“The Blood is the Life”: Art, Superman & the quest for blood donor equality

Topics: Art & Culture, Discrimination, Diversity, Government, LGBTQ


“The role of the artist is that of the soldier of the revolution.”
– Diego Rivera

On June 14 — World Blood Donor Day — the Red Cross and other global organizations urgently requested blood and platelet donations as part of the ongoing battle against COVID-19, with many volunteers answering the call.

On its surface, blood donation would appear an innocuous civic action insulated from any and all forms of discrimination. Yet, for members of the LGBTQ community, nothing could be farther from the truth.

In 1983, in the dark early days of the AIDS crisis, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a lifetime ban (known as “deferral”) on blood donations from men who have sex with men (MSM). Despite vigorous objection from LGBTQ activists and allies, this policy remained in place until 2015, when the FDA amended its policy to accommodate MSM who abstained from sexual activity with another male for at least one year. Needless to say, the marginalization of MSM with respect to their self-identifying heterosexual or lesbian counterparts (the latter of whom are free to give blood) has been a flash point for numerous generations, particularly those who point to breakthroughs in blood screening technology as evidence of a mitigated risk environment.

If policy or legal measures precluded individuals from saving the lives of others, would you sit idly by? If your body contained critical blood or antibodies to help further science, would you not be compelled to act?

In April 2020, with the enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic just beginning to emerge, the FDA further amended its policy to accommodate blood from MSM who practiced sexual abstinence for the past three months—incremental progress, to be sure, but far short of ideal.

Enter a new generation of LGBTQ blood donation activists.

Jordan Eagles is a New York City based artist whose raison d’être, according to his biography, lies within the “aesthetics and ethics of blood.” Eagles leverages blood and resin to create numerous art projects ranging from abstract paintings to sculptures and installations; and he has had his work exhibited at several prominent cultural institutions, including the Museum of the City of New York, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and the Science Gallery London and Melbourne.

His latest work, a virtual exhibit entitled Can You Save Superman?, is currently on display through December 1, 2020 at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York City.

As exhibit curator Eric Shiner explains, Can You Save Superman? is a timely and powerful “call to action” to exsanguinate a persistent “evil… based not in comic books, but in policy” that has unilaterally discriminated against gay and bisexual men. Eagles appropriates a 1971 Action Comics story entitled “Attack of the Micro-Murderer” — a tale in which Superman is infected with a deadly alien virus that inspires the citizens of Metropolis to line up and donate blood in an effort to save their hero. Eagles uses this tale to deftly underscore the noble intent of LGBTQ would-be blood donors.


From Jordan Eagles’ “Can You Save Superman?”

The exhibit is at once visceral and provocative: One need only look beyond the real human blood (donated by a gay man on pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP) splashed spectacularly over Superman’s supine body to discern the historic palimpsest of violence, fear, anguish, and death that Eagles accesses through this wholly unexpected medium. Indeed, as fans of the comic book genre will attest, what one senses in Eagle’s work is a strange and surreal juxtaposition that abjectly transforms a traditional and iconic childhood fantasy (of leaping tall buildings in a single bound) into an archly political (potentially horrifying) statement.

Can You Save Superman? raises an important question for observers. If policy or legal measures precluded individuals from saving the lives of others, would you sit idly by? If your body contained critical blood or antibodies to help further science, would you not be compelled to act? With the world preparing for a potential COVID-19 second wave, Eagles’ pointed and emboldened statement invites LGBTQ allies and advocates to get involved in efforts by Blood Equality and Human Rights Campaign in their ongoing push for policy change.

Blue spandex and colorful capes not required.