Saturday, December 14, 2013

Notes of the Importance of Queer Characters

Trigger warning for mentions of murder, suicide, and suicidal ideation.
In the third episode of Dracula, two gay characters died violently and graphically. When I heard about this, I didn’t find it upsetting so much as eye-rollingly predictable. Modern television has a long tradition of killing off its gay caracters with extreme prejudice. But the actual image of Daniel, a young gay man, shooting himself after watching his lover die violently was very upsetting. (This episode also included the violent murder of two characters of color. And while this particular post is specifically about the queer death trope, I don't want to ignore the fact that killing characters of color is just as tired and harmful a trope as killing queer characters.)
            I know that Dracula is a work of fiction, and a rather surreal and ostentatious one at that. And I know that things are a lot better now than they were a hundred years ago or even ten years ago.
            But right now, today, there are still so many of us who feel lost. Too often, we are still scared and ashamed and isolated. Too often, we still have a good reason to be scared. There are still people in the world who devote time and energy and resources to making us believe that we deserve to feel lost and scared and ashamed.
            I am not saying that the writers of “Dracula” are the same as the people who are trying to deny us our fundamental rights; in fact, I’m quite sure that the writers of “Dracula” had good intentions when they introduced Lord Laurent and Daniel (and queer Lucy as well). When writers kill off their queer characters, I know that they are not doing it to be mean. They are not out to get their queer audience members. They are not trying to hurt us.
            But as a queer person, watching a gay character die can be hurtful in ways that it’s hard for a lot of people to understand. When Tara MacClay was gunned down on Buffy, Joss Whedon assured viewers that it hurt him just as much as it hurt them. And I’m sure that Joss Whedon had empathy and affection for Tara as a character, and that it made him sad to kill her off. But there were people in the world who decided not to kill themselves because of Willow and Tara’s relationship. And I’m not sure that Mr. Whedon completely understands how hurtful it was to those people (and a lot of other people) when that bullet tore through Tara’s heart.
            “Oh, so you’re saying that nothing bad can ever happen to gay characters?”
            No, I am not. Death is a part of life, and stories about death are essential to our understanding of our world and ourselves. I understand why someone decided to tell the stories of Omar Little and Jack Twist, and I’m glad they did. Those stories needed to be told.
            But here’s the thing: off the top of my head, I can count the number of books and movies I’ve seen where things ended well for the gay characters on one hand.
            “But isn’t it ok to kill off gay characters if you kill off straight characters too?”
Honestly, I don’t want to make any grand pronouncements about when it is or isn’t ok to kill off your characters, gay or otherwise.
But I will say this: when a straight character dies, it is often tragic. Fans of the character are devastated. But it does not feel like a referendum on who or how or why that character loved. When a gay character dies, it often does feel like a referendum on the way that character lived and loved.
And here’s why: remember the Disney movies you watched as a kid? Many of those movies feature a heterosexual couple at the center of the story. And when their love triumphs over adversity, and when they kiss each other at the end, it is good. It is right. In our culture, we are introduced to stories that celebrate heterosexual love and affection at a very young age.
So imagine, if you can, going through childhood seeing zero portrayals of people like you kissing each other and living happily ever after. Imagine getting a little older and seeing a few people like you on TV only to discover that they die horribly a surprisingly large amount of the time.
Stories matter. They matter so much. The stories my mother read to me as a child played a huge role in my developing sense of empathy and kindness. They affected the way I see myself, the way I treat others, and the way I live in this world.
For a gay kid or adolescent, a story can literally be life-sustaining. Unfortunately, stories also have the power to be harmful, especially to young, queer people.
Sometimes it is so goddamn hard to be brave. And it’s easy to believe you’re going to end up alone and miserable when most queer love stories end in tragedy. It is easy to notice the number of characters with non-normative gender identities who are portrayed as morally suspect. It’s easy to believe that there’s something icky and shameful about physical intimacy between same-sex couples when so many TV networks are still so goddamn squeamish about same-sex kissing. It’s easy to believe that you are doomed when so many gay characters are the villains who have to be killed off for the greater good, or the redshirt who has to heroically sacrifice herself so the straight heroes can live happily and heteronormatively ever after.
We live in a day and age in which people are making “It Gets Better” videos and photographing themselves with duct tape over their mouths and almost every TV show has a token gay character (who may or may not ever actually kiss anyone and/or die horribly in the third episode).
But you remember Daniel crying alone in his room? That is still happening today. There are still far, far too many of us who are lost, and silent, and scared. There are those of us who want to die, because eternal, dreamless sleep seems preferable to the demons that haunt our steps and hide in our shadows, whispering that we are doomed.
So for the sake of those of us who are still scared, still silent, still lonely, I’m asking all the storytellers in the world to do something: give us hope. Don’t just tell us that It Gets Better and call it a day: give us a reason to believe that it gets better. Don’t just tell us stories where we die. Tell us stories where we live and love and laugh. Tell us stories in which our love and physical intimacy is not punished or frowned upon. Tell us stories in which our love triumphs over adversity. Give us something to believe in. Give us courage. Give us strength.
Give us hope.