By Caitlin Donohue; Top image art by Jordan Eagles
It’s not … every day that I am embarrassed to be from the United States, but there are moments that make me blush. A few years ago I was chatting with a French friend who lives in Berlin. She bitched about the fact that gay men can’t donate blood in her home country.
“OH MY GAH HOW EVEN,” I shrieked, actually indignant. How crazy is Europe? How retro. No wonder it’s the Old Country. Then she told me the same was true in the USA, which I dismissed. “I really don’t think so. I just don’t think so.” Didn’t we leave HIV/AIDS hysteria behind in the early ’90s? Magic Johnson?
Of course, she was right. “Men who have sex with men” have not been allowed to donate blood in the United States since 1983. (You can find out what your country’s policy is here.) And of course we’re not over HIV/AIDS stigma — across the world positive people have to deal with legislation that criminalizes both homosexuality and the even unintentional spreading of the virus, internalized discrimination, and limited access to the drugs that enable them to lead healthy lives. Later, I found out the same US law bans me from donating blood too — women who have slept with a man in the last year who has sex with men have similarly tainted blood in the eyes of the FDA.
This may be set to change soon, albeit in a semi-pathetic manner. The feds are considering a loosening of the restriction so that it would “only” apply to gay men who have had sex in the last year. In the face of so much injustice, New York artist Jordan Eagles could not stay idle. Eagles’ medium of choice is blood — he’s covered gallery walls and churches in hyper magnified sanguine imagery — and for his latest “Blood Mirror” he filled a glass cube with donations from HIV positive men. He then tapped filmmaker Leo Herrera (whose piece “The Fortune Teller” was recently part of a 4U Magazine program in Mexico City’s Cine Tónala, part of the MIX México Film Festival) to make this short film he made in conjuncture with Eagles’ work, about blood stigma and the current political machinations surrounding it.
4U: Tell me how this project came to be.
LEO HERRERA: [Artist] Jordan Eagles recruited me back in August of 2014. This project was a two year process for him and I jumped in halfway. We had to figure out how best to tell this story, which was constantly evolving.
4U: Do you remember the first time you learned it was illegal for gay men to donate their blood in the United States? How did it make you feel?
LEO HERRERA: I may have learned about the policy a long time ago, but it was honestly not something I gave much thought to. Like gays in the military, it was not an issue that I felt directly impacted by, and I think that is part of the issue of why this policy remained intact for so long. So many gay men just didn’t see how it related to them, and I can’t say I blame them. My original thought was, “If you don’t want my blood, then fine.” It wasn’t until learning about the issue itself that I started to understand just how damaging this was, that this was HIV stigma and homophobia in the purest sense.
4U: It seems like such an archaic law. Are there actually people fighting to keep the ban?
LEO HERRERA: There has always been a lot of fear surrounding this policy and that’s how it began. That fear has survived. There have been calls to lift the ban for a very long time, but the institutions that decide these things or advise on them, such as the FDA, Red Cross, etc., no of them wanted to act first.
4U: Your past projects are much less overtly “political.” Was it tough to find artistic inspiration in imagery that is a little less colorful than past footage you’ve worked with?
LEO HERRERA: It was a very difficult project in terms of aesthetics, there needed to be a balance between elements we could make beautiful or simply let them speak for themselves, such as quite literally, the donors. So the message couldn’t get lost in the pursuit of beauty to film. We had little control over the locations themselves: a small cramped doctor’s office where we were trying to get these stories and make these men comfortable, or the studio where the sculpture was actually created, which needed to be kept at 90 degrees so the blood wouldn’t clot. There were several technical difficulties that as a filmmaker I tried to improvise or make the most out of. I usually have a much clearer idea of at least the feeling I want to convey in my pieces, and this policy also kept evolving as this piece was created.
4U: Where/when will “Blood Mirror,” the sculpture featured in the film, be shown?
LEO HERRERA: The sculpture will be shown at American University Museum in DC in Sept-Oct of 2015.
4U: Why did you time the film to be released now? You mentioned it was particularly timely this month …
LEO HERRERA: It was Blood Donor’s Day June 14th, but more importantly, it’s the FDA’s public comment period, during which regular people can send in their comments on the policy, it ends July 14th.