When is it OK to kill lesbian/bi characters?

Summer 2013 continues to be the weirdest moment of lesbian pop culture in the history of the space-time continuum. On the one hand, we’ve got close to two dozen lesbian and bisexual TV characters and real-life personalities lighting up our screens every week. But on the other hand, queer lady characters are dying like some kind of homosexual pandemic has been unleashed into the atmosphere. In the last two weeks, we lost Kenya from Defiance, in a moving and probably inevitable scene where she paid the price for tangling with the town’s biggest bully. Skins Fire killed off Naomi in the most callous and emotionally manipulative episode of TV I have ever seen. (And I’ve watched Glee, OK? I know a thing or two about being fucked with.) And then last week, Marvel went and killed Dr. Annabelle Riggs in Fearless Defenders, just when we were starting to get to know her.

If you don’t know Annabelle, it’s because she’s only been around for a handful of issues. But you would have liked her. She’s a little bit like Cosima from Orphan Black. It seemed like the writers were setting her up as a love interest for Valkyrie, co-leader of the Valkyrior, a team of all-female superheroes. The two developed a deep bond, which then proved very handy when Valkyrie found herself possessed. Annabelle tried to help her battle the possession, but the demon inside Valkyrie choked Annabelle to death, even though Valkyrie’s love for Annabelle caused her to fight back against it. Once Annabelle’s larynx was completely crushed, Valkyrie snapped out of her possession.

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If you’re thinking, “Wow, how convenient. Introduce a gay character to serve as a plot point in a major straight character’s story and then off her when she’s served your purposes,” you are not alone. The book’s writers anticipated the backlash before they ever published the issue. They plan to dedicate the letters page in the next book to talking about “female deaths and/or sexuality in comic books.” A conversation they might have engaged in before they killed off one of the only active queer characters in the Marvel universe.

As we move forward into a new era of of lesbian and bisexual visibility in pop culture, context is going to be everything when we’re examining old tropes through a different lens. For gay folks to achieve true equality on TV and in movies and in books and in comic books, we’re going to have to accept the kinds of things we accept for straight characters: death, evilness, adultery, hardships of every kind. The Kill All The Gays trope isn’t an if-then correlation in terms of homophobia or heartlessness. Sometimes, when queer characters die, it’s an organic part of the story. But even with the stellar increase in the number of queer character in recent years, we are still woefully underrepresented.

So killing off a gay character poses a unique set of issues:

1) There usually aren’t other gay characters to step in to take the places of the dead characters, like what would happen if a straight character was offed. I mean, sure, there’s another archeologist who can excavate Viking burial sites or whatever, but is there another lady-loving-lady who can do that? If not, you’re not just killing a character, you’re killing representation, which, as we all know, is something that leads to tolerance and understanding from straight people, and self-acceptance for gay people.

2) Queer characters quickly become more than just fictional people in pop culture consciousness. They become lightning rods for visibility, symbols for something much bigger than themselves. If you destroy that symbol, there’s a chance you’re taking a whole lot of other stuff down with it. Big stuff like hope and dreams. Most people don’t react very well to that kind of thing.

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Again, it’s all about context. Killing Kenya Rosewater might be painful because it taps into feelings about old tropes and she and Stahma Tarr were hot as hell together, but you’re not really wrecking a long-standing symbol of faith for the gay community or anything. She was a supporting character on a 12-episode first season of a sci-fi show set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Plus, we’re talking about Syfy, which boasts a whole handful of other queer characters to root for.

With Fearless Defenders it’s a little more problematic because there aren’t a lot of go-to gay characters in comics and it seems like the writers introduced Annabelle as nothing more than a device to save a major straight character. Skins Fire I can barely even talk about because bringing back a beloved lesbian character — one who has long been a symbol of hope for the gay community — to TV years after her place was settled in our hearts and minds for the sole purpose of killing her in the most aggressively traumatizing way imaginable is cruel, plain and simple, and I’m not sure I’m ever going to stop being infuriated by it.

It’s a conversation we need to start having amongst ourselves and with the people who create the stories we consume. When is it fair to kill lesbian and bisexual characters? Should writers be held to a different standard when causing turmoil for their fictional queer people? And is it ultimately a good thing or a bad thing for visibility when we’ve reached a place where we have to reexamine the ways we react to old tropes?

Not every story needs to have a fairy tale ending, but we could use a lot more happily ever afters in our bank of memories before we start accepting lesbian and bisexual character deaths as commonplace.

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