True Blood’s Queer Legacy

Lafayette is just the beginning of True Blood’s queerness.

Tony Rivetti / HBO

Season 7 of True Blood—HBO’s Southern gothic fantasia on supernatural/human relations—began on Sunday, and, understandably, my Facebook feed was spattered on Monday with expressions of discontent. For an opening sally into the series’ final 10-episode run, the premiere was frustratingly unfocused and flat, substituting a fuzzy drone of Crisis!!! for any exploration of larger themes, truly compelling stakes, or even a tantalizing new addition to the “supe” menagerie. And yet, I will surely follow Sookie Stackhouse and Bill Compton to the end, as I’m sure many of my Facebook co-watchers—almost all gay people—will do as well, for one simple reason: Despite going off the rails somewhere on the way to fairyland seasons ago, True Blood remains one of the most dependably and grippingly queer shows on television.

Of course, that show creator Alan Ball had LGBTQ politics at least somewhat in mind when conjuring the humid Louisiana town of Bon Temps from Charlaine Harris’ mystery novels and his own imagination is not news. Since its start, True Blood has been widely understood as a kind of allegory for the gay rights struggle in the United States. In the show’s timeline, vampires had “come out of the coffin” about their existence two years before Sookie meets Bill, and their star-crossed encounter at Merlotte’s occurs as the nation is in the throes of a debate about vampire equality.* A GLAAD or HRC-like organization, the American Vampire League, is formed to promote vampire rights—especially through the Vampire Rights Amendment, a constitutional measure that would make vampires equal to humans under the law—and outreach events like the ill-fated “Festival of Tolerance.”

As faithful gay viewers will tell you, though, attempting to track the analogy closely is a fool’s errand. Unless I missed a memo, the HRC is not beholden to a larger pseudo-religious shadow government like The Authority; most LGBTQ people do not think of “breeders” (humans are called “breathers” in the show) as cattle-like food sources; and HIV/AIDS (loosely rendered as the government-manufactured Hep-V) did not drive anyone to ravage unsuspecting small towns in a fit of predatory madness. And, though Hot Wings, the extra-dimensional fairy nightclub, does remind me of certain Hell’s Kitchen gay parties, denizens of such spaces do not (usually) turn into goblin-like creatures when provoked. To be fair, Ball himself discouraged literal comparisons early on: “To look at these vampires on the show as metaphors for gays and lesbians is so simple and so easy, that it’s kind of lazy,” he said at a press conference in 2009. “If you get really serious about it, well, then the show could be seen to be very homophobic because vampires are dangerous: They kill, they’re amoral.”

And yet, the allure of the allegorical viewing persists. Kristin Bauer van Straten, who plays the jaded lesbian vamp Pam, recently told the Advocate that she still sees True Blood as serving a teaching function with regard to the LGBTQ community: “How do you get people to see another viewpoint that they are closed to? Art is a wonderful way to do that. … I’m sure there’s a lot of people who are watching True Blood who are not pro–gay rights, but maybe that opened the door. Maybe it got them to think a little bit.”

While Ball’s fears regarding straights getting the wrong idea about gay morality from True Blood is well-taken, the fact that the show allows its oppressed minority a range of fairly nuanced representations, whether political, moral, or otherwise, has always been the primary source of its appeal in my estimation. As a journalist who covers LGBTQ issues, one of my main hobbyhorses has long been impressing upon readers that as much as many of us may want to assimilate (called “mainstreaming” in the show) into heteronormative lifestyles, many others—like our real-life Radical Faeries—see something unique in the LGBTQ experience that they wish to preserve. Some of us are cultural separatists and some of us want to dismantle the heteropatriarchy. Others see monogamy and marriage as antithetical to queerness, and indeed, like the vampire dominionists, a few of us even reject the popular = sign in favor of a more assertive >. The point is, queer folk, like vampires, are a diverse group with loads of internal conflict and debates; yet when we talk about an “LGBTQ experience,” the chorus—or at times, cacophony—of voices is an aspect that’s often ignored.

This editing of a vibrant, fractious LGBTQ conversation down into a single-minded press release is understandable, if frustrating. The American Vampire Leagues of our world have found it more useful to present a united, focus-grouped front in their pursuit of legislative, judicial, and cultural change than to “teach the debate” about issues like marriage and the like. There may be no capital-G gay agenda, but that doesn’t mean the HRC doesn’t have one of its own, and that’s the message that most straight Americans hear.

But those of us in the community know things are more complicated than that, and sometimes one can’t help but feel like a little complication would do the wider culture some good. Take, for example, Outward contributor Nathaniel Frank’s account of the beta-tested “sea change” in activists’ approach to marriage equality:

For decades, gay advocates had framed their arguments in terms of equal rights and government benefits, often using rhetoric that was confrontational (“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”) and demanding (“We deserve equal rights now!”). Third Way, a centrist think tank working in the coalition with Freedom To Marry, began to unpack exactly how straight people reacted to such tactics. The group found that when straight people were asked what marriage meant to them, they spoke of love, commitment, and responsibility. But when asked why they thought gay people wanted to marry, they cited rights and benefits. Tapping into anti-gay stereotypes, they suggested gay people wanted marriage for selfish reasons while they themselves wanted to express love and commitment.

The gay rights coalition’s response was the “Why Marriage Matters” campaign. Its message was “love, commitment, family,” with no mention of rights or benefits.

“Why Marriage Matters” was savvy PR, to be sure, but the need to couch state-administered marriage—which is primarily and absolutely about the accrual of crude “rights and benefits”—in silly, lovey-dovey language chafes me to no end. I know good and well it would never work, but the wannabe radical part of me hungers for a movement that, instead of pandering to straight self-righteousness, flatly points out how absurd it is that couples need to get married to have basic protections and benefits in the first place. Or at least to suggest that until that paradigm passes, maybe all consenting adults should be able to partake in the scam equally.

In other words, part of me wants a movement lead in the style of Russell Edgington:

Because it’s a fictional TV show about vampires, True Blood has not always hewed literally to the trajectory of LGBTQ politics and culture; but it has consistently done a superb job sketching the messy, sometimes frustrating experience of being part of a minority community as it comes into contact with the mainstream. Sometimes you really do want a Festival of Tolerance. But at other times, times when the burden of proving yourself worthy of fair treatment gets a little heavy, you just want to rage against the judges—even threaten to eat, I mean recruit, their children—just because they had the gall to fear that behavior in the first place. True Blood’s queer legacy lies in its willingness to portray both these and other desires, in its commitment to plumbing and presenting the mind of the oppressed in such rich detail. Compared to that achievement, the pedantic question of whether God really hates fangs as much as he hates fags is just a footnote.

*Correction, June 27, 2014: This post originally misspelled the name of Merlotte’s, a bar and grill featured in True Blood.