“We knew that this was going to be shocking for an audience and for a community that has unfortunately been assaulted by this ‘bury your gays’ trope, but I’m an openly gay showrunner and my writing partner is nothing if not the most supportive person when it comes to LGBT portrayals on TV. We’ve got gay members of the writing staff and we have two incredible out gay actors as part of our team. We knew that starting this journey was going to be really painful for a lot of people, but at the end of the day we could say to our audience, ‘This is the team who is bringing you this story.’” -Aaron Harberts
Gather around, nerds, and let me tell you the tale of the trope known as “bury your gays.” This trope was born in the heady days of lesbian pulp novels, the Hays Code, and the Comics Code Authority, the days when showing a queer character broke the so-called rules of decency. A common tactic to sneak characters through the censors was to introduce them and their stories, and then punish their deviancy with death, similar to the way urban legends and horror movies punish female sexuality by killing the “whore” and saving the “virgin.”
As we moved through the decades, it became less about pleasing the censors and more about it being an established way to write about gay characters, at a time when many straight creators and artists still experienced discomfort telling their stories. Many of the major gay stories that broke through to the mainstream and reaped the accolades of a mostly straight audience are ones in which the tragedy of the queer lifestyle is portrayed. Think Philadelphia. Brokeback Mountain. Dallas Buyer’s Club. Boys Don’t Cry. The list is massive and seemingly unending.
As the LGBTQIAP+ community has gotten more organized and outspoken and as they have made strides in gaining meaningful representation for themselves, this trope has become a hot button topic. More than one contemporary TV show has roused the ire of queer fans by killing a beloved character using this tired trope. Shows that gained large queer audiences by showcasing and promoting their gay characters had those same fans turn on them after what they saw as a betrayal.
In a media landscape that suffers from a serious dearth of well-written queer characters, LGBTQIAP+ fans latch on to the opportunity to finally see their real lives reflected in art. Not our deaths, our suicides and homophobic murders, the wasting away from disease, or an endless parade of homophobic tragedy where our parents reject us, or people scream slurs at us but our ACTUAL lives, where we brush our teeth and fall in love. Where we are seen as full and worthy people, deserving of complex stories and respect. At some point, the most subversive story you could tell about a gay couple became one where they got a happy ending.
And that brings us right to Star Trek: Discovery. In the latest episode, Discovery apparently killed off Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), beloved space doctor, husband of mushroom engineer Dr. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and one half of Star Trek’s first featured gay relationship. His death is quick, brutal, extremely violent, and in service to a storyline featuring a straight character, as Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) falls increasingly apart and is apparently a sleeper agent for the Klingons. Tyler kills Culber by snapping his neck within eyesight of his catatonic husband, whose fate is also unclear as of yet.
I cried. But I didn’t cry because I was mourning Culber: I cried because I was angry. And tired. Just a bone-deep exhaustion because it happened AGAIN. How many times do I get pulled into a queer love story, start hoping, start bringing those characters into my heart, only to have them disposed of? How many times is enough? How could they have not known how it would have been perceived to kill off not only a gay character, but a gay character of color? What kind of ignorance was this?
Well, it wasn’t ignorance at all. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, showrunner Aaron Harberts, who is gay himself, explicitly referenced the “bury your gays” trope and essentially asked gay Trekkies to trust him and the rest of the Discovery creators. His statements coupled with statements from Cruz saying that the character would be back, and that his “death” was not the end of the Culmets love story, paint a picture of some sort of sci-fi fix-it coming, perhaps from Stamets’ undefined mycelium powers, a temporal solution, or conceivably Culber being replaced with his counterpart from the Mirror Universe. It’s unclear. What IS clear is that numerous people that work on the show rushed out post-episode to placate their audience, including an appearance from Cruz on After Trek. I saw the Harberts quote all over Twitter after the episode, as people reacted to Dr. Culber’s death.
For some people, that reassurance worked. Wait and see! Maybe all is not as it seems, all is not lost. For me, it was a slap in the face.
You mean to tell me that this showrunner KNOWS how harmful this trope is, and how damaging it has been to the LGBTQ community? In his own words, he described the trope as an “assault.” So you KNOW. You KNOW how people feel about it and you used it anyway? Why on God’s gay, green earth would you want to play with the emotions of the queer fans watching in that way? Discovery, please, my poor battered gay heart can’t take it. It is bruised and slow to trust.
Additionally, people should not have to read a plethora of interviews explaining your intent in order to fully understand what your show is saying. The show itself should stand on its own, and you shouldn’t have to read the extra credit assignments in order to contextualize the storytelling. It is extremely strange to me that the show would set up a death to be shocking, emotional etc. and then IMMEDIATELY rush to “take it back” and blunt the impact they apparently consciously intended.
I don’t care if Culber is raised from the dead in the first five minutes of the next episode; it doesn’t mean that death didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t have to watch him die. I heard his neck snap. I watched his body be left like garbage heaped next to the hospital bedside of his lover. No amount of sci-fi fuckery lessens the emotions that I felt in that moment, that absolutely shattered feeling I was left with. As a matter of fact, it makes it worse, because not only have you established that death is meaningless on your show, but also that you are willing to use the death of characters as a cheap shock stunt in order to make people *gasp* in the moment.
