In September 2008, just weeks before Barack Obama was elected president, True Blood premiered on HBO. Its evocative title sequence, which features Southern-gothic images like rattlesnakes, a child dressed in KKK robes, and a church signboard inscribed with the words “God Hates Fangs,” were the first clues viewers had that this was no ordinary vampire soap opera — this drama might actually have bite.
Throughout its six-year run, the show has fulfilled this promise in its portrayal of a civil rights movement for the supernatural. Vampires of every race and sexual orientation have “come out of the coffin” and demanded social and political equality. Some have done so through savvy media campaigns while others have raised angrier voices, reacting to threats from religious zealots, antivampire politicians, and infected blood.
In the real world, viewers needed only to switch from HBO to CNN to see similar scenes unfolding. From the 2008 passage and 2013 overturning of Proposition 8 and the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” to the ongoing HIV and AIDS crisis and the death of Fred Phelps – whose signs reading “God Hates Fags” picketed the funerals of LGBT people – have been among the numerous real-world parallels depicted in True Blood.
Looking back on these parallels between the real and fictional world of the show, Kristin Bauer van Straten, who has portrayed the lesbian vampire Pam De Beaufort since season 1, reflects on how groundbreaking True Blood truly was in its portrayal of characters and stories that staked at the heart of what it means to be a minority in America.
“I always wonder how many people just enjoy the show and how many people see the depth that Alan Ball began,” Bauer van Straten says, referring to the show’s gay creator. “And for me, that’s what gives HBO and the character of Pam in this show a lasting presence.”
“Crazy stuff happens in Bon Temps,” she adds. “But really, it’s nothing crazier than what we deal with in life on earth.”
There’s been no shortage of crazy stuff in Bon Temps, the fictional Louisiana town where humans and supernatural creatures reluctantly coexist. Vampires, werewolves, witches, werepanthers, fairies, and more have descended upon the locale in recent years, often at odds with one another as well as the conservative natives who view them as monsters.
Bauer van Straten sees the draw that such colorful characters, as portrayed by an attractive cast filled with “eye candy,” could have on an audience that is not necessarily pro-LGBT, and how Ball has used that magnetism to help sway hearts and minds.
“How do you get people to see another viewpoint that they are closed to?” Bauer van Straten muses. “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.”
Throughout the past six seasons, True Blood has introduced viewers to more than simple metaphors of minority groups. From the beginning, the show has incorporated at least 12 out LGBT characters, including Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis), a flamboyant chef and psychic medium whose relationship with boyfriend Jesus Velasquez (Kevin Alejandro) is prominently featured in several seasons. Another major LGBT character is Tara Thornton, the bisexual best friend of protagonist Sookie (Anna Paquin), who eventually becomes Pam’s lover.
Other characters like the middle-aged vampire-blood donor Eddie Gauthier (Stephen Root), Tara’s ex-girlfriend Naomi (Vedette Lim), Sookie’s cousin Hadley Hale (Lindsey Haun), vampire rights activist Nan Flanagan (Jessica Tuck), and the former vampire queen of Louisiana Sophie-Anne Leclerq (Evan Rachel Wood), are also portrayed as having same-sex attraction, peppering each season with fresh stories that resonate with their real-life LGBT viewers.
From savvy talking heads to brassy bar owners to closeted religious leaders, the series has showcased numerous gay and lesbian characters from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds in a record that remains unmatched on TV today. Even straight characters, like Sam Merlotte or Jason Stackhouse, have had love scenes with character of the same sex through dreams or fantasy sequences, speaking to the fluidity of sexual attraction.
While other shows have been hesitant to portray gay villains, presumably for fear of dredging up harmful stereotypes, True Blood has been unafraid to show gay men baring fangs. Russell Edgington, played with sinister refinement by gay actor Denis O’Hare, is described by Bauer van Straten as one of the show’s most compelling antagonists, not because he was wicked, but because he was a fully fleshed-out character. In fact, his motivations are largely attributed to the grief he felt over the death of his partner Talbot, whom he loved.