Popular media is making teensy tiny strides in queer representation, but it’s still light years behind where it should be. One of the many issues in today’s portrayal of LGBTQ+ people in media is that their stories are often tragic. Queer characters may exist in a universe, but in all likelihood their relationships, if they’re lucky enough to initiate them, will fail, and they themselves may very well die or disappear.
The ubiquity of this trope occurred to me recently when I was listening to Part 2 of Welcome to Night Vale’s 2nd Anniversary episode. As part of the conclusion of the episode, which wrapped up the recent Strexcorp invasion storyline, everyone and everything that wasn’t from Night Vale was ejected from the town. Unfortunately, this included Carlos, Cecil’s boyfriend, who’s now trapped in an alternate dimension. Their relationship has mostly been smooth sailing up to this point, and I can’t fault the WtNV writers for introducing some new conflict into the storyline now that Strex is gone and a mayor has been elected. But still, I was kind of sad because Cecil and Carlos’s problem-free relationship, while somewhat unrealistic for any humans, queer or not, was a safe space of angst-free queer love. I certainly haven’t found anything like that in other media; in other media being queer is apparently the equivalent of using a black cat to break a mirror underneath a ladder on Friday the 13th.
A perfect example of this is the musical RENT. While RENT is often touted as a progressive musical due to its racially and sexually diverse cast, there’s a disturbing connecting thread between the two queer relationships it portrays. Angel and Collins are a doting couple—indeed, their relationship is held up as the peak of perfect love by the other characters—but they’re both suffering from AIDS and, over the course of the musical Angel’s condition worsens and he dies. Maureen and Joann, our other queer couple, constantly fight because of Maureen’s philandering—let’s not even get into the “bi girl can’t commit” stereotypes there—and eventually break up at Angel’s funeral. By the end of the musical, both of our queer couples are split up and one of the four of them is dead.
Once Upon A Time also plays the sad queers game with Mulan. The show strongly implies that she’s in love with Aurora, and Mulan even goes so far as to try and confess something important to her. However, she selflessly sacrifices her feelings and leaves her friend to join the Merry Men without confessing when she realizes her affections aren’t returned. OUAT gets props for finally including a gay character, but queer people everywhere are left with the message that they can exist but they’ll probably never get to be with the one they love.
I had plenty of complaints about the brief recent run of Fearless Defenders, but one thing that really grated on me was that the author obviously considered himself progressive for including a lesbian protagonist and a love interest for her. Unfortunately, the new character, Annabelle, is first fridged to cause angst for our heroine Valkyrie, and then brought back to life—at a cost: she has to share a body with Valkyrie, and therefore they can never be together because they can never be awake at the same time. That certainly doesn’t sound like a happy ending to me.
These are just a few examples, but there are plenty more where they came from. What about the comical Supernatural episode “Ghostfacers”, where the gay intern is murdered by an evil spirit and the hilarious punchline of the episode involves the straight object of his affections deigning to play gay long enough to send his spirit on from this world?
There‘s Torchwood, which is so consistently depressing that it’s taken me years to watch its brief four-season run because I have to recover from the angst between episodes. In Game of Thrones, Renly Baratheon was (in my humble opinion) the only claimant to the throne who showed potential to be a decent and just ruler but, whoops, he’s dead. Which clone is currently suffering from a terminal illness on Orphan Black? Cosima, the gay one, obviously. Even Batwoman, which showed promise as a story with angst and drama within the plot but generally pleasant resolutions in Kate’s romantic life, was knocked down a peg when its Powers That Be forbid Kate’s marriage to her girlfriend.
And while some of these I can chalk up to bog-standard lazy homophobia—I’m looking at you, Supernatural—I’m not sure why some of these examples display this trend. Many of the writers, producers, and other staff involved with these stories are queer themselves—Torchwood’s Russell T. Davies comes to mind—why would they only tell sad stories about people like themselves? Orphan Black‘s writing team has demonstrated a clear respect for its queer characters insofar as letting them be well-rounded, independent people with their own storylines is concerned, so why out of all of the clones would they give the gay one the terminal illness? Is there some insidious strain of homophobia out there so internalized that these creators don’t realize they’re perpetuating it? Are they being pressured by their producers to spin these storylines the way they do?
Queer characters deserve to be represented on screen and on the page, and more importantly, their relationships deserve to be treated with the same weight and respect as straight relationships. Sure, realistically, not all relationships will end happily, but some of them do, and right now media does not reflect that. It’s not enough to simply put the characters there in the background, and it’s certainly not enough to turn them into tragedies. It’s hard enough being a queer consumer of media without being told that the only stories we can be a part of end in tears.