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[Galaxy Q] Gay Tropes & Clichés – Darling, Don’t Kill Me

So I would have been at least 21 when Magic’s Pawn released but my exposure to gay fiction really didn’t happen until a few years later. Every time I am on a panel that recommends positive portrayals of gay characters in fantasy fiction someone, usually from the audience, mentions this book, its sequels and Vanyel. And I see red, I start flailing like a Muppet having a grand mal seizure, and shout into the microphone: “No! These are terrible books! I would never let a gay kid today read one.”

Why? Because here is a case of Lackey literally “killing her darlings.” Not only is Vanyel more angsty over being gay than any other literary character who wore tights (oh, for the self-esteem of Tybalt!); he has two lovers (no, soul mates!) and both die. I don’t care if I’m spoiling this series — to me it reeks of spoiled fruit. At the end of the last book, one of the lovers who only wants to join his beloved in the afterlife is told he can’t, he has to live a long, lonely life, and only then, in death, do they have a weird, Tuck Everlasting ghost frolic. Now tell me what message this means to readers:

  1. If you’re gay you will never fit in, never have a best friend except for a talking horse (in romance circles this is known as YMMIMY – You Muck Me, I Muck You);
  2. If you do meet a lover, he must be a soul mate because any sexual thoughts about non-soul mates (there’s a scene where Vanyel is attracted to a villain) is bad;
  3. You’re soul mate or you is gonna die because life as a homosexual is soooo hard
  4. You don’t get to Heaven unless you lead a chaste life — Stefan promises to be true to his dead lover…and he’s just a youth himself! It’s absurd and sex-negative. How do women enjoy Guinevere running off to a nunnery after the whole affair? And Stefan did nothing wrong. He’s not allowed to meet another man; no Vanyel is a selfish prick, hah, hah.

Why would you want to encourage anyone queer into believing these untruths?

The “death of the gay/lesbian/bisexual (and now transmen and -women)” began with both the pulps and the moralizing of cinema. Heteronormative ideals had to be maintained and the queer characters punished. Marya Zaleska from Dracula’s Daughter (killed by a jealous man); Septimus Pretorius from Bride of Frankenstein (he dared conceive of two men creating life); Martha Dobie in The Children’s Hour. Of course, society presented anyone with same-sex desires as being secret monsters eager to seduce and corrupt. George T. Nelson is a pedophile in Needful Things. Buffalo Bill is a serial killer in Silence of the Lambs. So, too, is Angela Baker in Sleepaway Camp. Statistics show that queer people are far less likely to be such perpetrators in real life but not in fiction, film, or television where sensationalism rules.

And because of this we have straight people feeling relief when the Outsider, human, so very human, but because they swish or lisps (boys) or swagger or swipe (girls) or cross-dress (either) or realize that that their birth gender is not the gender they identify as, well straights began to want us out of sight and out of mind. And some wanted us dead.

Photograph by sia hyrula, licensed by Lethe Press

Photograph by Sia Hyrula, licensed by Lethe Press

BuryYourGays is a television trope sometimes known as Bring Out Your Gay Dead, Dead Lesbian Syndrome!

I mourn: Talia Winters from Babylon 5; Helena Cain from Battlestar Galactica; and Xena; Gabriel and Seth from the disappointing (because of the ending) The Wolves of Kromer; Timothy Higgins in “The Saddest Boy in the World” (which is disgustingly called humorous but it is not…and anyone who believes that should be forced to identify the bodies of every kid who took his or her or their own life from now until the end of time).

But all of this does raise a devil’s advocate issue when it comes to story-telling: without the risk of death, do characters ever really live? By this I mean, we are all familiar with books and films and television that is populated with characters that are at no risk of dying…or at least seem to. With books, this is most evident in series (well, pre-GRRM). A character we adore having something terrible and tragic happening makes us adore them more. When Gandalf sacrifices his life for the Fellowship, it’s the most moving moment of The Fellowship of the Ring film. The audience may well be crying along with the hobbits. On a personal level, for years I refused to read any of the sequel stories to my favorite book of all time, Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner because I heard that Richard and Alec don’t walk off into the sunset together. Akin to putting fingers in ears and chanting “no-no-no”–avoiding even a short story that suggested Alec had other affairs or children seemed to betray the love between these men that made me adore this book so much. And then, by accident, I turned a page in an anthology and found myself faced with “The Death of the Duke.” I love Kushner’s work. I told myself, okay, maybe the lovers die together, holding hands like we hear about seniors in nursing homes and feel the mudita, the opposite of schadenfreude: “happiness in another’s good fortune.” Oh, wily Kushner, you tore my heart out but somehow stitched it back into my chest with mudita after all. And I cried.

