The Controversial History of the Queer-Coded Vampire

Positive LGBTQ representation is on the rise across pop culture. The queer-coded roots of the vampire cast a shadow that hasn’t always been so (b) positive.

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It might come as a surprise—what with countless modern adaptations depicting literature’s favorite bloodsuckers as gay—to learn that the vampire as an LGBTQ icon comes as the result of a long and oftentimes frustrating road. We’re looking back on how the vampire went from homophobic scapegoat to queer figurehead in a matter of centuries.

The Sexually Ambiguous Vampire of the 19th Century

The modern literary vampire was born, blood-slicked and controversial from wing to toe, into an age of countless social restrictions. In those early years, the vampire stood for all things fearful. In the late 19th and early 20th century, that meant: sexual liberation, foreign influence, and the spread of infectious disease, all culminating in a creature whose demeanor could range from suave to monstrous, depending on whose variation came tapping at your window.

Despite the seemingly groundbreaking themes authors like Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker touched upon, however, timely social limitations would prove a lasting stake in the hearts of their creatures of the night. The former devised Carmilla, the titular antagonist of a story in which the succubus feeds from a girl named Laura and develops an attachment with her. While Carmilla has now been recognized as an early feminist LGBTQ icon, Le Fanu’s decision to leave her sexuality ambiguous spoke to his own wariness of societal prejudices at the time.

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In a similar fashion, Bram Stoker never explicitly addressed Dracula’s pseudosexual relationship with Jonathan Harker, nor the taboo undertone of sexual liberation behind the Count’s preying upon Lucy Westernra.

By the turn of the century, the queer-coded vampire was setting a discouraging pattern. The vampire had become a poster child for many of the same fears attributed to marginalized groups—Jews, immigrants, and of course, members of the LGBTQ community—with none of the positive elements of its character being explicitly attributed to those groups. Each author, in turn, bit maddeningly close to the jugular vein, tiptoed around the intriguing sexual identities of their career-defining creations… and promptly left them to rot in their tombs out of an overabundance of social caution.

Icons and Fresh Prejudice in the 20th-Century

The horror boom of the mid-20th century saw the vampire reemerge in literature, this time with a personality extending beyond bloodthirst and dominion over its victims. With that deeper characterization came a new opportunity to explore the vampire’s sexuality.

Authors like Chelsea Quinn Yarbo and Anne Rice took to the challenge with immortalizing results, the latter emerging with her Vampire Chronicles series, which explored a duo of male vampire “parents” caring for an undead child. Works like Carmilla and Dracula were dissected for their society-defying antagonists and homoerotic themes, the perspective of the blood-affiliated outsider timelier than ever. The identity found within such literature has since been reinvented and reinterpreted well into the modern day.

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Around the same time as these literary strides were being made; however, homophobic sentiments were rising to the boiling point with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Countless stereotypes and misconceptions painted members of the community as likely carriers of the virus, leading hospitals to deny blood donations from LGBTQ patients.

Connect the dots—the horror mania of the 70s and 80s meets societal fears of an “outsider” quite literally founded in blood—and it becomes clear how the vampire’s identity as a queer icon was about to be reinvented once again.

Modern Times: The Monster is Reclaimed

The vampire of the 21st century bears the horror-rooted DNA of its earliest iterations, infused with an affinity for gothic camp. It’s become a modern, if not exhausted, cultural icon as a result. Writers on shows like What We Do in the Shadows depict their bloodsuckers as nuanced figures with real loves, desires, and personal issues, and the matured sexual identities expected of characters with (cold) hearts. Countless dark YA novels, from Lost Souls to The Lost Girls, take their own spins on the myth with queer themes throughout.

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The queer-coded vampire has come a long way from its days without concrete identity; its desires and emotions overshadowed by its own stereotype-rooted reputation. And while it might hiss at its time in the sunlight, it’s well-deserved.

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