True Blood's Lafayette slays gay stereotypes

OPINION - For black audiences, it could help move along what is readily apparent in all of our daily lives but notably missing from our cinema...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

While America’s fascination with all things vampire seems to be cooling off, the HBO series True Blood manages to stay fresh.

Season four of the hit series is underway with one notable wrinkle central to the series being actor Nelsan Ellis’ portrayal of Lafayette Reynolds, a gay cook, prostitute and “blood” dealer. Ellis’ popularity on the small screen has forced producers to keep him on the show despite the character of Lafayette being killed off at the end of the first book on which the series is inspired.

What is most interesting about Ellis’ portrayal of Lafayette is its departure from the norm of how most homosexual men are usually presented to television audiences. Lafayette doesn’t shy away from being flamboyant yet, his flamboyance is darkly hued and coupled with a signature strength and masculinity that shows he is unashamed of who he is but fiercely defensive of the life he lives and the people he chooses to love.

The question remains, in a world still uncomfortable discussing issues of sexual orientation in an adult way, how far does a character like Lafayette go towards changing hearts and minds on what a gay man can be on screen?

Ellis’ portrayal is certainly seminal but not entirely groundbreaking, even for HBO.

Few characters have made their sexual orientation secondary to what they are to viewers like Omar Little, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, did on The Wire.

Throughout that series, Little, a strictly principled thief, it portrayed with a depth that conveys that he is much more than just a gay man. The layers Little peeled away over five seasons not only challenged the traditional role of a gay man on screen but he managed to strike fear in the hearts of the characters around him too. Not because of the taboo nature of his sexual orientation but the violent and vicious crusade he was on while navigating the Baltimore drug scene. His sexual orientation became inconsequential to who he actually was.

What’s stirring and different about Ellis’ performance is the sources he drew from to pull off his character on True Blood.

The straight, former Marine went to gay clubs from coast to coast, secretly recording the experiences and studying the nuances of gay men but ultimately drew inspiration for the character from his mother and sisters. As he put it in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I’ve been mimicking them my whole life. They’re in my bones.”

Also in his bones was the Southern roots necessary to pull off the struggle of Lafayette being gay in the deep South. The Alabama native spoke about overcoming the homophobia in his own family, some whom weren’t happy to see him gain notoriety through the openly gay character.

Maybe its his Julliard background but what has worked so well is he manages to be sassy without coming off forced or clichéd. Watching the his character relax his edge and accept falling in love in Season 3 was a subtle nod to what a real person does when they too are swept up in another person.

Probably the greatest sign of acceptance and respect was casting a man who could capture the balance between alpha male and sultry romantic instead of the caricature of homosexuality viewers have grown accustomed to. The only real cliché was penning him be a prostitute with a heart of gold a la Pretty Woman.

What could Lafayette mean for gay characters moving forward?

It certainly challenges writers to give homosexual characters more depth than previously required. While the days of a witty gay sidekick to the lead straight character may not be over, audiences have shown they’ll accept more from them than a snappy punch line and exaggerated outfits.

For black audiences, it could help move along what is readily apparent in all of our daily lives but notably missing from our cinema. Openly gay characters can be so much more than fashion-conscious, hairdressers, florists, hyper-feminine figures. Sort of in the same vein of Ving Rhames’ character in Holiday Heart, mainstream acceptance of Ellis’ Lafayette could mean new series’ based around strong, gay leads who have familiar homosexual traits but aren’t necessary defined by them at the end of the day.

I doubt anyone could have expected the sexy vampire series that seemed more comfortable painting a lustful, edgy picture of what could happen when vampires and regular humans mix producing much more than darker, yet equally stereotypical moments like Twilight. But amid its fantasy, True Blood has managed to ask very real questions in a world many would call absurd and has managed to outlast its initial vampire hysteria label.