to be kept out of sight — in other words, something more adult than the average relationship.
Because LGBTQ relationships are often seen as being entirely about sexual attraction (rather than romantic interest), they’re often turned into something absolutely driven by sex. The nature of the queer community in the past doesn’t entirely dissuade from this idea; when you’re not allowed to cement your monogamous relationship with labels like marriage, there’s less of a reason to maintain these institutions, nor does everyone want to.
But it’s why you hear people saying that somebody can’t know if they’re gay when they’re a child, and that when they reach puberty or adulthood, they’ll change their mind. I’m a prime example of the fact that not everyone ‘always knew’ — I figured it out when I was almost seventeen — but had my six-year-old self chosen to one of my female classmates on the cheek in school, and not my male friend Alex, there would have been nothing sexual about that. People forget that these early signs of romantic interest don’t have to be about sex. My interest in girls still isn’t about sex, because I’m not into that. I just like girls. Society doesn’t seem to comprehend that this is a possibility.
And then, because being LGBTQ is sexualised, and made into something that’s entirely about physicality, it pushes stories that contain queer relationships into more adult territory. While a young adult novel about a girl and her first boyfriend is considered appropriate, simply changing the gender of the protagonist leads to advisories, content warnings, and controversy from school librarians (usually in America).
Then, because the queer stories are made into something adult, they’re made into something dark and gritty, because people like to believe they’ve grown out of happy endings and fairytales and they want something more ‘realistic’. (I think this is a load of rubbish: gritty =/= realistic, and happy ending =/= fantastical, but that’s another blog post and probably one that would involve Batman or something.)
And because they’re now dark and gritty stories, they tend to have violence. And characters die. The queer characters die. Once again, we bury our gays.
Straight characters die in dark, gritty books too. Straight characters are hit by stray bullets or die a meaningless death meant for someone else. But straight characters also get the light-hearted stories. They get the fairytales, the children’s books, the happy endings. They get a thousand and one variations on being happy, and if one straight character dies every now and again, then there are still plenty left to carry the mantle.
The trouble is that queer characters rarely get the chance to have another kind of story, and when you kill one queer character, you may well be killing the only one in a particular story. There aren’t any more left. That’s the end. They’re gone.
I’ve made a conscious effort over the last three years or so to acquire books that have LGBTQ characters, and yet even though I have a larger-than-usual proportion of books featuring queer characters, they still represent a tiny number of the 450 books on my shelves. Within those books, they’re again only a small percentage — a gay best friend, a trans sibling, a dozen background characters surrounded by straight people. If I were to list all the characters on my shelves, the percentage who were LGBTQ would be about 1% at most.
Which means it’s a lot more of a problem when you kill one of those in a brash meaningless way just as they were finding their feet in a relationship or reaching a point where they were happy.
And if all LGBTQ stories are dark, gritty stories, and all your dark, gritty stories kill off your characters, you end up digging a lot of graves. Occasionally, you know, it might be nice to wander out of the cemetery, to go up to the castle and see the queen ruling with the princess consort, or watch the dragon rescue the princess from the annoying prince, or see a girl triumph over the injustice and poverty of her own situation without having to get married to do it.
There’s no point saying that these stories are inappropriate for children just because they feature queer relationships. Leaving aside the hugely sexual origin of a lot of fairytales, we’ve turned them into something where the only thing close to sex is a chaste kiss to wake a sleeping princess — which could just as easily, and possibly less creepily, be done by another girl. Even moving away from fairytales, there are childhood sweethearts who have never heard of sex holding hands by the swings out in the playground, and maybe some of them are queer too.
We deserve more stories with happy endings for queer characters, because being LGBTQ doesn’t automatically relegate you to dark, gritty, ‘adult’ territory, where every story has to be brutal and depressing. It’s exhausting, and it’s sad, and there are hundreds of queer kids out there who need to know that they can grow up to have meaningful relationships, and that their identity isn’t a death sentence.
Or something to be kept out of sight. Or something ‘adult’ that they’re not allowed to think about or understand because they’re too young to have feelings, while their friends are planning their dream wedding already. Or something that automatically goes hand in hand with brutality.
And if you’re still wondering why, maybe this tweet will convince you:
If you can name a thousand stories where someone like you got a happy ending, try to understand the heartbreak of people who can't name ten.
— Andrew Wheeler (@Wheeler) March 22, 2016