Yes, writers do not have to kill their queer darlings. Real life has tragedies other than death: ill health; loss of income, of home, of relatives; blows to self-esteem and identity; loss of purpose. None of these are as monumental as the murder of Tara Maclay from Buffy the Vampire Slayer — but could we have gone through a season of Willow seeking an awful vengeance while her lover lies in a coma? Yes. Would it be a bit more soap operatic? Yes. Would all of Joss Whedon’s fans have forgiven him at the end? Another yes.

Do I even need to say Ianto Jones? Did Jack Harkness just lose a good deal of his appeal after that plot debacle? Another yes. I am tired of all these “yeses ” and what they are leaving behind in our collective consciousness. That queer relationships do not last; are not real; are throwaway. That we should get used to unhappy endings. I have the news for that.

What can we do with horror? By it’s very nature, this is a field where we must worry over the lives of characters we care about (yes, some folk watch horror for the monsters or the kills, but if I don’t care about an individual’s death, then the whole thing is meaningless to me). I think of Lee Thomas’s short story “The House by the Park”…a couple has finally found real love and you feel mudita for these men. But the ending is horrific. Is it fair to deny the author creative freedom? Our catharsis as we read the last lines?

What I want authors to come away from this essay with the knowledge that they have a choice. Unless the story demands the death of a queer character (murder or mishap, fine, but please no more suicides, it kills our entire community bit by bit every time) then ask whether or not a happier ending will accomplishment everything you are seeking with the story. And readers, you have power with both your wallet and your voice — use it to punish any careless disregard for queer lives. Leave reviews, tweet, ask friends who you should buy.

I hope we can have more memento amori than memento mori tomorrow…and the day after that…and the day after that…

(BTW, Lois Kennedy has a very good article on the stereotypes of LGBT characters in Stephen King’s novels.)

About Steve Berman (4 Articles)
Steve Berman has edited more queer speculative fiction anthologies than any other living person. His anthologies have been finalists for the Golden Crown Literary Award, Lambda Literary Award, and Shirley Jackson Award. He resides in southern New Jersey.

6 Comments on [Galaxy Q] Gay Tropes & Clichés – Darling, Don’t Kill Me

  1. I mourn Talia and Xena too. I saw it written somewhere yesterday that television has killed 3 lesbians in 3 weeks. In this day and age, when the Queer community has enough of a history, why do writers continue to kill us all off? We are a necessary and vital part of life? Are we easier to kill off without guilt?*scratches head* I’m tempted to pepper my fiction with more queer characters and give them happy endings in spite!

  2. Excellent essay. I hope readers realize that there is fine work out there in LGBTQ speculative fiction from independent presses that manages all the drama and complexity without automatically killing off the gays.

  3. David Greybeard // March 22, 2016 at 9:04 am //

    Good article! Didn’t quite catch some of your references but I totally agree with subject. I’ve thought this often before for years and years. Bit surprised you didn’t tie it into AIDS.

  4. Steve Berman // March 22, 2016 at 9:44 am //

    Thank you all for the kind words. And David, Google the references and see where they take you.

    As far as AIDS…well, there was a genre of the AIDS memoir (once the Lambda Literary Foundation gave out an award for best AIDS-related title). And then such books dwindled but now, as survivors (regardless of their sero-status) are getting older and looking back at their youth, we see a resurgence of such books again, such as ghost story author Jameson Currier’s Until My Heart Stops.

  5. Great essay, Steve! I remember how excited I was to read The Last Herald-Mage trilogy, only to be horrifically disappointed in the ending–not only the deaths you mention, but [spoiler alert] Vanyel’s rape in the third book as well, particularly because the same thing happened to Talia in the third book of the first Valdemar trilogy. As Sid Ziff said, “It is not a book to be lightly thrown aside. It should be thrown with great force.” Still, I keep those books on my shelf because Vanyel was one of the first gay characters in fantasy I ever encountered. A weird kind of nostalgia, I guess.

  6. Richard Derus // March 29, 2016 at 9:35 pm //

    I’m about to start Lynn Flewelling’s series THE NIGHTRUNNERS (LUCK IN THE SHADOWS, etc), and now I’m afraid to. I got really really pissed at Elizabeth Bear for her Shakespeare-and-Marlowe-in-love books, where the men could only pine for each other, never touch or — perish forbid! — kiss. If that is the case with the Flewelling series, please someone who knows warn me!

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