Homosexual Vampires, Lesbians, and the Dark Ladies

Homosexual Vampires, Lesbians, and the Dark Ladies
Copyright © Photograph by Leo Malevanchik

Vampires currently rule the western world. Ubiquitous Twi-hards — a popular culture term for the teenaged supplicants of Stephenie Meyer’s ludacrious ‘Twilight’ novels and films — obsess over Robert Douglas Thomas Pattinson, and when he is between filming sequels of the series, they tune into television’s ‘Twilight’-equivalent young adult saga, ‘The Vampire Diaries.’ More mature vampire aficionados imbibe Charlaine Harris Schulz’s ‘Sookie Stackhouse’ novels and enjoy HBO’s favorite adaptation, ‘True Blood.’ Homosexual men can watch on television not only Harris’ delicious African-American Lafayette (his role expanded beyond the novels’ parameters by ‘True Blood’s homosexual producer Alan Ball) — but also, on Showtime in the United States of America, the homosexual-oriented vampire programme, ‘The Lair.’

Within these luxurious celebrations of blood and sex, the lesbian community of colour in the United States of America has been largely overlooked, despite the vampire being “a figure whose existence (whether derived from the precedent of folklore or of fiction) is apparently ideally suited for appropriation by writers expressing the pleasures, frustrations and, indeed, dangers of the [LGBTQ] lifestyle.” This omission may also reflect a possible “new era of racial confusion — or perhaps a crisis in representation,” as addressing race in American media productions “has rarely been a matter of simple step-by-step progress” but rather something which has “proceeded in fits and starts, with backlashes coming on the heels of breakthroughs.”

Lesbian eroticism was codified as violent and transgressive in English language vampire literature by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’ (1816), while Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ (1871) canonised increasingly stereotypical expectations of plot and female character, and the three “brides” of Dracula in Abraham Stoker’s 1897 novel have an almost deliberately indefinable mutuality of sexual evil and degradation. Throughout the nineteenth-century, male authors continued to situate paradigmatic literary female vampires within narrow heterocentric definitions of Gothic and supernatural genres. Hence the erotic relationships these female characters had with other women “more often than not [were] a form of rape in which the vampire, generally a woman possessed of some social status or power, attacked or seduced a woman of no status.”

As Ellen Moers noted, later women writers of vampire fiction appeared and “continued to make monsters in the twentieth-century […] as aberrant creatures.” Those female-created vampires were showing signs of evolution. Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman’s ‘Luella Miller’ offers one of the first depictions of the psychic, sexually ambivalent vampire, while Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s ‘Good Lady Ducayne’ is an oddly sympathetic latter-day Elizabeth Bathory, re-envisioning that iconic figure of feminine sexual perversion and signifying evolving approaches to established lesbian vampire constructs. As Andrea Weiss noted in her landmark study Vampires and Violets, “The lesbian vampire is more than simply a negative stereotype. She is a complex and ambiguous figure, at once an image of death and an object of desire, drawing on profound subconscious fears that the living have toward the dead and that men have toward women while serving as a focus for repressed fantasies.”

The complex ambiguity of the lesbian vampire very readily lends itself than to women of colour, exploring in their fiction the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, class, assimilation, and the transgressive significance of the myth. Particularly since the 1970s, collections of work by and about lesbians — such as Pam Keesey’s ‘Daughters of Darkness’ and Victoria A. Brownworth’s ‘Night Bites’ — have provided popular outlets for these explorations.

While one must avoid generalisations concerning intercultural feminist perspectives, two works by two particular women of colour — the African-American Jewelle Gomez, and the Chicana-American Terri de la Peña — have incorporated the rich heritage of the vampire myth along with the author’s personal and political concerns as reflected in the 1960s and 1970s American feminist rhetoric.

Jewelle Gomez’s ‘The Gilda Stories: A Novel’ is a collection of episodes written over fifteen years and collected first in 1991, then expanded and reissued in 2004. As Jewelle Gomez noted in a 2011 email to those following her website, This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of my vampire novel, ‘The Gilda stories.’ It is unusual for a book from an independent press to stay in print this long, and I am incredibly pleased that Gilda is still pleasing readers.

The collection explores the parameters of oppositional power among African American and Native American subcultures through the “metaphor [of] marginality” within the fictive lives of her lesbian vampire characters, while illuminating Jewelle Gomez’s literary aesthetic which insists that “the whole lives of black lesbians, not simply the most assimilated aspects, must be explored in order for us to be really seen.”

Chicana author Terri de la Peña similarly explores power constructs within her short story ‘Refugio.’ Like Jewelle Gomez, Terri de la Peña appropriates the Gothic vampire genre to explore Chicana and Latina lesbian experience in the Los Angeles area. While de Terri la Peña’s fictive oeuvre does not primarily reflect the literary Gothic, focusing instead upon contemporary social challenges, she nevertheless efficiently utilises certain Gothic tropes to emphasise her activist agenda.

Despite specific narrative variances, the two works share remarkably similar socio-political concerns, demonstrating a 1960s–1970s American feminist philosophy that “the political made personal” inform all activities, including creative endeavours of the vampiric kind. Jewelle Gomez asserted this feminist dictum in an essay she wrote concerning her vampire fiction, noting that her “impulse to shape Gilda into the heroic figure she became grew out of that sense of connection between art, politics, and everyday life instilled by the activism of those periods.” Indeed, Jewelle Gomez’s activism continues; her photograph with her life partner Diane A. Sabin appeared in a May 2009 US Today article about the California Supreme Court is upholding the right of voters to reverse the court’s May 2008 decision to legalise same-sex unions.

The authors also employ a compassionate tone which reaffirms traditional modes of feminine experience, reclaiming these stereotypes as central rather than oppositional to feminist ideology. This is notably demonstrated in Jewelle Gomez and Terri de la Peña’s re-envisioning of vampiric bloodletting and violence; female community and mentorship through the “establishment of a vampire community [which] serves to register a disaffection with, and a search for an alternative to, the modern [heterosexual] family and its values”; and their reconfiguration of Gothic themes and tropes, specifically those addressing female sexuality and alterity, and sociopolitical activism. Both authors challenge a white supremacist discourse in which “race and gender are constructed as differences, and the difference is equated with inequality […] Moreover, like racial difference, sexual difference is believed to be a fact of nature and immutable.” Their lesbian vampire protagonists oppose this discourse while draining its blood.

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