Bury Your Gays: A look at HBO’s Game of Thrones

Fans of HBO’s widely popular and critically heralded series Game of Thrones are accustomed to seeing scandalous sex and frequent bloodshed.  Based on the novels by George R.R. Martin, the appeal of the series largely comes from its world – rife with dragons, undead, giants, and other fantastical creatures.  The show’s complex web of political and personal intrigue is complemented by fantastical portrayals of sex and human relationships. Screenwriters David Benioff and D.B. Weiss do not shy away from sexual taboos like incest, and they have included a few homosexual relationships within their predominantly heteronormative world.  However, their treatment of one of the most prominent among these few relationships ultimately falls into the trope known as “bury your gays,” where homosexual characters are quickly killed off and removed from a series predominantly focussed on heterosexual characters.

The homosexual relationship between Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell did not ultimately transcend the social stigma within the world of Game of Thrones as fans might have hoped, as Renly was killed only a season after their relationship began.  Although the series is infamous for unexpected deaths, Renly’s end stood out even among these, as he is inexplicably murdered with a vague magic spell that is never used again in the series.  After Renly’s death, the situation did not improve for Loras, who is exposed as homosexual to the High Sparrow, imprisoned, and tortured for his “sins.”

While Game of Thrones certainly perpetuated the “bury your gays” trope it also serves as an example of the how writers are consciously working to subvert the trope by giving the last openly bisexual character, Yara Greyjoy, additional plot armor where it seems she is able to slip out of death’s jaws more than once. This is idea is called “preserve your gays” and will be explored along with “bury your gays” trope in the context of Game of Thrones. 

“Bury Your Gays” defined

The “bury your gays” trope is a cliche in Hollywood films and television alike where LGBT characters seem to be more expendible than their straight peers and typically do not find their “happily ever after” at the story’s conclusion. According to Kelsey Cameron, “‘bury your gays’ is the narrative arc wherein queer charcaters die, often violently, in service of someone else’s character development.” However, this is not to say that gay characters should not be exempt from tragedy, but instead is about there being a diverse ensemble of charcaters who are representative of the real world. A world that is not exclusively straight despite what the television landscape may suggest. Bonnie Dow explains how, “homosexual characters are rarely shown in their own communities, homes or same-sex romantic relationships, but are depicted in terms of their place in the lives of heterosexuals.” This holds true for Renly and Loras in Game of Thrones as they both die at the expense of a heterosexual character’s agenda.

Renly and Loras

In HBO’s Game of Thrones the gay relationship between Loras and Renly is not only hinted at or merely implied, but bluntly unfolds in the bedroom. For example, in season 1 episode 5, Renly and Loras share their first intimate moment in Renly’s bedchamber.

Later, in season 2 episode 3, Loras and Renly have a intimate moment in bed before Loras leaves to fetch his sister, Margery, who is also betrothed to Renly.

This is the last time audiences will see a sexual relationship between two men in Game of Thrones as Renly is murdered by a ghost two episodes later. In a show that ran for 8 seasons, it is a shame that one of the only gay plotlines in the series was extinguished in only the second season. Although visibility for LGBT characters has increased in recent years as witnessed by Loras and Renly’s relationship on the show, the way these characters are often portrayed within tropes can have harmful effects.

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In the case of Game of Thrones, we see Cameron’s definition really come to life as Renly’s violent murder strengthened his heterosexual brother Stannis’ claim to the Iron Throne. Not only was Renly killed, but Loras was eventually forced to confess his sexuality to the High Sparrow who tortured and imprisoned him until he died in an explosion at his trial.

#buryyourgays

In a world dominated by social media, audiences have a larger platform than ever before to voice their opinions. In 2016, a wave of queer deaths pulsed throughought television within the span of a single month as four openly lesbian female characters were killed off in shows like Jane the Virgin, The Walking Dead, and most notably The 100. This led to major fan backlash, which eventually generated the hashtag #buryyourgays on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. As a result of disgruntled LGBT fans speaking out against the trope, a new phenomena has found its way into the television landscape called “preserve your gays” where it seems screen writers have started to make a conscious effort to keep gay characters on the screen.

Yara Greyjoy

Yara Greyjoy has become an LGBT fan favorite as the only remaining openly bisexual character on Game of Thrones. Although Yara’s character is straight in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novels, Weiss and Benioff made a deliberate departure from the books and decided to make her bi in the show. While the show runners have never explicitly commented on the #buryyourgays fan response, it seems as though Yara’s character has benefitted from good fortune more than a time or two since the hashtag went viral in 2016.

Perhaps it is just storytelling, perhaps it is an effort by Weiss and Benioff to have a slightly more colorful cast left standing that is not exclusively heterosexual. Despite being the only openly bisexual remaining on the show, Yara eventually has a seat at the council of lords as the Queen of the Iron Islands. This is a significant moment in the canon of the series because it was most likely the first time in the history of the Seven Kingdoms that a bisexual women ever had a say in politics.

Game of Thrones is not entirely reprehensible in its treatment of homosexual characters, but it does perpetuate some harmful narrative tropes with little in the way of recourse.  For a fantasy series so liberal in its depiction of sexuality, we might have expected better representation; however, it is refreshing to see a bisexual character who is not completely handcuffed by a worn out, homophobic trope. In the information/social media age of today, viewers have more of a platform to speak their minds than ever before. Perhaps this will lead to the world we see on screen better reflecting the world we walk around in everyday. 

by Ben Monsour and Bradley Bonette

Bibliography

Cameron, K. (2018, May). Toxic regulation: From TV’s code of practices to ‘#Bury Your Gays’. Retrieved from http://www.participations.org/Volume 15/Issue 1/18.pdf

Dow, B. (2001). Ellen, Television, and the Politics of Gay and Lesbian Visibility. Critical Studies in Media Communication,18(2), 123-140. doi:10.1080/07393180128077