Spoilers ahead for Sunday night's episode of Game of Thrones.
"If the Faith arrested all the pillow biters in King's Landing, there'd be no room in the dungeons for anyone else." —Lady Olenna, Queen of Thorns
On Game of Thrones this season, Loras Tyrell is accused of fornication, buggery, and blasphemy, all acts that were not considered crimes in Westeros until the Faith Militant were resurrected. If anything, they were the norm — how else did Littlefinger's brothel become so profitable?
"King's Landing was sort of like spring break," says Eugene Simon, who plays Lancel Lannister, one of the Sparrows. "It used to be, you could do whatever you wanted and get away with it."
But with the High Sparrow now running the show (thanks, Cersei!), sex is under a microscope, starting with homosexuality, and Westeros is becoming more of a repressive society than ever before — at least in King's Landing. King Joffrey considered making homosexuality a crime punishable by death; as one of the more misogynist and homophobic characters on the show, his attitude was severe, and possibly more reflective of living where the Faith of the Seven (Westeros’s main religion) was dominant. But the Sparrows are a more "totalitarian ideology" than the Seven, Simon says. And some might argue they're not religious at all but using religion as a guise for a power grab, as Finn Jones, who plays Loras, believes. "It's paupers fed up with the elitist rule."
Attitudes on homosexuality differ from region to region. When Gethin Anthony and Finn Jones started their scenes together in season one, they asked writer Bryan Cogman, "So Renly and Loras are gay. What does that mean in different parts of this world?" Jones recalls. "He told us, 'It's not illegal but it's always been taboo. It's not spoken about that much or celebrated that much.'"
The Wildlings didn't blink twice at the possibility of two men hooking up, especially in the absence of other alternatives. In Highgarden, as Lady Olenna told Tywin, it was considered "a natural thing, two boys having a go at each other between the sheets.” You get the sense that people feel similarly in Dorne, given Oberyn Martell's attitudes.
“The way I see it, in Highgarden, they're just very open and accepting," Jones said. "Being gay, being lesbian isn't unnatural. It's free land. I don't want to say it's hippie land, but it has a more carefree attitude. Dorne might have more fire to it and Highgarden might be more airy-fairy, but both places are very open to homosexual relationships."
This might explain why Renly and Loras felt caught between hiding their relationship at court and being more out in the open elsewhere. (Not that hiding helped — Jaime called it the "worst kept secret at court"). They encountered variety of reactions: Littlefinger teased them about it, King Robert was oblivious to it. Certainly, Margaery paid attention to her brother's love life, and was even willing to pretend she was Loras to help Renly consummate their marriage. ("Margaery and Loras are a very loyal sibling unit," Jones says. "There's no bullshit between them.")
The main reason sodomy is considered taboo anywhere is that it isn’t productive — this is a world obsessed with dynasties and continuing a family line. Tywin didn’t oppose Loras being gay so much as he needed a negotiating tactic, and he was willing to overlook it so long as Loras would breed with Cersei and be discreet about the rest. Loras was able to play this game to an extent, but once Renly died and he couldn't openly grieve for him, he had a little more difficulty. Until Littlefinger's employee Olyvar came along and sold him out in Sunday night's episode.
"Loras isn't stupid — he really should know better than to sleep around openly with a squire like he does,” Jones says. “But the way I see it, he's a widower. His life was surrounded by Renly, and since his death, he's feeling really isolated, and he's looking for any kind of engagement to make him feel like himself again. And Olyvar was there, and he has his own motives. Loras let his guard down — he's pissed off that this happened, and he's hurt and embarrassed. And he's upset that the world he's lived in won't accept him for who he is."
This story line is a major departure from the books, where Loras's sexuality is more subtle. Cersei certainly goes after the Tyrells in A Song of Ice and Fire, but she does so by slut-shaming Margaery, an option she doesn't have on the show now that Tommen has been aged up to be able to consummate his marriage. Instead of accusing Margaery of adultery, then, Cersei targets Loras, and gets Margaery in the fallout. She still achieves her goal — Tyrells on trial — but the route raises different issues. Could it be that the Game of Thrones showrunners wanted to make a larger statement about homosexuality, equality, and religious fundamentalism?
"It's not that unlike what is happening right now in the real world," said Jonathan Van Ness, of the "Gay of Thrones" recaps. "It's interesting that the Faith Militant had been done away with 200 years ago, and so there's a parallel with how homosexuality is treated throughout history, where sometimes it's not really a thing, and then all of a sudden it is, and they'll go after you for being gay. We're seeing this right now in Uganda, Russia, and a few other places, where you'll literally be lynched. These things come back, and scary things repeat themselves. And if they are making a statement, I think that would be great. Sexuality being put on trial is going to be a catalyst for a lot of change."
Could Westeros be ready for a gay-rights movement? “Not in King's Landing,” Jones says. “In Highgarden and Dorne, they already live it. Everywhere else? There needs to be a lot of shit changing, and a lot of people would have to die."