Jordan Eagles was in his 20s the first and only time he tried to donate blood. He told the blood blank he was gay, and they promptly refused his donation. That was the day Eagles, a New York City-based artist whose primary medium is blood, learned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had banned gay men from ever donating. Furious, Eagles demanded his paperwork back. Things got loud, as Eagles tells the Voice, today. He caused a bit of a scene, but he did get his forms back.
“It was horrible. But that anger must have sat inside me, and now it can help produce something with hope and optimism,” says Eagles, now 38. “The FDA is scared of emerging diseases. They think that if an emerging disease would come out, the gays would be hit first.”
Last week, Eagles’ newest piece, “Blood Mirror,” opened at Trinity Church on Wall Street. The “mirror” is an installation containing nine slides stacked vertically within centimeters of each other. Each one, like a giant slide you’d place under a giant microscope, holds the blood of one of the nine gay, bisexual, and transgender men who donated for the project. The objective, Eagles says, was to protest the FDA’s lifetime ban on “gay blood.”
Before AIDS was called AIDS, it was called GRID: gay-related immune deficiency. This was the early 1980s, before the virus had been identified. Doctors who treated gay men with AIDS understood anecdotally that the virus was likely spread through sexual contact. In 1982, within the span of a few months, several hemophiliacs who had gotten routine blood transfusions to promote clotting began developing AIDS-related infections and diseases.
In 1983, the Food and Drug Administration banned blood donations from men who had had sex with another man at any point since 1977, when HIV is widely believed to have first begun to spread. In the absence of an HIV test, the FDA relied on behavioral data to predict risk of contracting the virus. National health officials isolated four risk groups, which were dubbed the 4 H’s—“Haitians, homos, heroin addicts, and hemophiliacs,” says Eric Sawyer, a founding member of the HIV/AIDS activist organization ACT UP.
“It was just such a fearsome thing,” says Reverend John W. Moody, who is 89 years old, and whose blood is featured in the exhibit. “I remember calling on patients in the hospital, and we just didn’t know what was happening. It was such a time of fear and lack of understanding. And so the FDA at that time made a ban that all gay and bisexual man could not give blood. That still stands. Here we are, what, 40 years later and that’s still standing.”
In May 2015, the FDA published a draft of proposed changes to current policy, which, if enacted, would strike the lifetime ban for gay men in exchange for a one-year celibacy requirement, as recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The FDA maintains that men who primarily have sex with men are a high-risk group. Though all blood donations in the United States are tested individually for HIV, the tests are not perfect, and so the FDA says that it can’t justify eliminating questions about behavioral risk factors.
“They say ‘we’re doing you all a favor by letting you give blood if you’re celibate,'” Eagles says about the FDA’s proposed policy change. “That’s crap.”
Of the men whose blood is featured in the sculpture, one is a former member of the armed services named Anthony Woods, who was booted under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell;” Ty Spicha, who is currently unable to donate to his own identical twin brother, who is straight; and Loren Rice, a transgender man who donated blood several times when he was younger and dated women, but now that he is married to a man is no longer able. “They just make you feel like a criminal or something,” says Rice. Another donor, Dr. Howard Grossman, the former executive director of the American Academy of HIV Medicine, was one of the first doctors to see AIDS cases. Grossman also drew each donor’s blood for the project and personally tested all of the samples for HIV.
With room for 150 more slides, the installation won’t be finished until the FDA eliminates the the ban altogether, Eagles says.