Last December, the FDA finally heeded protests claiming that the lifetime ban on gay men donating blood was discriminatory and unscientific. Instead, it ruled that gay and bisexual men can’t donate unless they’d been celibate for an entire year. Many still found this new ruling unrealistic if not a bit insulting.
Artist Jordan Eagles felt this way, and his project to call attention to, and spark discussion about, what he calls “blood equality,” Blood Mirror, has been on display this month at the American University Museum in Washington, D.C. On November 2, it will move to Trinity Church in New York.
Blood, for Eagles, is something to be shared: For years, his work has included large-scale light-based installations, sculptures, and photographs that incorporated the fluid (which he got from slaughterhouses) as both its medium and subject matter. The work “was rooted in abstraction and sought to explore themes of corporeality and spirituality,” Eagles says. And while many gay men read into the work a commentary on “gay blood” — a freighted idea since the arrival of AIDS in the 1980s — he “did not have a political agenda.” And then, in 2013, Eagles was looking into the ban the FDA had in place for gay and bisexual male who are potential blood donors, which was instituted at a time of public-health panic, in 1983. “The more I began to examine the original guidelines that inform it,” he continues, “the more I realized how outdated it was for the circumstances we find ourselves in today.”
Even after the rules changed in 2014, Eagles notes, “In many ways, it felt even more discriminatory,” with the decision “in effect saying, ‘Yes, you can donate blood, just as long you don’t do what makes you gay.’” While many groups lauded the new rules as momentous, other organizations such as New York’s GMHC labeled the new policy as “offensive and harmful.”
Better and more rapid tests used in detecting HIV, as well as the use of Truvada to prevent infection of others, have come together to make the ban seem antique. In 2013, the American Medical Association labeled the FDA’s stance as “discriminatory and not based on sound science.”
A study by UCLA’s Williams Institute last year found that lifting the ban completely could save up to a million lives annually.
Eagles began work in 2014 on what would eventually become Blood Mirror. A seven-foot plinthlike vessel, it’s comprised of the blood from nine gay, bisexual, and transgender male donors — one pint from each — encased in resin.
Teaming up with activist and filmmaker Leo Herrera, as well as members of the New York–based D.J. duo the Carry Nation, Eagles organized a group show at the American University, exhibiting Blood Mirror alongside Herrera’s film documenting the sculpture’s fabrication and profiling its nine donors. The show provided a context for discussing the ban’s history and its current manifestation.
Among the nine original blood donors for Blood Mirror is the Reverend John Moody, a retired priest and former staff member of Trinity Church. “The aim,” Eagles emphasizes, “in bringing the exhibition up from Washington is to position the issue not only as a political one, but also as a deeply spiritual matter.”
The exhibition will be on view from November 2 (All Souls’ Day) through December 1 (World AIDS Day) in the south vestibule of historic Trinity Church.