Lies We Sing to the Sea author, Sarah Underwood, on the bury your gays trope
Bury Your Gays: writing tragedy as a queer author
This post was written by Sarah Underwood, author of Lies We Sing to the Sea.
My debut novel, Lies We Sing to the Sea, opens with the main character, Leto, being brutally executed in sacrifice to a vengeful god. Things don’t necessarily improve much for her from there.
Leto lives, sure (resurrection is a handy thing), and spends the rest of the book running around, avoiding assassination attempts and trying to break a curse by killing a prince. It’s a YA fantasy, a genre that has shaped my taste and that I love more than anything, so of course there’s also glittering festivals, mysterious prophecies, and a bisexual love triangle between Leto, Mathias (the prince she’s meant to be killing), and Melantho (the secretive, vengeful, very beautiful girl helping her do it). Ultimately, though it’s a story about hope and love and railing against fate, the book is a tragedy, inspired by Greek myths and tragedies, and ends… tragically.
It’s an ending I am certain is the right one, and one that I am incredibly proud of, but I would be lying if I said I had never considered changing it. In the early stages of writing, a brilliant author friend of mine looked over a full outline of the novel and asked me if I was worried about burying my gays.
I was. I am.
I did it anyway.
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So what does it mean to ‘bury your gays’?
As the name suggests, it’s about killing gay and generally queer characters off in books, TV, film, and other media at a completely disproportionate rate. In particular, it’s when queer characters are killed for shock value, in a way or at a time which doesn’t make sense for their individual narrative, if they even got one in the first place, and to further the stories of their straight counterparts. It’s sort of the gay cousin to ‘women in refrigerators’, where female characters are killed (or ‘fridged’, a term coined after a volume of Green Lantern where the titular hero returns home to find his girlfriend murdered and stuffed in the fridge), raped, and tortured to give their male friends, love interests, or relatives a bit of quick and easy character development. Burying your gays and fridging your women can also come together in the delightful Dead Lesbian Syndrome, where queer women are killed off frequently, suddenly, and in the most tragic way possible for literally no reason. It’s lazy writing and it is everywhere.
[Spoiler warning: The next paragraph mentions some iconic TV show endings]
I grew up in the golden era of Tumblr, so the buried gays that defined my teens and early twenties included… Charlie in Supernatural (dead in a bathtub), Lexa in the 100 (about 2 seconds after she and Clarke finally slept together), and Cas in Supernatural (dragged to Super Hell after finally confessing his love for Dean after FIFTEEN SEASONS OF BLATANT QUEERBAITING OH MY GOD). Even in 2022, I had to witness the frankly ridiculous ending for Villanelle in Killing Eve (seems to be getting her happy ending before she’s shot and left floating, dead, in the Thames. Ok). I have been left bewildered and dissatisfied and generally quite pissed off by the bizarre killing of queer characters in my favourite shows more times than I can count. But—
I really love sad endings
Done well, I truly think a story with a sad ending is the best kind there is. Romeo and Juliet? The Song of Achilles? The Fault in Our Stars? Clockwork Princess? Macbeth? The childhood-defining, absolute belter of a show, BBC Merlin? I live for a sad ending.
Likewise, when I write, I find myself naturally gravitating towards sad, or at least, bittersweet endings. I kill my characters a lot, and in a story where the bulk of the cast is queer, burying one or two seems almost unavoidable. Lies We Sing to the Sea, and indeed many of the projects I’ve planned for the future, end in tragedy and the death of queer characters because that is what the book demands.
That said, I am aware that the books I write do not exist in a vacuum. It is hard not to notice that many of the books that I most frequently see on a fair few LGBTQ+ rec lists in pride month are books where the queer characters do not end up happy and alive—They Both Die at the End, The Song of Achilles, A Little Life, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. They’re all excellent books that I think deserved to be pushed (The Song of Achilles is arguably my favourite book of all time), but it can be tiring to see them prioritised again and again and again when there are leagues of brilliant creators dedicated to reading and sharing a range of newly released or less well known queer books if you just take a little time to look for them. The bestseller lists, too, make it clear what’s sticking; Red, White, and Royal Blue aside, it can sometimes feel like most of the queer stories pushed to a general audience are the ones about our pain.
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So where does that leave us?
While I would certainly urge publishers and readers to be mindful of which queer stories they are willing to buy or consume (maybe if they’re all tragedies that’s something to… reflect on), I will go to the ends of the earth defending the rights of queer authors to bury our gays. I do not think it is our responsibility to maim our stories, to alter the endings that are right for them, to correct for a biased market or atone for the sins of decades—for centuries—of authors writing queer characters badly and then killing them off.
I do think it’s our responsibility to acknowledge systemic problems in the industry and to use what limited influence we have to highlight the wide range of brilliant queer books that are out there. We can take a look at the books we’re reading, that we’re blurbing, that we’re shouting about, and make sure we are not contributing to a culture where the only good queer character seems to be a dead one.
Here’s some queer books that I’ve read and loved recently.
The Final Strife by Saara El-Arifi
She is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran
If You Still Recognise Me by Cynthia So
Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson
The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
She Gets the Girl by Alyson Derrick and Rachael Lippincott
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
The King is Dead by Benjamin Dean
The Unbroken by C.L. Clark
Ophelia After All by Raquel Marie
Bitterthorn by Kat Dunn (May ’23)
Everyone’s Thinking It by Aleema Omotoni (September ’23)
The Borrow a Boyfriend Club by Page Powars (September ’23)
For more recs, I recommend following:
Get your copy of Lies We Sing to the Sea by Sarah Underwood here.