As the University Blood Initiative continues to advocate for more accessible, equitable blood donation, we are turning our attention to one of its most infamous, hotly contested barriers. For the next week, we will be discussing the history, impacts, and future of LGBTQ+ blood donor discrimination, from the AIDS epidemic to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the 1980s, the United States has upheld intense donation restrictions on potential MSM (men who have sex with men), though the lifetime ban has changed to a shorter-term deferral period. Since its inception, the FDA’s ban has drawn criticism from the LGBTQ+ community.
In 2019, Vice profiled an artist named Jordan Eagles. Eagles, who is in his early 40s, grew up under the FDA’s lifetime ban, and, Vice recounts, was turned away from donating blood because of his sexuality. In protest, Eagles began making art containing human blood: between 2014 and 2016, he created Blood Mirror, “a seven-foot-tall block of UV resin filled with human blood donated, under medical supervision, by 59 gay, bisexual, and transgender men.”
And then, in 2015, after the initial construction of the piece, the FDA revised its guidelines to implement a deferral period, rather than doing away with the ban altogether. However, as Eagles explained, the restrictions were “spitting in the face of science”--PrEP, a highly effective means of reducing HIV transmission, had been well-established, and blood donations were screened for potential risks. The deferral period was a vestige of hate disguised as science, nothing more. Eagles hosted another blood drive and contributed a pint of blood from its donors, all of whom were taking PrEP, to Blood Mirror. This, Vice writes, “[fortified] a monument that represents potential but wasted resources” (currently, the Red Cross prohibits donors who are taking or have ever taken HIV-prevention medication such as PrEP). Although Blood Mirror may be his most high-profile piece, Eagles has been working with preserved blood--both human and animal--for decades, and much of it has been displayed throughout New York City.
Blood Mirror, haunting and revelatory as it may be, is only part of a larger movement. Blood Equality launched in partnership with both Eagles’s work and Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) to spotlight the discriminatory nature of the FDA’s rulings. The site alone makes easily accessible informational resources such as medical articles, news updates, and educated opinions about the policy, and Blood Equality as a movement touts an impressive resume of activism, including panel discussions, art installations, and medical advisory boards in conjunction with GMHC “to evaluate the current MSM blood donation policy and to urge the FDA to further revise the current policy.”
British artist Stuart Semple has similarly created protest art. After collecting blood samples from MSM employees at the creative agency Mother, Semple turned the blood into ink to print on t-shirts. The “Blood is Blood” shirt has been available for pre-order since 2018 with few updates towards its official release, but Semple maintains a dedicated online following and continues to use his platform for activism. (He is probably most notable for his feud with Anish Kapoor, the artist responsible for Chicago’s Bean.)
GLAAD, too, has been a vocal opponent of MSM blood restrictions. In July of 2013, they hosted the “first-ever National Gay Blood Drive,” an act of protest against the FDA. Though it did not become the annual event the pitch made it out to be, the Gay Blood Drive has been revived by “supporters of the original cause” and maintains an active blog on the subject. The intention of the original National Gay Blood drive, they explain, was to create “a peaceful country-wide stance in which normally eligible bisexual/gay male donors would show up to get tested at their local blood donation center and attempt to donate their blood.” Each donor would inevitably be refused, and, as that happened, “their evaluation result [would] be taken, collected and passed to the FDA – visually conveying on a national level how much blood that the gay community could give to the blood supply if they lift their ban and change the current policy.”
Though the future of the Gay Blood Drive remains uncertain in the time of COVID-19, its mission is clear. Like Jordan Eagles and Blood Equality, it aims to show the FDA just how much viable blood is being turned away due to archaic, discriminatory practices. The security of America’s blood supply is tenuous in the best of times; it cannot afford to reject donors on this scale. We need these donations, and modern medicine has rendered them by and large safe, so, these activists argue, there is no reason to reject them beyond pure discrimination.