“This is an example of institutionally supported homophobia, in my mind,” Coble said. “It’s on my radar as an issue that’s important to discuss, and as an artist, I’ve found a way of visually discussing it.”
Coble’s “visual discussion” will take place at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday, when a registered nurse will draw one pint of the artist’s blood. Coble will then enter an operating theater set up in the Corcoran’s atrium and begin painting the curtains with dots of her blood. She calls the project “Deferral” because she’ll be joined behind the curtains by 11 gay men who would be “deferred” if they attempted to donate blood.
Instead of writing in bodily fluid, the men will be stitching with various shades of red thread. By Saturday, the operating theater will be decorated with various blood-donation slogans. Some of Coble’s favorites include “Don’t be such a wuss” and “Holding out for a hero.”
“What does that mean if you’re not allowed to give blood?” Coble said. “Does a gay man ever get to be a hero?”
She plans to incorporate some superhero imagery into the installation, and there are some indications that a heroic day at the Bloodmobile may be coming, although perhaps only for gay men who are celibate. In 2008, the American Medical Association came out in support of allowing men who have not had sex with another man in five years to donate, a standard Canada has since adopted. Last year, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and then-Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) urged the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate revising the federal guidelines and got 60 members of Congress to sign the letter.
In March 2012, the department began studying the possibility of adopting “alternative donor deferral criteria,” but no decision on whether to proceed with a pilot has been announced, said Curtis Allen, a spokesman for the FDA. He defended the agency’s stance, saying the “FDA’s deferral policy is based on the documented increased risk of certain transfusion transmissible infections, such as HIV, associated with male-to-male sex and is not based on any judgment concerning the donor’s sexual orientation.”
Many activists don’t buy that rhetoric or have the patience for more government studies. On July 12, gay rights groups across the country staged the National Gay Blood Drive. Protest efforts included picketing Red Cross offices in Utah and attempting to donate blood in Bakersfield, Calif.