Lillian Hellman made her Broadway debut by writing The Children’s Hour in 1934, a play in which two young teachers’ lives are ruined when a student accuses them of having a lesbian relationship. William Wyler adapted the play to screen twice in 1934 and 1961, and it wasn’t until the latter film that any version of this story actually allowed one of the characters to be a closeted lesbian—it was the one who hanged herself onscreen because Audrey Hepburn didn’t love her back.
You can carry the trope on down through Oscar winning performances like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and Heath Ledger as a doomed, closeted cowboy in Brokeback Mountain. You can also see it in genre fare as wide-ranging as all the gay characters in V for Vendetta… and most of those in Game of Thrones.
To be fair, very few characters achieve happy endings in Martin’s world, which in itself is a fantastical version of medieval England. In other words, this is not a great era to be alive for people attracted to other members of the same sex. However, the medieval patriarchy’s cruelty to women has also long fascinated Martin and he’s spent much of his text in “A Song of Ice and Fire” challenging it with central point-of-view characters like Brienne of Tarth, Arya Stark, or the more traditionally feminine Daenerys Targaryen. The latter of whom defies medieval gender roles by taking what is hers with fire and blood. Dany is a conqueror like Aegon before her, or William of 1066 fame for that matter.
Granted, we know the (probable) end of Dany’s story thanks to the final season of Game of Thrones. It’s as bitter as the ashes falling on her throne. However, hers is not the only story in Game of Thronesand whereas Dany falls to her own ambitions and paranoias, Sansa Stark rises and becomes the unexpected queen who did what her brothers could not: earn the North its independence.
There is no such subversion or reconsideration of the gay or queer experience in Martin’s world. Generally, any character coded as such meets a grim fate: Renly Baratheon is murdered by his brother’s supernatural shadow in the books and on the show; his lover Loras is accused of treason and of lying incestuously with his sister (at least in the book). We don’t yet know Loras’ fate in the books, but it was quite explosive on Game of Thrones; and the bisexual Prince Oberyn Martell became everyone’s favorite new character in A Storm of Swords and Game of Thrones Season 4, only to have his head smashed in like a melon.
There are some minor exceptions, at least on Game of Thrones where the Yara (Gemma Whelan) character is revealed to also favor women and lives to the end, but even that is an underdeveloped invention of the show (the sexuality of her literary counterpart, Asha, remains ambiguous). Meanwhile her only named lover in the series, Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma), dies badly.