One of my favourite TV shows from last year was Sense8, the Netflix sci-fi thriller that gave a massive middle finger to heterosexual norms. Worthy of note was the sex-positivity and the nuanced portrayal of LGBTQ characters, characters that weren’t eclipsed or relegated to the background. Or sent into TV oblivion and forgotten. They weren’t — and some queer TV showrunners are guilty of this — shoehorned into the story to merely fulfill the need for diversity and inclusion.
On Sense8, I saw two queer couples and at some point, I had to ask myself: is this not a little too much? Then I thought of how modern TV was still in the firm operation of centering straight and cisgender characters, weaving stories that make them intrinsically important and indispensable.
In the real world, much has been done to marginalise and erase LGBTQ people, from discrimination to horrific, full-blown acts of violence. To be caught in “homosexual activity” is a punishable crime in many countries; and homophobia is still generally rife, however casual or benign. All these, when juxtaposed against the fictional backdrop of TV, shows a disturbing parallel. The killing off of LGBTQ characters, for example, isn’t unfamiliar. Known as “Bury Your Gays,” this pop culture trope can be devastatingly brutal in its delivery.
In Game of Thrones, Oberyn is a bisexual character shown in an orgy scene where male bisexuality is communicated as unapologetic, complex, and doesn’t lead towards the gay framing. But his death, perhaps the most gruesome I have seen on the show, fits into the ongoing trend of bisexual erasure in its extreme form. In Under the Dome, where pink stars and butterflies might as well be a reference to the LGBTQ community, Carolyn and her partner Alice are killed off in barely two seasons.
In The Originals, Aiden is murdered and it sends a violent message to the Mikaelson household. According to executive producer Michael Narducci, Aiden had to die because all the story points came together. He explains further, “A death is always difficult. You think about it, debate and discuss it and if it feels right then it’s what you must do. Unfortunately, that was the case with Aiden.”
How convenient to think this way when a gay character is in a minor role. The Originals is known for magic-induced resurrections and I was hoping Aiden would get resurrected to be with Josh and continue their budding romance. Till now, Aiden is still dead, not even his ghost was given a chance to reappear.
When the criticisms about too much gay sex scenes on How To Get Away With Murder started, I was yet to see an episode and I was a little concerned about how the show’s depiction of a sexually active gay man would reinforce long-standing social perceptions about gay men. But Connor is promiscuous because he had to procure evidence for cases, I said to myself later, eight episodes into watching the show. Connor’s a smart lawyer, one of the best in his class, and the fact that people ignored these aspects of his identity and focused on how much sex he was having as a gay man is indicative of the oppressive patriarchal gaze. More to the point, his sexual behaviour doesn’t have to be validated by a purpose and although this perpetuates a stereotype in itself, it’s ridiculous to say that the gay sex scenes are “too much”— sex is sex.
Beyond that, I’m no longer hyper-critical about how gay characters are portrayed, whether heteronormalised for the consumption of straight viewers or boundary-pushing like Sense8. At present, majority of LGBTQ characters aren’t written with longevity in mind, despite hyperbolic claims about the push for a “gay agenda” on TV. And maybe there’s a ring of truth in it — an agenda to be visible, to refuse to be silenced.
Written by Bernard Dayo
Bernard Dayo is a speculative fiction writer and he’s currently writing his second unpublished novel. You can follow him @BernardDayo