Nelsan Ellis died Saturday. He is best known for playing Lafayette on HBO’s “True Blood,” a show laced with camp and satire centering on one fictional town’s (Bon Temps, Louisiana) navigation of vampires “coming out of the coffin.”
Satirically drawing on the experiences of LGBTQ people living in the South, “True Blood” is full of exaggerated characters using bigotry, gore, and exclusion for humor. It is horribly beautiful.
I don’t really want to focus on the passing of Nelsan Ellis. I want to focus on visibility.
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There has never been a character on television who has brought me more joy than Lafayette, a muscular, sassy, dark-skinned, make-up-wearing, head-wrap-adorning chef ready to fight whomever wherever (and win!).
Before Lafayette there was no black, country, butch femme on television.
I am so grateful to Nelsan for how masterfully he played that role. His no-nonsense attitude toward anyone who did not welcome him told me it was possible to thrive when people did not want me to.
His individual style in such a small town showed me I was able to be beautiful regardless of societal standards of beauty. His fierce love of everyone in his family inspired me to invest and love hard.
Most of all, Lafayette was real. When Lafayette was brave, we were all brave. When Lafayette hurt, we all hurt. And, knowing Lafayette had real struggles made us so much more invested when he stood up to formidable foes.
Seeing someone who so closely represented who I am and how I thrive gave me strength to stand up and be present today. As a black, queer performer, I had to learn to recognize that people were watching – people are watching. What I do is not just about me because there are so many forces in the world telling young people who they can and cannot be – I just hope my presence helps one person know it is OK to be true to themselves all the time. For me, one of the people who made it possible for me to exist was Nelsan Ellis.
Just remember whenever you are brave enough to wake up and slay the game, someone looks at you and thinks, “I want to be like them.” Be Lafayette and live your best life every day.
J. Clapp is an active member of the Durham community and performs as Vivica C. Coxx.