On March 3rd, 2016, on the CW’s The 100, a young woman named Commander Lexa was struck by a stray bullet. Lexa, a lesbian, died with her female lover, bisexual main character Clarke Griffin, at her side, not five minutes after the two of them had consummated their relationship. Up until this point, Lexa had been objectively one of the best portrayals of a lesbian character on television. She was not evil, she did not end up with a man, her sexuality was not tiptoed around or forgotten: she was boldly and unapologetically a lesbian, and thousands of girls found a friend and a role model in her. And then, all of a sudden, she was gone.
She wasn’t the first.
Ever since the very first explicitly gay characters hit television screens in 1960s, bookstore shelves in the late 1800s, movie theatres in the 1910s, they have been subject to abuse upon abuse. In 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, came into effect, and banned depictions of “sexual perversion” from being shown on television and in movies – and, of course, homosexuality was considered a “sexual perversion” at this time. The Hays Code deemed all explicit mention and portrayal of gay or lesbian characters immoral, and scripts brought forward containing such material were rejected unless they presented non-straight characters in a negative light.
A similar sort of homophobia was present in print novels during this era. When pulp fiction became popular in the 1950s, for example, some pulp novels starring lesbian characters began to appear – but these weren’t happy stories. Every one of these novels was rife with tragedy and always ended one of two ways: with the death of the lesbian or with her “conversion” into a straight woman. It wasn’t until 1952 that the very first lesbian novel with a happy ending was published: Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, which was recently adapted into the critically-acclaimed 2015 film Carol.
And now, in the twenty-first century, LGBT+ characters are still met with intense hostility. They are still treated so poorly by screenwriters and novelists: committing suicide, being abused or cast out by their own families, ending up in heterosexual relationships and having their identities erased. Lesbian and bisexual women are being killed off in droves – Autostraddle, a news organization run by and for LGBT+ women, compiled a list of every dead lesbian or bisexual woman in the full history of television. That list is currently at 160, and the number is still climbing.
Maybe 160 doesn’t sound like a very large number. But when you consider that that number represents more than 40% of all lesbian or bisexual female characters who have ever appeared on television, it starts seeming a whole lot larger. Autostraddle compiled another list, this time of lesbian or bisexual women who ended their run on TV happily, but this list was much shorter: only 29 lesbian and bisexual women, in the full history of television, have gotten a happy ending.
Representation for gay men on TV has been somewhat better. Gay men are often portrayed in happy, fulfilling relationships (for example, Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family, Kurt and Blaine on Glee). This is not to say that television’s representation of gay men is perfect: for instance, the vast majority of gay men on TV are white and cisgender. Gay men on television are also more likely to die than straight men. Riese, the author of Autostraddle’s list of dead lesbian/bisexual female characters, also compiled a list of 109 dead gay and bisexual male characters on television.
Representation for transgender characters has been minimal and, for the most part, negative: of the just 105 transgender female characters ever portrayed on television, almost all of them have been portrayed as deceitful, unstable, or even violent. Many of them have also met a tragic end. Most recently, for example, ABC series Pretty Little Liars, often acclaimed for its generally positive portrayals of lesbian and bisexual characters, revealed a transgender woman as the show’s main villain and, just one episode later, had her killed off. And as for trans men? There have been no more than ten transgender men portrayed on TV, and many of them have been subject to similar tropes: they are often portrayed as deceitful, aggressive, or “just really butch lesbians.”
What is the message we are supposed to draw from this? What are young LGBT+ kids supposed to think when we sit down to watch a movie, read a book, or turn on the television and see a lesbian character shot in the stomach? When we read about a gay boy beaten and left for dead in an alleyway? When a trans girl or boy commits suicide right before our eyes?
It’s simple: when unhappy endings are all we see, we no longer believe it’s possible for us to achieve happiness. To us, happiness seems to be exclusively for straight, cisgender couples. That is, in a word, terrifying.
That is why we, the BAHS QSA, have created The HEDA Project. Named for Commander Lexa, also known as Heda Leksa, our goal is to provide stories for the LGBT+ community that do not end in tragedy. Our acronym, HEDA, stands for “Happy Endings: Deserved by All.” Here, the LGBT+ characters are not side characters tossed aside and murdered to advance the plotlines of straight characters. Here, you are the hero. You save the day, you slay the dragon, you ride off into the sunset. We here at The HEDA Project hope to give you a safe, positive space to express yourself and get your happy ending.