In 1983, in response to the emerging AIDS crisis, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented a highly discriminatory, lifetime ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men (MSM). Nearly 40 years later, in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and massive blood shortages, the FDA continues these policies for donating blood based on sexual orientation, only allowing MSM to donate if they have been celibate for three months. There is no celibacy requirement for heterosexuals, regardless of their risk for contracting HIV.
On World Blood Donor Day (June 14) and in support of a dynamic and responsive exhibition, CAN YOU SAVE SUPERMAN?, consisting of a new series of works by Jordan Eagles, and curated by Eric Shiner, the New York City AIDS Memorial sat down with Memorial board member, renowned activist, and Housing Works co-founder Eric Sawyer, to discuss the ban and the stigma associated with the ongoing discrimination leveled towards the blood of MSM. CAN YOU SAVE SUPERMAN? is presented by the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art and in additional partnership with Visual AIDS, GMHC, Blood Equality, the LGBT Community Center, the New York City HIV Planning Group, and Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts.
For this series, Eagles appropriates the cover image from a 1971 Action Comics entitled Attack of the Micro-Murderer in which Superman is infected by a futuristic super-virus. In an attempt to save his life, Superman calls on the citizens of Metropolis to donate their blood for a mass blood transfusion. The imager recalls media depictions in the aftermaths of horrific tragedies when communities come together – and heal – through selfless acts of blood donation. This presents the stark contrast that in 1971 a gay man could help save Superman, but in 2020, despite advances in science, treatment, and HIV prevention, he could not. Discriminatory and unnecessary deferral periods in place today for gay and bisexual men prevent them from donating blood and helping to save lives in our communities.
This project is on view June 10 through December 1, 2020, at CanYouSaveSuperman.com.
NYCAM: Most gay and bisexual men, especially those born in the late 1970s or later, have never had an opportunity to donate blood due to the 1983 blood ban. Have you ever been a donor?
Eric Sawyer: Yes, I have. I worked for American Standard Corporation in the early 1980s, and I was in something called Junior Achievement, which was a leadership training program for up and coming leaders, run by the US Chamber of Commerce. They actually had corporate blood drive programs with the Red Cross and I actually ran the American Standard blood donation program because of my involvement with Junior Achievement. So, I was not only giving blood, I was organizing the donations with the Red Cross, and running the donation days. I was quite involved in it.
I actually found out about the prohibition preventing gay men from giving blood during the last one of the blood donation projects I was running. During the course of the set up for it, the Red Cross staff introduced a questionnaire which included information about gay men, asking “are you a man whose has sex with another man, even once?” and so on, and of course the Red Cross person said, if someone is gay, they cannot donate blood. And I was like, “What? Wait a minute, what are you talking about?” And then he went into the whole blood ban and how it was brought forward because of Jesse Helms and the homophobic, AIDS-phobic, hysteria happening at the time. And even though I knew Larry Kramer, and was plugged into the early days of the HIV response, this totally hit me by surprise. I was unaware of it.
And so, I realized I can’t give blood myself. They were telling me about the process and I was just kind of numb, kind of in shock. I knew some other gay employees there and so when they came in I quietly went over to them and took them aside and let them know what was going on so they didn’t have to be embarrassed because at that time not many people were out in gay America.
NYCAM: And, how did it make you feel when the ban was put in place?
ES: You know, it made me ashamed. It created a huge amount of stigma because I also was somewhat [HIV] symptomatic at that time. I had a lymph node biopsy for Hodgkin’s Disease because I had really swollen lymph nodes and the doctor thought I might have that. So, it just added to my own shame and my own stigma around possibly having this new disease. And I literally, when the Red Cross person asked me, “do you want to give blood?” I whispered to them, “I can’t. I’m gay.” And they were like, “Oh, I’m sorry.” And it was like, are you sorry I’m gay? Or that I can’t give blood? It just added to my own shame.
NYCAM: Over the years, you’ve been outspoken about the issue of the blood ban. Why is it so important to you?
ES: Well, I think it is one of the lasting, codified stigmas against the LGBT community. Literally, there are regulations that clearly define us as second class citizens, that our blood is so toxic it’s something that no one would want to have. It no longer makes scientific sense since every blood donation is screened for a whole host of blood-borne illnesses, and that we know that if people have undetectable viral loads, they cannot spread the virus. It is horrendous and that level of second class citizenship needs to go away. For a Long Term Survivor, it’s a reminder of those horrible days when stigma about having HIV was so intense when people were fired from their jobs, evicted from their apartments, denied health insurance, and just treated abominably. It’s a vestige of those days when LGBT people were denied so many things and it’s in everyone’s interest to clear all remaining examples of sanctioned and institutionalized discrimination.
NYCAM: Now during the COVID-19 pandemic, does this issue further resonate? In a time with a great need for blood, even abstinent gay men are still being denied the ability to donate blood even with several new rules in place.
ES: It just further adds not only to the stigma but also the feelings that you are unworthy. Here we have a situation where there is a shortage of blood, and where blood is really needed, but yet again we are told that our blood is unworthy of donation simply because of who we have sex with. And you know, very few gay men are having sex at all right now, unless it’s with regular partners, and it’s the same with opposite-sex couples. Yet, they don’t have to swear celibacy for three months to be able to give blood. It’s just really, really, outrageous that in a time where there is such a demand for blood that we’re still discriminated against.
NYCAM: As you know, Eagles’ project focuses on the hero figure of Superman, so when it comes to superheroes, who is yours?
ES: Well, I guess as a singular superhero, it would remain Larry Kramer, a really close, personal friend of mine who was the original loudmouth, speaking truth to power, and raising his voice to sound an alarm against a horrible virus that was killing many of his friends. He prophesied that because it was spread by sex, and that people weren’t symptomatic until many years after being infected, that he foretold the fact that this virus would circulate the globe silently and kill millions and millions of people. And, he never stopped fighting against HIV, or to find a cure for HIV, or fighting for the rights of people with HIV and LGBT people. He died at 84 and was still writing every day, now about this new virus and HIV, and how they relate to each other. For those reasons, Larry will remain my superhero.