This is not a new phenomenon for Discovery. At this point we have had multiple instances of the writers introducing a shocking event, and then walking it back, almost immediately. Georgiou’s dead! Except, don’t worry, Michelle Yeoh will be back. Burnham’s has been sentenced to life in prison! Except now she’s not. Cornwell was murdered! Except she wasn’t. They are going to use a sentient living being in the spore drive! Nope, live free tardigrade, godspeed. Mudd has murdered everyone on the ship! But he didn’t. Repeatedly using this technique not only blunts its impact, it puts your audience on a roller-coaster that might leave them with emotional whiplash. Some people LOVE roller-coasters. Some people spend their time on a roller-coaster puking off the side and begging to get off.
Another troubling pattern from Discovery is promoting and building their audience on the promise of certain characters, only to kill them off. Casting Michelle Yeoh and Rekha Sharma as tough, high ranking women of color, specifically Asian women of color, invigorated fans thirsty for more Star Trek characters to represent them. Except, by episode four, both of those characters were dead. I know of more than one woman of color who was upset enough to drop the series after that. One of them told me that it made her feel “disposable”. If you keep promising a feast but delivering crumbs, resentment is going to build.
Wilson Cruz and Anthony Rapp recently went on a whirlwind press tour of queer media, giving interviews and gracing magazine covers, such as The Advocate and Attitude Magazine. The pair was open about how excited they were to portray the first gay relationship on Star Trek. It’s clear that the point of the tour was to highlight the diversity of Discovery at a time when diversity is often a big draw for audiences who have grown tired of seeing the same types of characters. It’s also a way to expand the fan base from hardcore Trekkies to communities that perhaps have not been marketed to in the past. How many queer people who have never seen Star Trek will decide to give this new reboot show a shot, only to see this episode and give up, disappointed? Not everyone is as information savvy as your average Trekkie, voraciously consuming every new article and enhancing behind-the-scenes photos to glean new clues about possible future Andorian storylines. Assuming your audience will stick with you through the whole story if a chapter viscerally upsets them is risky.
I want to make it very clear that nothing Discovery does will ever jeopardize the standing that both Wilson Cruz and Anthony Rapp have in the LGBTQIAP+ community. Both of them are pillars in that community, out actors that have been fighting bigotry their whole careers, taking the risk of coming out to inspire and represent the queer community. Both of them have taken to the Trekkies with a genuine joy that is a delight to watch, simultaneously embracing Trek and its most devoted fans as well as sparring with homophobes with both wit and empathy. This show and the Trek community is tremendously lucky to have them.
Cruz, for his part, seems to be fighting fiercely for people to wait for the whole story before they judge the death of his character. It’s clear that he believes in the storyline and the writers. I want to trust him, and them. I want this show to succeed on every level. But it’s hard when I can still hear the sound of Culber’s neck snapping.
All art is a form of emotional manipulation. No creator sets out to tell stories and doesn’t intend to make people feel something, even if that feeling is as straightforward as a fist pump after a particularly rousing fight scene. The true masters of the art of visual storytelling are the ones that use a complex mixture of lighting, music, camera angles, dialogue and especially an actor’s performance in order to shape the feelings of their audience. How many of us tear up at a famous music cue that we connect with an emotional moment? How many of us feel a pang in our heart reliving a key piece of dialogue? That’s art at its best. This is really, really, tremendously difficult to achieve. If it was easy, we wouldn’t have the Razzies.
When a creator misjudges how an audience is going to react emotionally to something, it can cause tremendous anger. The most intense backlashes against art are all fundamentally a miscommunication between author and audience. I truly don’t think that Aaron Harberts set out to crush me. I don’t think that Wilson Cruz is out there somewhere cackling over my broken heart. I CERTAINLY don’t think that they wrote this story to punish Culber’s queerness in the way writers did when this trope began. I think that the people who make Discovery are talented and they want to tell good stories. I just think that perhaps the writers, looking at their story from the perspective of a group of people who know how it’s going to end, who understand the authorial intent of everyone involved, may have misjudged the impact on certain sections of their audience. I think when they are writing their story, occasionally they reach for a sledgehammer when they need a chisel.
In the end, the politics around queer representation are complicated. The act of enjoying art is subjective. Every person viewing Star Trek is bringing their own experiences, biases, and tastes with them as they watch the episode. No two people watching that scene is going to have the exact same reaction. There are fans that truly loved every aspect of this episode, and that includes gay fans. Some have expressed excitement about how he may return, referencing the epic love story creators seem to be promising, some thought it was dramatic and exciting. Some are willing to deal with a bury your gays trope if it means we get to see some gays in space at all. There were also some fans that reacted much like I did, with disappointment and horror. Neither the Trek community nor the queer community is a monolith and there is always going to be a plethora of opinions as unique as we all are.
Try and be gentle with each other. Support each other even if you don’t agree. Let people feel what they are going to feel, because especially with emotions that run this deep the responses are going to be profoundly passionate and personal. The Trek fandom as a whole has to get better at disagreeing with each other, and we have to get better at expressing our anger when the franchise and the creators disappoint us.
For myself personally, I am going to stick with the show. I am going to try and hang in there and see where these characters end up. Maybe after the next couple of episodes all of my fears will be laid to rest and it’ll turn out that the writers really did have an epic plan to get it all back on track. I hope so, but I doubt it. My trust in the creators has definitely been shaken, and that’s tough. It’s also something that can’t be fixed easily or without scarring, not even with say, mushroom magic. All I can hope for is that perhaps the next time a Star Trek writer tackles an issue as tough as this one, they do so with a bit more care.